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Gradual Learning

Stephen Sullivan has almost spent as much time learning at Columbia as he has teaching high school students. With multiple awards and papers related to his work as a high school teacher, he spends his summers (and retirement) at Columbia teaching History of the City of New York. The Blue and White Investigations Editor Ufon Umanah, CC ‘20, sat down with Stephen Sullivan, CC ‘82, in the History Faculty Lounge in Fayerweather to discuss his history, Columbia’s history, and history in general.

The Blue and White: Some of our leaders might be called ‘history-phobic.’ If you had to teach them one lesson, which moment in history would you choose to try to convince such a person that your field actually matters?

Stephen Sullivan: Well, the easy answer is the founding of our republic is probably the single most important. I think that was a time of creation. I think creating our national Republic is probably the single most difficult moment, because no nation had ever broken away from a mother country before, creating its own set of norms. Now as a New York historian, I like to teach the students in my Columbia class, I like to teach high school kids, that New York is significantly more valuable to the Revolution than people realized; that at the beginning of the Revolution we have a tendency to associate Boston and Lexington and Concord, and certainly that was important in bringing on the revolution, but so many of the battles fought in New York City: the Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Harlem Heights, which was fought really on Barnard’s campus, the battle down in Kips Bay, in which the colonialists were overrun, Saratoga upstate. So much of what’s going on was there. How do you create the first new nation? How do you bind together southern slaveholding states, northern states, New York, which has interests in slaveholding because they were essentially the bankers of the slaveholding (states)? How do you bind together all these different people and create the first democracy in the modern world? And how do you create this large republic which had never been done before.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi


B&W: S o h ow d o y ou r eckon w ith t hat h istory? Because you mentioned in the founding of the republic, we had to negotiate with slave-owning states; New York had a giant interest in that. There’s a class taught in the Spring, a seminar: “Columbia University and Slavery,” where people have to research Columbia’s specific ties in the slave trade. There were protests, last year I think or two years ago, against Columbia’s ties to the slave trade, like Remington Arms, and I think it was Marcellus Hartley Dodge who owned that company, which sold guns to the frontier. So how do you reckon with that history?

SS: I’m familiar with the professor who teaches that course. I’m not familiar with the course that you’re referring to. That was the Ebony and Ivy books. Columbia was one of the universities, probably every Ivy was, deeply invested in the slave trade going all the way back, because unfortunately slavery and the slave trade was one of the best single investments that you could put your money into, and particularly if nobody knew you were investing and there was no downside, the university would put its institutional funds into it.

The Fugitive Slave Act made slavery a national institution, and made it very clear that it was a national institution. But, frankly, it was a national institution already. You had New York banks, you had Hartley, you had the universities, you had all sorts of trust funds investing in it already. So I think it’s important for students to get out and to protest, and for our students to get out and to make the point.

I think Eric Foner’s book, Gateway to Liberty, was based on one of his students studying and just digging around up in the Collections and discovering that there were abolitionists in New York City, which was largely hostile to abolitionists. I think the more that is brought to light, both negative and positive; Syracuse, for example, was a very very abolitionist city, very abolitionist friendly, the Underground Railroad was essentially advertising in papers, whereas in New York City, you could be beaten and mobbed and have had the slaves you were setting free taken out and shipped back. So I think that’s exactly how we need to educate. I think we need to have students doing independent research.

One of the things that I’ve done for the last 30 years at the high school level is to run an independent research class. You learn best by doing hands-on research. Now, that hands-on research has to be informed by a class in which a professor is showing you this and how to do it. But with the resources available at a university like this, with the research sources available online, why aren’t students at more universities with more professors going out and finding things for themselves, and arguing, and discussing, and having Socratic seminars, and having a chance to present your research to the other students, and letting them critique, and then having the professor saying, “Oh, wait a minute, what about this and what about this?”

There are times where it makes sense for me to present my research to you and let you talk about it, but there are also times where you should present your research to me and to each other, because you guys are the future of this, and you need to explain to each other, to the world. There should be more undergraduate opportunities to publish this work on these things. You need to put that stuff out.

B&W: There was a conversation about this during the last Fireside Chat less in that vein but, like, hearing that students weren’t curious anymore or they came in curious but the stress of Columbia combined with, I will describe it as a seeming lack of opportunity or really the idea that there’s not really that much opportunity to go outside of a career field. So there’s a sense of wanting that, as opposed to what I think I remember Bollinger saying, something to the effect of “The resources are here if you want it.”

…the college application process, in some ways, has sucked the life and joy out of some of the discovery that 20 years ago I had with the high school kids.

