Margaret J. Siu: As a freshman in the Plan II Honors Program, I’m really honored to join this program. Could you tell the readers about this program? What makes this program unique?
Michael B. Stoff: Well, Plan II has been around for 81 years. It was founded in 1935 by Dean H. T. Parlin, who was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and he faced a couple of critical problems. One was, what do you do with students in the midst of a Great Depression? When you have an excess of 25 percent of the labor force unemployed, what is the role of higher education? That’s one problem he had. What’s the role of higher education in this kind of environment? And second, he saw a problem that had already taken pretty clear shape and that was – at least it was a pretty clear problem in his mind—universities were being taken over by professional and pre-professional schools, like the school of business and the school of engineering. He felt on the one hand, a liberal arts education should produce well educated people, not necessarily lawyers or physicians or engineers or business people. In fact, that should be done after one graduates. And in truth of this first problem during the Great Depression, how do you educate people. What do you educate them for when there are limited job prospects out there in any one field?
So he came up with this utterly unique program: a major that would produce well educated people. And he felt, not only should they be well educated but because you’re going to take a very gifted group of students, they were all potential leaders and all should be leaders, and should take up a role in the construction of a role in a civil society. So he came up with “Plan II” which is kind of a major stood on its head.
So if you think about most majors, they look like an inverted pyramid, you begin with a particular point of interest: history, sociology, mathematics, biology. And the more time you spend studying that particular point, the wider and wider and wider it gets, like an inverted pyramid. That’s the typical major. You’re working in one, relatively narrow frame. So Plan II takes that pyramid and puts it right side up. Flips it the other way, so that you have a broad based education at the very bottom at of what is essentially a front load of programs you take during the first two courses you take during your first two years. And as you study more and more you become more focused until you reach a pinnacle of that four year experience, and in some cases five, and that pinnacle is a senior thesis, in which you take this broad based education and whittle it down to your specific areas of interest, and then research and write about it. It’s a very unusual major in that it is broad rather than narrow, but it eventually has a focus.
And in answer to what you train people for during a Depression? Well, you train them for anything. You train them for everything. You train them to have nimble minds, a capacity to reason clearly and incisively, an ability to express their thoughts, with clarity and cogency, and therefore be able to speak well and write well. Those are the basic skills we’re teaching in Plan II, though we teach in a broad range of course offerings in the humanities, in the social sciences, in the hard sciences, and mathematics. And we believe that those are the core of a well-rounded education and that’s what we want in the end. So that’s a brief description of what Plan II is and where it came from.
MJS: Why did you decide to be involved in Plan II?
MBS: I had started my teaching career here in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with a couple of Plan II courses. I think, maybe, by the time I was teaching here for three or four years, I was invited to teach in Plan II. And so my recollection is that I taught a freshmen seminar and then I taught a junior seminar as well. But over the years I got distracted and was on the steering committee that created Liberal Arts Honors. I taught in that program for maybe ten years and hadn’t really thought much about administration. I had done my civic duty in the History Department as Director of Graduate Studies and Director of the honors program there. I hadn’t really thought of it as administration, but rather being a good citizen in one’s department. And then about, goodness, close to eleven years ago, Dean Laurier called me up one April and said that they were looking for a new director of Plan II, my predecessor Paul Woodruff was stepping down. And they had a search, but they hadn’t really come up with anyone that they really wanted in that position, whom they thought would work, whom staff would work with, and whom students would work with. And so Dean Laurier asked me if I would do this for one year as Interim Director. I thought about it. I asked my wife about it, who said “If it makes you happy, do it.” I thought I loved this woman and so I agreed to do it for one year. I made it clear to her that it would take up a lot of my time, that there was night work, and weekend work and she said fine.
