Evans History Initiative Welcomes Timothy Snyder
On Monday, April 4, the Avon Old Farms School community was treated to a special talk by Yale’s Timothy Snyder as this year’s Evans History Initiative keynote speaker.
Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University and the author of eight major books. He has received many prizes and accolades chronicling his passion for history and education. In addition to teaching and writing, he was described to the community by History Department Chair Dr. Chris Doyle as a ‘public intellectual’ who uses his expertise to provide context for societal issues today.
During his talk, Snyder spoke both about the discipline of history as well as its uses for understanding the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The talk moved quickly but was thorough, providing easy to grasp causes, effects, and context for how today’s conflict came to be and, perhaps more importantly, why.
“In 2008, the American education system took a strong turn in direction toward STEM,” he said at one point in response to a question about teaching ethics. “And not that I don’t like STEM—both of my children desire to become engineers and I think that’s wonderful. But, I think we’ve put a strong emphasis on how to do things and what to do, and less emphasis on why, or what we should be doing. I think history allows us to understand the why and helps to inform the should.” Snyder’s visit to campus helped provide some context for students on current events, and the why behind them.
To begin, Snyder asked what perhaps is the rhetorical question in his talk: What is history? Is it what we have to know in order to get a five on an AP history exam? Is it a collection of what had to happen to get us to where we are today? Snyder would argue that the word ‘had’ in that sentence is what can cause profound misunderstanding. “History is not what had to happen, but what might have happened, what could have happened. It’s what you could have become. It's what it all means. Snyder said people have agency. Their ideas and choices matter.
Snyder continued by confronting a line he says is completely wrong. “People in the media love to get excited and say, ‘Nothing like this has ever happened before,’ but they’re wrong: something similar has always happened before,” he says. “We can be shocked, but we should never be surprised, because there’s always an example of this happening in the past.”
With that introduction, Snyder began to focus on the current war in Ukraine. As an example of people having agency, Snyder noted that both Vladimir Putin and most Western observers believed that the Ukrainians would not fight or were incapable of defending themselves against Russia. Thinking that Russia’s conquest of Ukraine was inevitable turned out to be quite wrong. In terms of the invasion of Ukraine being surprising, he noted that historians familiar with the history of Ukraine had reason to believe that, in fact, the Ukrainians would put up a fight.
He then asked another broad question: What does it mean to have a history? Is that defined by a shared language, culture, or experience? Is the history assigned by those in power telling the story of a place’s true history? What about a place like Ukraine, which has two commonly spoken languages (Russian and Ukrainian)? Who has been telling Ukraine’s story?
He then carefully walked the audience through Ukraine’s history, and ultimately why it is always such a focus of conflict: its fertile land that several countries throughout history have wanted. He explained how what Russia is trying to do with Ukraine now also happened in the 1920s and ’30s when the Soviet Union tried to mark Ukraine as an agricultural colony, and when Germany tried in WWII.
Understanding the history of a place allows us to ask what it means to be a nation in the 21st Century, and Ukraine is perhaps a symbol of hope in those terms for three major reasons. First, Ukraine has illustrated how one nation can juggle the tensions between the majority and the rest who make up the whole. Second, Ukraine is an ongoing example of not allowing democracy to yield to oligarchy. Third, Ukraine is trying to prove that it can truly make it on its own, perhaps as a part of a larger entity: the European Union. Homogenization likely isn’t the answer, but learning to function by embracing all the ethnic variety in Ukraine might be.
In the end, Snyder concluded by returning to his opening question: What is history? History is what’s possible, he says, plus that one special ingredient of what people choose to do. No one thought the Ukrainian people could defeat the Russian army. But, it looks like they might be capable of it because of what the people have chosen to do: fight.
After his school-wide address, Snyder met with members of the global civilizations classes and the AP US Government classes for an extended Q&A. Students peppered Snyder with questions ranging from what he thinks the US should do in terms of the war in Ukraine, to how social media plays a role in disseminating misinformation, to how today’s youth should deal with a society full of violence. The students kept him for an extra 20 minutes, which Snyder graciously accommodated before returning to Yale.
Sponsored by Chris Drew '85, P'17, P'18 and his family and named for legendary history teacher Peter M. Evans, P '98, the Evans History Initiative brings renowned historians to campus and is preceded by a series of teach-ins led by members of the history department in preparation for the visit. In recent years, the Evans History Initiative has featured Erik Larson, Lee McIntyre, Ramita Navai, and Dexter Filkins.