Distinguished Lecturers
Johann Neem

Johann Neem

Johann Neem is a professor of American history at Western Washington University and editor of the Journal of the Early Republic. His research focuses on the history of American democracy. He is particularly interested in institutions that foster active and capable democratic citizens, such as voluntary associations and public schools. He is author of three books: What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019); Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017); and Creating a Nation of Joiners: Democracy and Civil Society in Early National Massachusetts (2008). With Joanne B. Freeman, he edited the essay collection, Jeffersonians in Power (2019). He has been interviewed by The Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and PBS Newshour, among other venues. He has also written for such public outlets as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week, USA Today, and the Washington Post. His current research focuses on the daily life of democracy in communities across America between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

OAH Lectures by Johann Neem

We tend to celebrate the most famous Americans. As important as these people are, the daily life of democracy happened in small towns across America as ordinary people, forgotten to history, stepped up to serve their communities. Neem offers a story about the ordinary citizens who contributed to the public good. A story that includes men and women, free and enslaved, rich and poor, it is about Americans who stepped up so that things could get done. They joined school committees, built roads, attended meetings, and cared for their neighbors. Some went on to fame, but most did not. Some went on to elected office, but most did not. These citizens express what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. At a time of intense partisan conflict, it is worth remembering that our democracy depends not just on those with the loudest voices, but those who take time out of their busy lives to do what needs doing in their communities.

What do we want from public schools, and why do we seem to be losing faith in them? Using his personal story as an immigrant attending America's public schools and extensive research, Neem explores the original purposes of public education in forging a nation and asks us to step back, take stock, and understand public schools past and present so we can improve their future.

What is college for? Is it to prepare us for a career? For life? Is it to teach us skills? And what, specifically, is the purpose of a liberal arts education, where students, regardless of major, are asked to take classes in fields such as history, English, biology, and other disciplines. At a time when more and more Americans are going to college, Neem asks us to consider what kind of education will best serve the needs of individuals, our democracy, and our economy.

Political history is as diverse as the nation itself. During the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, ordinary Americans- women and men, Black and white- transformed what it meant to be a citizen in a democracy by organizing at the grassroots. Instead of deferring to elites, they entered politics on their own terms. Many of the most important issues to us today—such as those concerning racial and gender equality-- were first raised not by elite politicians, but by the thousands of Americans who organized to ensure that they had a voice in American politics.

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