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Brandeis History of Ideas panel: can individuals make history?

The Brandeis History of Ideas Program held a panel discussion with the focal question of “Can individuals make history?” featuring faculty and student speakers. Director of the History of Ideas Program David S. Katz moderated the event. The panel aimed to dissect the role of individualism in history-making from multiple angles by sharing the perspectives of Brandeis community members from diverse fields such as biology, politics, history and creative arts. 

Zalman Abraham Kekst Professor of Neuroscience Susan Birren spoke first on the issue, where she cited examples from the history of science and noted figures regarding the demographic makeup of scientists to develop her argument against the “Great Man” theory. In short, this theory takes the stance that history is made by individuals who are mostly white men that are to be regarded as admirable by the general public. 

Birren demonstrated a misconception of who society views as important scientists in history, using the metaphor of a mountain range where each peak represents a scientist’s contribution and where the altitude of the peak represents the degree to which present day society deems the contribution as valuable. She posed the question, “Why [do the highest] peaks that are coming up, based on the work of so many people, why are they mostly men?” She described the need to look at scientific history in a more nuanced way, highlighting that the discourse of contributions by women and minorities have been shadowed by their more privileged counterparts and that minorities in science have often been stripped of their credit in the process.

Furthermore, Birren emphasized that the process of conducting science relies on the incremental accumulation of knowledge from teams of many people over the course of time. She stated, “No one is making [scientific] discoveries on their own,” thereby countering the notion that history is made by individuals. 

Following Birren, Professor of Middle East History and Director of Research at the Middle East Crown Studies Naghmeh Sohrabi spoke, addressing the notion of how present day North Americans understand history and using a television show to emphasize that groups are the force of history making as opposed to individuals. 

Sohrabi utilized the American supernatural television series about a young woman who is destined to slay mythical creatures called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as a modern day media thread throughout her speech. While the narrative of the television show may underscore the main character Buffy as the sole hero, Sohrabi noted that “Season after season, Buffy fought the vampires and demons while embedded within a group of people, each of whom brought their particular skill set to the fight.”

Sohrabi spoke of the dual meaning of the word history as both the past and the process of narrating the past. She noted that the telling of history often implicitly casts individuals into the quests of revolutions and movements of the past, thereby emphasizing the individual component of history making, especially in North American storytelling. Despite this tendency, she asserted that “Individuals can only make history when they are embedded in and connected to others. Thinkers, orators [and] readers need listeners, and those who having heard, choose to act.”

Katz then introduced the first student speaker Gonny Nir ’25, who studies politics and is a part of the History of Ideas Program. Nir discussed the different possible viewpoints one may adopt when studying history; scholars can emphasize the broader historical movements or emphasize the leaders at the forefront of those movements. She asserted the notion that “great men do not exist in a vacuum” but are rather malleable to the discourse in the society and environment they reside in. “Environments matter too much to be overlooked,” she stated. Therefore, the conclusion Nir reached was that the advancements individuals make and the ideas they have are not attributed to themselves but are rather a reflection of their community. 

While Associate Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture Pu Wang was invited to speak, he was unable to attend due to personal circumstances, so Katz delivered his speech instead. Wang wrote about his viewing of an art piece at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston titled “The Apotheosis of Napoleon I,” reflecting on how Napoleon was a powerful individual since he was an emperor, but that he was first and foremost an emperor of the people. According to Wang, historical leaders are able to make an impact because their ideology coincides with existing historical movements and contexts and resonates with others in the community. He meditated on the narration of history from the perspective of world historical figures or the common person in today’s society, saying “We no longer live in the age of Napoleon …. We live in an age where no convergence between act[s] of individuality and the collective will seem possible anymore …. That’s our true crisis of understanding history.”

Afterward, Cooper Gottfried ’25, an Environmental Studies major, spoke on the issue. He began his speech by saying, “Individuals, no matter how remarkable they are, cannot make history alone.” He cited legislation and actions from former President Donald Trump’s presidency that were detrimental to the environment, saying that while it is often simpler to cast the credit onto one individual, “Donald Trump did not make history alone.” Gottfried explained how via the support of Republican Party members and through purposeful decisions made by large corporations, Trump undertook numerous egregious actions against the environment. “Correctly placing blame on enabling governing bodies or malevolent corporations can offer real dialogue” instead of mindless and unactionable change, Gottfried concluded.

The next speaker was Amalia Ben-Porath ’23, who studies neuroscience and biology and is part of the History of Ideas Program. Her response to the focal question of the discussion was that individuals cannot make history. She stated, “While history can start with one person, it cannot change with one person.” She utilized the scientist and mathematician Nikolaus Copernicus as an example of how our knowledge of the solar system was only advanced through the efforts of a group and not of an individual. Copernicus sought to determine whether the Earth revolved around the sun or vice versa. His findings suggested the truth which is known today, that the Earth revolves around the sun. However, this challenged the Catholic Church and he was disparaged. It took the investigation of his scholars and other scientists to reaffirm his findings for history to mark the truth as society knows it today. Additionally, Ben-Porath cited a recent example of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the work leading to the discovery “builds on the shoulders of scientific discoveries of the past,” thereby negating the argument that individuals make history alone.

The following speaker was Chris Martin ’24, who studies English, history and music at Brandeis. Martin shared his thoughts on what history is, saying “History is more than a record of things that happened. I’d like to make the distinction of history as that set archival method, and history as the living, breathing, ever-changing account [that is] as much influenced by those who create it as the retrospective of the people who come after it.” He concluded that the common person may exert as much influence on society’s perception of history than a particularly remarkable individual.

Afterwards, Director of Arts Engagement Ingrid Schorr spoke on the issue, citing Leonard Bernstein as an example of a historically renowned individual who contributed greatly to the world and informed some of Brandeis’ traditions today. Leonard Bernstein was one of the most influential and celebrated musical conductors in the 20th century. Schorr spoke of Bernstein’s mission to find a universal grammar in music and how he presented rigorous lectures on his discovery of four crucial notes in seemingly disparate musical contexts. Schorr also noted that Berstein believed “a man’s capacity for laughter is much greater than his capacity for suffering.” While Bernstein witnessed travesties such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the AIDS crisis, he stood out in history for using music to harness joy in moments of darkness. 

The final presenter of the evening was University Professor of Social Policy, Law and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Anita Hill. Hill posed a question tangential to the inquiry of whether an individual makes history and whether the “Great Man” theory should prevail, asking the audience to consider, “Why should anyone want to make history?” She arrived at the conclusion that individuals do not need to fit the “Great Man” box in order to be part of the movements or change they wish to see in the world. Furthermore, Hill spoke of her personal conviction regarding the individuals making history, describing how in her own work, “My priority is that it is the movement, … the motion forward, not the woman, that I want to reflect in the work that I do. Yet the woman, me, should be true to herself, because believers in the cause crave authenticity.”

The History of Ideas Program seeks to impart knowledge regarding the dissemination of history and the expression of beliefs. More information regarding the Brandeis History of Ideas Program can be found on their website.

Editor’s Note: Cooper Gottfried is the Opinions editor of The Brandeis Hoot and he did not contribute to the writing or editing of this article.

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