So I decided that I would do it for a couple of reasons. One was that this would be an administrative post that would have direct contact with students. There wasn’t any kind of bureaucracy between me and the students as there is with the dean, or provost, or president. So I liked that. I liked that because undergraduate education had always been one of my priorities. The second thing was that I had taught Plan II students and I knew how good they were. I understood what a pleasure it was to work with them. And three, I knew Plan II had a terrific staff, one of the premiere staffs on campus. And you don’t take on a job like this, and certainly you don’t succeed in a job like this without a terrific staff. For all those reasons, I decided to do it for one year. Be careful when you do that. It’s pretty easy for one year to turn into two years, and two into four, and four into eight, and eight into, now, eleven years— almost a third of my career here at the University of Texas as Director of Plan II. And it’s been worth every moment of it. It’s been a privilege and frankly a pleasure to do this job. It’s something I never thought I would do, but it’s something that seemed to fit once I started doing it.
MJS: In relations to the humanities, I’ve noticed a trend in education, in which schools have begun valuing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs a lot more than the humanities—that’s not to discredit the STEM courses. Schools have begun focusing on computer sciences and so there’s a concern in the arts community that there’s been a lessening of the importance of the humanities. What are your thoughts about this and in regards to Plan II?
MBS: Well, the humanities are a foundation to Plan II. Any student who’s been in Plan II sees a heavy dose of the humanities in the first two years. The first year foundational course is World Literature and you don’t get any more humanistic than World Literature. But we also have courses in philosophy, history, and in other humanities as well. I think this recent emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or “STEM”, is part of a cyclical pattern that I’ve seen in education, where the pendulum swings from, on the one hand an education emphasizing the natural science and the social science, and on the other an emphasis on the humanities. I think that the pendulum has swung, clearly, in the direction of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I think that those who felt the need to do that, very quickly got some pushback from others calling not so much for “STEM” but for “STEAM”— science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. Now in the last year or so, I’ve begun to hear the term “STEM-pathy”. That’s “STEM” with empathy. And I think in some ways, I get that. And in many ways I think it’s a good thing.
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—they usually tell us the ‘what’s of the world and answer ‘what’ questions and ‘how’ questions. How does the world work? What are the problems and what are the solutions in that world? This is what science asks and discovers. Same thing with technology, engineering, and mathematics. I think what the humanities do, is that they humanize the world. They’re really about what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a human being from a variety of different perspectives. I think that’s essential. I think the study of “STEM” without the study of human beings, could in the ends become a dangerous path for us to go down. I think that understanding what it means to be a human being ought to be the core of any education, because in the end, what is it that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics serve? They serve, in the end, human beings one way or another. But if we have scientists who don’t understand what it means to be a human being, from beyond their own limited experience, then I worry. In service of what will “STEM” be put? So for me, the humanities are fundamental. They ought to be a part of everything we do and every way we think.
MJS: Switching gears, I did a tiny bit of research about you and discovered that you were researching the atomic bombing in Nagasaki. And so I was wondering if you could give us a little bit about your research and interests in World War II.
MBS: So I believe that World War II is one of those hinges of history. I think that the world that emerges from that war is a fundamentally different world. And the world that enters that war, certainly in the short term at least, has the obvious end results of the end of the war, the end of militarism, the end of fascism. We don’t know what the future holds, I guess. We enter a world in which the stakes have changed dramatically, largely because of the two greatest secrets that become public in 1945.
The first secret is the atomic bomb. For the first time in human history, we now have the capacity to destroy ourselves utterly with a human made weapon. And the second greatest secret, which becomes public in 1945, was the Holocaust, which demonstrates that humans have the moral depravity to do it. That is a different world, from which the world enters the war. That kind of moral depravity is at least unheard of, if not always unexperienced. And a world in which humans did not have the capacity to destroy themselves completely. That makes for a different world. A world that is insecure. A world that is fearful. A world that is very, very dangerous on a scale and scope that it’s never had before. So that draw’s my interest immediately. Hinges of history. Places where the actions is and where changes occur. And like I said, one of the greatest changes was atomic energy, now weaponized. It becomes a first, obviously.
And so the story of the bomb really drew me for these general reasons, but once you start studying it, you realize that there is no more ironic story than the story of the atomic bomb. There’s no more important story, I’d argue, than the story of the making, the use, the results of atomic weapons.
