February 26, 2010
A vivid portrait of the Cold War era emerges through the personal reflections and academic insights in A Liberal Education (TidePool Press 2010), a new memoir by Brown History Professor Emeritus Abbott (Tom) Gleason. The fall of the Soviet Union is just one of the many remarkable events that come into closer focus as Gleason recalls an academic life spanning the last half of the 20th century. With a historian’s attention to multiple perspectives, Gleason explores how interactions with family members and scholars alike shaped his liberal worldview in fields as diverse as civil rights and modern art.
A book talk is planned for Monday, March 1. Details are available here.
Born into a family of historians, Gleason was tangibly shaped by the Cold War. His longstanding interest in Russian history and US-Soviet relations bridged any gap between personal and academic life. He candidly describes his conflicted relationship to his father, whose mounting political conservatism often stood in stark contrast to his son’s liberalism.
Russian history also linked Gleason’s intellectual passions with his desires to take part in his nation’s political arena. During his first stint at Brown University, his current home as an adjunct professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies, the young professor of history received an intriguing offer from the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. As administrator of this Russian studies center, Gleason would soon occupy that “border area” where, because of the Cold War context, his field of study underlay key policy decisions.
However, Gleason does not indulge in idealistic notions of academics’ impact on policy decisions, admitting that they could only impact Washington “at the margins.” Nevertheless, the Kennan Institute enriched the political arena as well as Gleason’s own scholarship, he reflects.
At the Kennan Institute and as he later helped build Brown’s Watson Institute, Gleason rubbed shoulders with a colorful and influential cast of characters. Just as vividly as he describes his cold warrior father, he brings to life a host of intellectuals who might appear one-dimensional on the pages of a history textbook. A reader can contrast the warm effusions of Marxist intellectual Leopold Haimson with the merciless criticisms of Moshe Lewin. Or one can seek insight into conservative Richard Pipes’ demonization of Soviet authorities in his family’s history of flight and exile.
Sketching these figures’ biographies and personalities is more than just good storytelling. It also casts a more complex picture of the contentious intellectual discourse on US-Soviet relations, Gleason suggests.
Sovietologists of different generations “inhabited rather different worlds,” Gleason writes. “One would miss significant things about them if they were simply categorized as say ‘six professors’ or ‘six Russian historians with different views on what Soviet history meant.’”
Gleason’s keen interest in discourse sparked his intellectual “labor of love,” a comprehensive book tracing the varied usages of the concept of totalitarianism. In close contact with many of the key intellectual players of the 1980s and 1990s, Gleason was “more interested in the vocabulary employed by these gladiators than by who was ‘right.’” Once again, Gleason’s research lined up with global transformations, as he completed the volume soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In his final chapter, Gleason reveals that he is unsure if he ever learned “how to make a normal human being interested in the routines of academic life.” The depth and range of A Liberal Education suggests that, on the contrary, he has mastered that skill quite well.
On March 1, the public is invited to join Gleason at the Watson Institute in a reading and discussion of A Liberal Education, also featuring Open Source host Christopher Lydon and Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend ‘11