Narrative: History is a Collective Enterprise
It was the first day of the Spring 2015 semester. I made my way to the second floor of Walker Hall, Rm. 302. The space was filled with young minds, eager and anxious to learn about the Soviet past. Colleagues warned me of the intensity and demanding readings of the course, but I had always wanted to experience a class led by the campus-renowned professor who specialized in Russian language, culture, and history.
The professor, Scott Smith, opened up the class with a line that remains embedded in my memory. “History is a collective enterprise,” he said. College taught me a number priceless lessons, but it was my time within the history department, and with Scott Smith in particular, that convinced me of one thing: Through our relationships with others, we learn to empathize, to love, and to overcome.
I was two quarters away from commencement. A requirement for my History major was any “Upper-level 300 European History” course. I rummaged through the course catalog, and I decided on HIST 377: The Soviet Union, 1917-1953. It is hard to recall my very first interaction with him, but one of the first things that I found enticing was that he preferred that his students simply call him Scott.
I had not known him for long, but it felt—and still feels like I did. In class, he would occasionally speak on his own cynicism, and he would make light of the flaws of humankind; nonetheless, Scott argued intensively, that despite these flaws, we are all capable of working collaboratively to improve society.
Indeed, any field of study requires levels upon levels of interwoven discussion, but Scott would hammer home the method of placing ourselves in the perspective of the foreign and the feared in order to see things differently. He championed the belief that although we will never know the full picture, or even come close to grasping the whole scope of history, empathy is the first step in that long and arduous process.
One of the most memorable readings that Scott assigned was that of the Marxist revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai. Her essay on class struggle was published against the backdrop of the newly formed Soviet Union, and she expatiated on how people could potentially bridge the gap between social classes, and how this could usher in an inclusive socio-political ideology.
The lauded intellectual wrote, “Comradeship… It colours and determines the whole developing proletarian morality, a morality which helps to re-educate the personality of man, allowing him to be capable of feeling, capable of freedom instead of being bound by a sense of property, capable of comradeship rather than inequality and submission” (Kollontai, Par. 20).
It was not the essay itself that resonated with me; rather, it was Scott’s interpretation of Kollontai’s message. Emphatically, he claimed that in order to break down social barriers, we must see each other as comrades—to treat each other with love rather than skepticism and distance.
Midway through the second semester, students began to notice that Scott had unceremoniously “disappeared.” Misfortune reared its ugly, unwarranted head into plain sight. Via email, the head of the history department informed us that Scott was diagnosed with lung cancer, and that it had metastasized beyond recovery.
By the time we received the email, Scott had been gone for a few weeks, and his classes—postponed. Days passed, and the history department organized a private party for Scott in which close colleagues and students could see him for a last time, before he officially departed the school on medical leave. We could all tell that chemotherapy had taken its toll on Scott.
His once spry walk had been reduced to a slow and methodical trudge, and his once bright face had dulled to a vapid shell. We all had our chance to greet him, and despite the pain, he hugged us all—indiscriminately—and held us close and hard. As the party progressed, it seemed like the camaraderie in the room helped Scott regain a sliver of energy, and he beamed with a wide smile. In that moment, I learned that, together, we can overcome even the most unforeseeable.
On July 22, 2017, Scott yielded to his valiant fight against cancer. Although he is gone, what Scott said in class that sunny day in February still lingers in my mind. How the tables in the classroom were arranged, what color the walls were, and the faces around me take on a different form every single time I relive that memory; however, one statement remains irreversibly imprinted in my mind: “History is a collective enterprise.”
I often think about this line, and I ruminate on the countless ways that it could be interpreted; but, ultimately, my experience with Scott and the lessons he taught coalesced into a single idea. It is through our experiences with others that we learn to empathize, to love, and to overcome.