SS: Well is it the stress involved with career or is it the stress involved with the process of graduate school? Now, again, as someone who teaches both high school and summers here at Columbia, the college application process, in some ways, has sucked the life and joy out of some of the discovery that 20 years ago I had with the high school kids. For example, AP American History. Everything is so focused on the test, and the curriculum is so focused on testing, testing, testing. It’s only in the other classes that I have an opportunity for the kids to do things that are really interesting. Is it because of law school? Is it because of grad school? Is it because of LSATs and GMATs etc? Has that creeped in and overtaken?

B&W: I think the sense I got from the person who was asking the question was a sense of going through the four year process, whether or not you went to graduate school, or whether or not you went on to a year internship that went on to a career. Getting in and going through Columbia and getting to the next step of your life so robbed of the opportunity of exploration. I wish I could review tape but…

SS: Well, perhaps at Columbia we have to decide whether that (experience) is Columbia or whether that’s top-tier research universities. Now to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter whether that’s everyone or us, because we can change us, and we can hopefully make some changes in our department and our university. But if it is everyone, there’s only so much we can change ourselves without having the conversation with Princeton and Yale and Dartmouth and Stanford. If Columbia wants to compete and wants our students to compete, because our kids still want to go to grad school and still want to get fellowships, we can’t become ‘Kumbaya University’, but there are things that we can do if we want our students to have a better and more fulfilling life.

If Columbia wants to compete and wants our students to compete, because our kids still want to go to grad school and still want to get fellowships, we can’t become ‘Kumbaya University.’

And I think some of that, with our graduate students, Professor Colburn has been doing with the History Now movement, where our PhD students are involved with everybody who has a PhD who isn’t going to have an academic job. Let’s look at some other options from teaching in private, prep schools, to getting involved in museum work, to teaching outside the academy, etcetera. And they’ve begun to do some of that so maybe there might be some more, you know, career based ‘Let’s prepare everybody for a broader thing’ and the liberal arts prepares you for so much more.

B&W: So looking back to the late 70s. Why did you choose to attend Columbia?

SS: I’m from New York. I grew up in Brooklyn, so there were some practical reasons and I really didn’t want to go that far away. I liked the idea of a core curriculum. And Columbia also paid the ultimate respect to my high school. Their assistant director of admissions came to our school to recruit us. I went to a very good Catholic school in Brooklyn, but Harvard sent us a graduate student who acted like he didn’t even want to be there. And it struck us as though Harvard has no interest in us. Princeton sent us the same. Columbia didn’t even call themselves Columbia in the City of New York at the time, but it was that Columbia was from there. A number of our students had gone to Columbia before and there was just a connection, and it was in the city. Even back then in 1977, when the city was not the draw that it is now; you know the subway was dangerous and blah blah blah.

Now, again, I was from Brooklyn, so I wasn’t really afraid of the subway. My mom was, but I wasn’t afraid of the subway. So the city was a draw. He explained the Core Curriculum and what I was going to take: I was going to take a philosophy/ history course, I was going to take a great books course, Literature Humanities, I was gonna take Music Humanities, I was gonna take Art Humanities. That struck me as what I wanted, and my logic—which worked for me, but seems a little skewed right now—was that I wanted to take philosophy, but I wanted to take CC with a broad range of students. I wanted to take it with history majors and chem majors. Then I was pre-med, so I wanted to take it with students who were not only philosophy majors. I didn’t want to walk into the class where the professor would make a joke in Latin, you know, about something Socrates wrote, and everybody else laughed, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I wanted to be on an equal footing with almost everybody else in the class, and that’s what I got, and it was wonderful. I really felt that I was getting a wonderful introduction, and so was everybody else. Now, were there people who had gone to prep schools in Manhattan and had read Chaucer? Of course there were. But that was fine and I felt welcome and I felt fair.

B&W: What was your favorite LitHum book or Contemporary Civilization? Because my assumption would have been, maybe The Histories, History of the Peloponnesian War, but you were a pre-med.

SS: My favorite experience, I can’t say my favorite book, was Columbia’s soccer team. That was before big scholarships etcetera, and John Rennie was the coach my freshman year, then Dieter Ficken, who went on to be a great, great coach. Columbia was number four in the country then, number two in the country the year after I graduated.

But Shahin Shayan was our great player at the time; he was the great star on the team. And so this was the fall and the spring of ’78, ’79, right as we’re about to go into the Iranian Revolution. He was Iranian and in the Columbia sports guide, everyone, every athlete in the entire university is listed by their hometown. His hometown is Tehran.

