History Department Chair Dr. Gerald J. Protheroe joined Browning in 1996 and is the second recipient of the Stephen M. Clement, III Chair for the Humanities. An Upper School history teacher and faculty advisor to the Model UN program, he is also a Middle and Upper School soccer coach at Browning. Originally from Wales, Dr. Protheroe has served since 2001 as an adjunct assistant professor of Global Affairs at the NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs.
Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” I have always believed that high school students can be led towards habits of excellence, especially if the curriculum of a school promotes engagement and curiosity. The premier goal of any school should be to tell students how to think rather than what to think. It follows that to realize this goal a deep sense of responsibility must be fostered between teacher and student within the learning process. History has a vital role to play in the realization of this objective. It is an essential vehicle for the transmission to the student of the essential skills of the humanities and the liberal arts: the skills of reading widely; the ability to communicate ideas cogently both in written and oral form; the evaluation of evidence of a primary and secondary kind; the ability to construct reasoned argument and draw inferences from evidence, and at the apex the development of critical analysis.
My own professional and practical application of Aristotle’s observation has been in the realm of historical biography. In 2006 Routledge, Taylor and Francis published my biography on Sir George Russell Clerk, a leading British diplomat, who became the first British representative to the new state of Czechoslovakia, created by the Versailles settlement in 1920. He also became the British Ambassador to Turkey and to France between 1934 and 1937. Writing a biography of Clerk was a particular challenge because on his death in 1951, his private papers were destroyed per his instructions. But the National Archives in Kew, London proved a rich vein of material on Clerk, as did Sir Anthony Eden’s papers in Birmingham University. What a great privilege it was to consult Eden’s diaries. He was the tragic hero of Winston Churchill’s “The Gathering Storm” and a staunch opponent of British appeasement of Hitler. His widow Lady Avon, however, insisted upon knowing what use I was going to make of the diaries before granting permission for their use. Reputations need to be kept under close guard. My second subject Roger Hilsman, the former assistant secretary of state for the Far East in the Kennedy administration presented a completely different challenge. One great advantage I had as a biographer here was that I had got to know Hilsman intimately. He had fought as a guerrilla leader in Merrill’s Marauders behind Japanese lines in the Second World War; he was an insurgency expert categorically opposed to an escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War and on close terms with John F. Kennedy. When Johnson became president, Hilsman was one the first casualties in his quest to rid his administration of those who opposed the use of American military power. He became a professor at Columbia University. The late Senator Claiborne Pell, a member of Browning’s Class of 1936, called Hilsman “a latter day Lawrence of Arabia” for his exploits in the Second World War. In September 2009 I gave a lecture on Hilsman, which was attended by two Browning alumni, at Boston University’s International History Department.
History has a broader philosophical role to play in the community as well as the acquisition of skills. It is doubtful whether the study of history provides prescriptions for the ills of the present, although the path is strewn with many who believe that history teaches lessons, from Anthony Eden, the British prime minister who was sufficiently influenced by the lessons of the Munich crisis in 1938 that he plunged the country into the Suez crisis of 1956, to successive American administrations who have used or misused the lessons of appeasement to promote their own foreign policy initiatives in Vietnam and Iraq. But what history does do is promote a profounder appreciation of the present and an understanding of the dialogue that exists between past and present. The generation of 1789 hailed the French Revolution as a new dawn in human civilization in much the same way as the generation of 1989 greeted the European Revolutions of that year, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991 and the fall of apartheid in South Africa. The disillusionment, which engulfed the great Romantics like Wordsworth and Beethoven amidst the Revolutionary Terror and the police state of Napoleon, has been paralleled in our own time by Balkan wars, the massacre at Srebrenica, the Rwandan genocide, and in the early 21st century by the tragic events of 9/11, the emergence of global terrorism and the failure of the Arab Spring. The real importance of history is not so much the lessons it teaches, but its relevance and its ability through its analogies to deepen our understanding of the present, no matter how depressing that reality may, on occasion, seem to be.