I chose Nagasaki because not a lot had been written about Nagasaki, the forgotten bomb, the forgotten city—as a couple of authors called it. And it fit into my larger interest of the atomic bomb and World War II. Most of my writing is in that period.
But I wasn’t particularly interested in the questions that historians has raised in the past about this episode—the development and use of the bomb. Mostly their questions evolved around two “why” questions. Why did the United States drop the bomb? Why did Japan surrender? Those are both interesting and important questions.
I think we answered the first one reasonably well based on the information we have. And that answer is, we dropped the bombs to defeat Japan and also, understanding that there were certain fringe benefits to the use of the weapon. The possibility that the war would end quickly. And on the one hand save lives, and on the other hand, prevent the Soviet Union from penetrating too deeply into Asia. Those fringe benefits might also include, as one historian put it, “atomic diplomacy”. The capacity of using what is now combat tested weapon as a diplomatic lever. To produce the kind of post-war world that the United States wanted. At least containing some of the Soviet expansion, and by trading some of that technology roll back the Soviet system, building on elements of free enterprise and thereby change the Soviet Union. And so the bomb becomes somewhat of a mixed bag, not purely a military weapon, but also a diplomatic weapon. And also a seed of the Cold War. Because in the end, the bomb was conducted as a secret, a secret kept from the Germans and Japanese, a secret that was shared by the British, but whose construction were not shared with the Soviet Union. So the Soviet Union was kept in the dark as an American-Anglo alliance was in the making. If you’re looking for a seed of the Cold War, that’s one of them, but there are many.
As for the second question: why did Japan surrender? I don’t think we’ll ever answer to consensus satisfaction. I think that that question remains very much up in the air. Did Japan surrender because the United States dropped an atomic bomb? Did Japan surrender because the United States dropped two atomic bombs and therefore left the Japanese with a clear impression that more would follow? That’s why—so said some policy makers—we needed two. Or was something else going on with the Japanese? It’s clear enough that they didn’t immediately surrender after the first use of the weapon. They waited almost a little over a week, it’s not until the fourth week of August that Japan suits for peace. Or was it something else? There was another event between the first bomb and the second bomb, which was the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union. Was it the declaration of war that led the Japanese to surrender? We don’t know for certain. The explanations are tentative and hypothetical because we don’t have enough records of what the emperor’s reasoning was. Or the imperial household has sealed those. And immediately after the war, a lot of Japanese documents were destroyed by the Japanese themselves. So we have kind of a scanty record of what happened in those critical moments between the first bomb and the second. We know a bit. But we don’t know enough to determine with specificity, why exactly did they surrender?
I’m not really interested in either of those questions. I have answers for both. I think on the one hand this idea of primarily using the weapon for militaristic purposes fringed with diplomatic purposes makes a lot of sense and given the documents I’ve looked at, I think there’s good evidence for that. As for the second question: why did Japan surrender? I characterize it like this: most historians want to impose a hierarchy of causality on events. “Here’s the series of main events.” “Here’s the main reason.” I believe that there are a number of historical episodes, in which you don’t have a hierarchy of causality but a convergence of causality. That is, multiple pressures, pressing in on an event that are very hard to tease out. They’re very hard to rank in order. So I think depending on who you look at in the Japanese war cabinet, you get different answers to that question of “why did you surrender”? Some would say it’s the first atomic bomb. Some would say it’s the second atomic bomb. Others would say it was the Russians. So a convergence of causality. Not unlike the mechanism of the bomb, which exploded over Nagasaki, which was an implosion. It had a plutonium core surrounded by charges that went of simultaneously, compressed the core into the size of a grape and set off a chain reaction with great power releasing about 21 kilotons of TNT. So that’s my take on the conventional question, but as I said, I’m not interested in the conventional question.