I went in what then was reverse order. They wanted to take CC first, then take LitHum. Now I know they recommend it the other way. But, it just fit my schedule better so I took it backwards, and the only two students in the entire class who did all of the reading was this junior soccer player and me, the freshman. Everybody else was like “Eh.” So we got the only two As. This guy was a really rough grader. Freshmen: not supposed to get As, and jock: not supposed to get As. So the following year, we’ve got the whole Iranian hostage crisis etcetera. And suddenly in the guide you’ve got… he’s from Tehran. People didn’t realize that he was Iranian and now all of a sudden, he might be getting some problems. Dieter Ficken, who was German himself and had gotten some problems because his dad was in the German army during World War II, not a Nazi but he’d been in the German army, he had the entire media guide reprinted just to protect this kid. He changed everything to birthplace, because he was born in the Bronx. His parents were residents at Columbia Presbyterian when he was born. Now, most people their birthplace and the hometown are the same. But suddenly he went from Tehran to Bronx. He was already calling himself Persian and everybody else switched. But I mean, how great is that? How brilliant is that for the soccer coach and for the athletic department for one kid to make him feel more comfortable?

B&W: I find it comforting that Columbia was that accommodating in the 1970’s given the news right now around the travel ban and Islamophobia, and random war-tweeting about Iran.

SS: Well back then it wasn’t Islamophobia, it was Iranophobia. It was that one country because that was the country that was taking hostages and Columbia switched. But Columbia switched it before it became a problem.

B&W: They were active instead of reactive.

SS: They were completely and totally proactive, and it was because of the coach. I actually think they probably would have done it to protect the, you know, the eighth best player on the team. I can’t swear they would have done it to protect the, you know, JV player; the fact that he was the best player on the team probably helped. But I think Dieter would have done it to protect anyone.

B&W: On another subject, history and Columbia’s history, we’ve touched on how Columbia is historically controversial. You already named a couple of instances. What was the most controversial moment during your undergraduate career at Columbia?

SS: Well, Jerry Falwell coming here to debate Jim Shenton. James Shenton was a controversial, quirky, interesting character; he was a professor of history who got his PhD on the GI Bill of Rights. He also was a tremendous supporter of secular humanism, not a religious guy at all. So when Jerry Falwell (Editor’s Note: Falwell was a Southern Baptist pastor and activist, and the founder of Liberty University) wanted to come to Columbia to speak, when he was forming the Moral Majority. Shenton was big on “the moral majority is neither,” and he, at his own expense, had a thousand buttons printed up saying “the Moral Majority is neither,” distributed them to whatever hundreds of students, covered the campus in them and then challenged Jerry Falwell to a debate at Ferris Booth Hall. So my friends, compatriots, and I—I was one of Shenton’s work-study kids at the time—we blanketed the campus, ran around, you know, “James Shenton debates Jerry Falwell.” And he had his debate and we formed the Immoral Majority.

The two of them went back and forth and debated points in the Bible, and it was pretty remarkable because Shenton’s knowledge of biblical text as a historian, as an American historian, was probably as good as Falwell’s. Falwell was just pulling stuff out of context, as televangelists have a tendency to do. And Shenton was like “No, no, that’s not exactly what it is. In context it’s this this this,” and “I believe that what Paul was trying to say was…” And then, you know, Shenton was like, “Well you know Maccabees, according to the Jewish tradition, said this this this and this…” and it was quite an evening and two of them went at it, you know. I mean The Columbia Republican Club at the time was only 37 people so the cheering was very clearly on Shenton’s side. Shenton had the crowd, there was no doubt. If you were scoring it on a debate fairly, Shenton won, although Falwell knew his scripture. I mean he is a preacher. That one was kind of a fun week.

B&W: After your time as a Columbia student, what drove you to teaching high school, as opposed to entering academia?

SS: Well what drove me to teach high school originally was need. Ronald Reagan became president. The aid to universities was cut drastically and it seemed as though it was almost aimed at me. Because the aid to universities was cut dramatically, universities got to decide what to cut. It wasn’t as if it was, “Okay the aid to the humanities would be cut.” But the aid to universities was cut dramatically and Columbia had significant matching grants from everything from the Agriculture Department, Defense Department and most of those grants were for STEM. So if you’re getting matching grants for STEM, you want to keep them. Obviously the Agriculture Department, the USDA, is not giving grants to the History department. So if you’re given a pot of money, you’re going to give less money to Anthropology and Archaeology and History. So the History department got less money.

My first year, 22 of us were on fellowship in U.S. history. That went down to, I want to say five. I was rated (lower than others) in part because I had not yet completed my Master’s MA … I was rated number seven … so I wasn’t the next one, but I was close considering that I hadn’t passed my French exam. So in order to get your Masters, you need to pass one foreign language exam. In order to get your dissertation, you need a second foreign language. My Master’s essay got high grades. My grades were fine, but I didn’t have the Master’s in hand so my rating was not what it should have been. My fault.

I told them that what I liked about high school teaching, and particularly about adolescence, was that I had 125 chances a year to change the world and to change lives.

