Sandler Hosts Three American History Guest Speakers
Reading Time: 5 minutes
History teacher Robert Sandler hosted guest speakers Amity Shlaes on February 10, Matthew Dallek on March 4, and Brian Rosenwald on March 9, over Zoom. With a turnout of roughly 70 students, the events offered opportunities for students to learn about the government and media during the 1900s from experts in addition to the American history curriculum taught in class.
Sandler first invited Amity Shlaes, who is a mover and shaker of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. Sandler noted that Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, is usually known as a president who did nothing. “Think about great presidents: Lincoln emancipated the slaves, FDR had the New Deal, LBJ worked on civil rights and had the Voting Rights Act [...] and Coolidge. He’s basically famous for not doing much. That's the way the textbooks describe him,” Sandler said.
However, Sandler knew that Shlaes, who had written a book about Coolidge, had a different perspective—that Coolidge was an underrated and a great president—and he believed that her viewpoint would be interesting to share with his students. “The kids liked it. They thought it was interesting to be [...] confronted by a conservative intellectual who had radically different views than those they were used to, the way the textbook portrayed, the way I taught it,” Sandler said. “It was really valuable for them.”
Sandler also invited Matthew Dallek, a professor from George Washington University, after reading an article that Dallek wrote for The Washington Post about the John Birch Society (JBS). Dallek is currently writing a book about the JBS, which was a group of right-wing extremists who believed that America was succumbing to communism. Though the JBS is not covered in textbooks, Sandler noticed the topic was similar to those that were taught in class and decided to invite Dallek to talk about it. “I thought it would be interesting because I saw a lot of material in the article that drew parallels to Q-Anon,” Sandler said. “The John Birch Society was afraid that America was going to fall to communism. It seems like in various times of American history, there's this paranoid fringe of people with these extreme, right-wing beliefs.”
Sandler also felt that Dallek’s presentation had a positive impact on students as they learned about Dallek’s research process. “What made it so cool was that he showed the kids the process,” Sandler said. “The kids thought it was cool to see all the documents, to see all the research, and they also really liked the back-and-forth Q&A. They asked questions like how it was similar to Q-Anon, how it was different, so I thought that was really great.”
Finally, Sandler invited Brian Rosenwald, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to discuss his book “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States,” which was about conservative talk radio and American radio personality Rush Limbaugh’s legacy on the conservative party and the media. “[Limbaugh] basically expressed the grievances that a lot of white men of the conservative working-class felt: that they were ignored, that their voices were being silenced by the cultural elites, the left, and how it would dominate our culture,” Sandler said. “And I don’t even think he’s in our textbooks, yet he’s had such a great influence on the Republican party, according to this historian.”
Through the three guest speaker events, many students enjoyed the presentations and felt that they gained greater insight into history. “The lectures were really interesting and some of them had presentations go along with them,” junior Cadence Li said. “Stuyvesant is really helping me realize how much I enjoy history, so having more professors and researchers come in and talk about their work is really fascinating. I would totally love to listen to more if Sandler can get any teacher.”
Others hope to continue learning more about topics that are not normally taught or known after attending the events. “I liked it a lot. I think it was a hit,” Brovender said. “I would definitely attend more of these in the future, even if extra credit wasn’t attached. I would love to see specialists on subjects that I don’t know about because it gets me interested.”
Rosenwald felt that the virtual nature of the event provided him the opportunity to guest speak for students. “If such talks were in person, they’d end up being both cost-prohibitive (for the school) and time prohibitive for me because of the travel involved,” he said.
Dallek expressed a similar sentiment. “Though I always prefer to teach and talk with students in person over virtual, the use of Zoom actually made the event far more feasible,” he said. “I live in Washington, D.C. and it's possible that the widespread reliance on Zoom made it easier for Mr. Sandler to reach out and ask me to participate.”
Due to the large turnout, the events faced time constraints and unanswered questions. “The kids sometimes had a lot of questions to ask but there was not enough time,” Sandler said. “You got to think of it like this: it was 70 people versus three.”
Despite this, Sandler felt satisfied with the events as students were able to learn new material from the professors. “I got overwhelmingly really positive feedback,” Sandler said. “It was so exciting to hear about the whole process of interviews and [Rosenwald] actually played clips from Rush Limbaugh’s shows. It was exciting for me because I do new things every year. The last two were new and I think they were very very successful.”
Similarly, Dallek felt that the event was overall successful. “I greatly enjoyed talking with the students. They asked terrific questions, offered lively comments, and seemed really engaged with questions about the John Birch Society and the legacy of the far-right and extremism in modern American history,” he said. “A number of students stayed late to ask me questions as well, and there seemed to be substantial interest in the issue of how the Republican Party became so extreme, how Trumpism came to be, and how the John Birch Society and other ‘extremist’ organizations cast a shadow over our own times.”
As a guest speaker, Dallek hoped that students learned more about not just history itself but also how it is formed and why it matters. “I hope that students took away a sense of how historians attempt to puzzle together thousands of primary documents, engage with the secondary literature, and attempt to weave a thematic narrative that provides new knowledge and contributes to our collective understanding of history and why history matters,” he said.
Rosenwald added, “[I] wanted to expose [the] part of politics that is usually submerged for most people so that maybe they’d understand better how our politics got to be so fractious. And I hope I achieved my objective, but only the audience knows for sure.”