What I’m interested in is a different question. And that is, what did the bomb mean? What did it mean for those who used it? And those against whom it was used? What did they think they were doing? What did they end up doing? How was the bomb experienced by the bombers and the bombed? And I think you get very different experiences. So I’m interested in creating a mosaic, in which we look at a variety of different characters in the story and end up with multiple meanings imparted to the atomic bomb and an enormously transformative power of the bomb. And I don’t mean just to transform one form of energy into another, but also to transform people. To turn a warmongering emperor into a prince of peace. To turn theoretical physicists into munitions makers. To turn wartime Japanese into pursuers of anti-nuclear peace. I could go on and on with any number of other people, but those are the kinds of questions I want to be asking and those are the kinds of questions I’m trying to answer. So to look at the bomb from a multiplicity of points of view and see the multiple meanings that are projected on this cataclysmic event. It’s big enough so that it has a large enough campus for people to paint their ideas, but also it is powerful enough to transform, literarily transform, the people it touches. So that’s what I’m writing about.
MJS: Why do you study history? What does history mean to you? What’s the importance of history? Why should we study history?
MBS: The short answer to the first question is because it’s interesting to me. It’s interesting to me. People have always been interesting to me. Why do they behave in the way that they do? And what are the consequences of that behavior for themselves and those around them? I have an interest in people. And I often think that if I weren’t a historian, I’d be a psychologist or psychiatrist, because I’m interested in the way people’s mind’s work. So for me, that’s the allure. So when explored in masterful hands, it’s an interesting subject filled with drama and irony and unpredictability. The past is probably the most unpredictable commodity we have. I know that sounds a little crazy, almost oxymoronic.
MJS: No, that was a great line.
MBS: It’s not my line. Other historians have used it, but I think there’s merit in it. We really can’t predict where our understanding of the past will go and that often depends on one’s vantage point. So there’s that, the interest I find intrinsic in humans and riveting when those events are described by a master.
Why do I think we should study history? Well, the most direct answer is this, I believe that you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been. Think about it. Think about it with respect to yourself. Imagine you get up in the morning with no memory. No memory at all. You look in the mirror. You don’t know who that person is. You have never seen that face before. You look around. You have no memory of where you live, of where things are, of what you’re to do that day because you don’t know who you are, because you don’t know where you’ve been. And therefore can’t know where you’re going.
So I don’t think that history repeats itself. I don’t think if you’re ignorant of history you’re doomed to repeat it. And I don’t think history repeats itself. I think, we, historians, often repeat ourselves. I don’t think history repeats itself. I’m more of a Mark Twain kind of guy. History doesn’t repeat itself, although sometimes it rhymes, is what Twain said and I think there’s something to that. I think history can’t repeat itself because the context always changes and I think that historical analogies are sometimes all too easy and all too simplistic. “Trump is Hitler.” Well, no, he’s not Hitler. He’s not as smart as Hitler. He’s not as demonic as Hitler. He’s operating in an entirely different context. Are there points of intersection, some points of similarity? Yes, but there are also enormous points of difference. I think studying history highlights those similarities if it’s pursued with an absolutely necessary sense of nuance that context implies.
So, I find, for example, teaching undergraduates, one of the hardest things about teaching them about the past is that it’s nuanced. That it’s not so much a question of success of failure, good or bad. The young tend to think in those terms, very stark Manichaen terms. It’s almost always a question of ‘to what degree’? To what degree was something good. To what degree was something bad. To what degree was something a success. To what degree was something a failure. That’s much harder to calibrate and wrap your mind around. That kind of complexity. But that’s part of what I love about history. It’s complex, just like life.
MJS: Last question. This year I went to the University Lecture Series on the 2016 Presidential Election and you spoke about the characteristics of what makes a great president. Seeing that the elections have just passed and we know the results, what’s your reflection on the election? What’s your take on the results, seeing we’re going to have a very unorthodox president?
MBS: This is where perspective helps. This is where history helps. This election was as predictable as it was shocking. That too may sound like an oxymoron. But I think if you look at the long stretch of history, someone like Donald Trump was inevitable in the American context. So if you look at the election returns, for example, what you’re seeing is a pitched battle between rural and urban America. And I think the theme of Trump’s campaign “Make America Great Again” spoke particularly to those rural Americans who found themselves contending with change of pace in a manner that they did not want, that came too quickly, that came too much. They see themselves as people ignored, as people with legitimate grievances who are voiceless.