So I then took a job at a Catholic school in Midtown and I was still working as an RA. Once I got the job though, I fell in love with it. So taking the job was opportunity and necessity. At some awards ceremony for some, you know, teaching award that I won, I told them that what I liked about high school teaching, and particularly about adolescence, was that I had 125 chances a year to change the world and to change lives. And I still believe that. By the time you get college students, I can make a difference in someone’s life but I’m not going to dramatically change everybody. If I’m teaching elementary school I have 24 kids, I have 25 kids. But I have so many opportunities, I’ve so many chances, I’ve 100, 125 kids, and there’s just this connection.

B&W: So from getting masters degrees at Columbia in ’84, ’85, I noticed that you got your PhD, also Columbia, in like 2013. How was teaching high school while pursuing a PhD?

SS: It was really really difficult. Part of the reason is because I took teaching high school, like, seriously. Teaching high school was not something I was doing while I was working on my PhD, that was first. And John Irving in The World According to Garp has a line in which he describes someone as being a gradual student; that you’re going to school and you’re going to school and you’re going to school until you don’t go to school anymore. Well in my case, not going to school anymore is when I finally finished. I received four different notes from four different Deans of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The first two were snail mail—they were typed up on Columbia letterhead and sent with stamps on them. Now some of my high school and even some of my college students don’t really remember those things. The only things they get in the mail with stamps on them are bills. The last two were emails, to give you an idea of how long it was that these were going on. They were referred to as “insufficient progress towards the terminal degree” notices, meaning if you don’t finish your dissertation within six months, within three months, within 12 months—they all varied—you are no longer going to be a student at Columbia University. Well, Kenneth Jackson, (Editor’s Note: Read a Conversation with Kenneth Jackson from Feb. 2018 on our website) my doctoral adviser, and Eric Foner, who was the chair on my dissertation committee, would take a walk over to Low Library and talk to whoever the Dean was and say, “Please leave Stephen alone. He’s working with all those high school kids out there, and they do all this really wonderful work, and his kids publish, and they win awards. He’ll finish. I promise he’ll finish.” Then, after the Dean said “Okay, fine, I’ll give him some more time. I’ll leave him alone,” I would get a phone call in the evening, usually from Ken, and he would say “Stephen, I just went to bat for you, again. You owe me a chapter.” And I would write another chapter or I would finish something.

My argument was always that I didn’t write my dissertation between summers, which really was true. I defended my orals in 1988, and then I defended my dissertation in 2013; so if you do the math that’s 25 years. I didn’t take 25 years. I took 50 months: July, August, July, August, July, August, July, August … And Ken Jackson always accepted that argument because his wife is one of the legendary public school teachers in Westchester. His wife was the chair of the English department at, I believe, Scarsdale High School, so Ken always got it. My mom always got it. My wife, my mother-in-law … eh, not so much. They were a little impatient. My wife has the patience of a saint but she always said “Stephen, come on. Finish your book.”

So in any event, somewhere in between the 25 years and the 50 months lies the truth, because I really worked on it every Summer. During holidays I probably should have worked on it more, but my advisors have always shown tremendous patience. My kids, my own kids, who are now 29, 26, and 23 have lived with this their whole lives, have been making fun of me their whole lives, and my wife is just been long-suffering, like, “Ah man, Stephen, finish your book.” And ultimately I graduated from grad school, walked at Columbia the same weekend my middle child got his Bachelor’s at Binghamton, so that was a big party.

B&W: So this August, there’s going to be a new batch of first-years inducted into Columbia. What is your advice to them as a high school teacher who has taught here over the summer?

SS: Well assuming that Columbia still allows you to take one class pass/fail?

B&W: One class pass/fail every semester.

SS: Okay, use it. Take a class that is out of your comfort zone. Because that class that’s out of your comfort zone; astronomy, for example, when Professor Jasper was here. That class used to end up being some of his majors and some of his graduate students, because nobody goes to college to take astronomy. Take a class that’s out of your comfort zone.

I realize that we have really strict requirements. I realize we have a big core curriculum. But take something that sounds fun, that sounds challenging, and if it’s more challenging than you thought it was, take it pass/fail. It’s perfectly fine. That’s one of the best programs, the best ideas at Columbia. Join a club. Not seven clubs that you think are interesting. And if it’s not then, you just quit, it’s perfectly fine. But do something that’s out of your comfort zone.

Now when you are in high school, you are probably joining eight, nine, ten clubs because you were busy trying to get into college. No, now, do a couple of things that you think you want to do and then try one thing that’s new. Also make sure that you see the city. Make sure that you go downtown. Make sure that you get to the MoMA. Make sure that you get the Museum of the City of New York, which is wonderful. Make sure that you spend some time in Central Park. If there are free tickets to Broadway through the university or cheap tickets, if there is a walking tour of some part of the city through the university, do it. Do something different, something fun something outside your comfort zone, but don’t do everything all at once. You’re here for four years, take your time. You’re here for school but you’re also— you picked Columbia University in the City of New York because it’s in New York, and remember that it’s Columbia and it’s New York and you’re here for both of those reasons.

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