This is nothing new. So if you look at America from its founding, what you see is a kind of skepticism on the part of rural Americans of the urban, what may seem like a place of sin, a place hurtling itself to an unknown and dangerous future. A place that is uncomfortably mixed, in terms of race and ethnicity. What does Jefferson say? “Cities are a sore on democracy.” They can be the place where democracy are debased, where democracy can be corrupted, where democracy can turn into mobocracy in the hands of a demagogue. This is why he favored the countryside over the city, where he thought democracy could survive on a small scale, where you had reasoned discussion. It appealed to Jefferson for just those reasons. Cities, he worried, would be like their biblical counterparts—take Sodom and Gomorrah for example—places that threatened the moral order, threatened the political order, threatened the civic order. And cities regarded rural America with the same kind of fear and disdain: that rural Americans were Hasids, that rural Americans were ignorant, that rural Americans were provincial, that rural Americans were bigoted in a way that city folk weren’t.
And you see this thread of urban against rural running through all of American history, erupting in the modern era first in the 1920s when you have the rise of immigration restriction, portraying a new anxiety about a fear of immigrants entering the country in unimaginable numbers. You have the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, which pushes back against racial progress, pushes back against the racial order that is both uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. And you have the rise of fundamentalist religion, which pushes back against social secularization, pushes back against an uncomfortable mix of religions in a country that is Protestant, by and large a country that was founded as a Protestant empire wedged between two Catholic empires, the French to the north and the Spanish to the south.
So the anxiety about religion and the anxiety about race is powerful and comes bubbling to the surface in the 1920s, after nearly 30 years of rapid change. The United States becomes a huge industrial force. Technology rockets the country forward in a time of huge immigration. 1907. 1.2 million people enter this country and different from earlier forms of immigration. So earlier forms of immigration comes from northern and western Europe: France, Great Britain, Scandinavian countries, Germany. But now, this new immigration starting in the 1880s come from southern and eastern Europe: Italians, Greeks, Slavs, and Russians. All of them with different religions: Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, Jews. This causes enormous concerns. After this era of rapid change you get this push back in, guess what, the same areas where you’re getting a push back now in this recent presidential campaign.
What is Trump pushing back against? What are his followers pushing back against? Immigration. Changes in the social order: anything racial and, frankly, changes in sexual orientation. And they’ve had to swallow this since the mid-1960s beginning with the Voting Rights Act, which imposes a new kind of voting order on large swaths of the country. So it makes sense that you’re going to have this kind of a push back.
In a country that mixes celebrity and money, you’re going to end up with a Donald Trump, who exploits those divisions within American society, who plays on people’s fears, who does not appeal to reason, but does what demagogues do— appeals to fearful emotion. He’s a celebrity, too. You add those things together. Shake. Put it in a nice vice called ‘the Great Recession’, in other words create economic distress at a time when you have fear of change. And what are you going to get? Well, Donald Trump.
But you need history to understand this, it seems to me. I think that history tells us, as a historian I know, that there’s nothing so bad that it can’t happen. But I also know that there’s nothing so good that it can’t happen, either. I also know that this has been the longest lived Republic in the history of the world. It has a great resilience and I think that there will be great resilience here. I think, given the tone of the election, given the language and the content that Trump has used, I think it’s going to be painful. I think it could get Orwell-ian. We’ll have to see. As a historian, I’m concerned. Even as a citizen I’m a little concerned about the language. I’m concerned about the concepts. I’m concerned about the values complicit in those things. I’m concerned about ginning up people’s fears with information that is false, that is patently false. And it concerns me even more that Americans will swallow it all. It doesn’t surprise me that this is happening. So that’s my take for what it’s worth.
MJS: Thank you so much.
MBS: You’re very welcome.
Interview conducted on November 9, 2016
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