OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Robert Douglas Johnston

Portrait of Robert Douglas Johnston

Robert D. Johnston is professor of History and director of the Teaching of History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His book The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon received the President’s Book Award from the Social Science History Association. Currently he is working on a history of controversies over vaccination in American history from the early 18th century to the present, under contract with Oxford University Press. His numerous interventions in the politics of historiography include the essay on 1877-1917 in Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr, eds., American History Now (2011). Recently he completed a term as co-editor of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. A winner of multiple teaching awards, Johnston has received UIC’s highest prize for teaching as well as the university’s Graduate Mentoring Award. He facilitates professional development for teachers locally and nationally, ranging from the Newberry Library Teachers Consortium to the NEH K-12 Teachers Institute “Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressivisms: Race, Capitalism, and Democracy, 1877-1920” (for which he serves as Academic Director). He is co-editor of the “Teaching and Textbooks” section of the Journal of American History as well as co-chair of the Test Development Committee for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam. Johnston serves as a vice-president and chief steward of UIC’s faculty union, UIC United Faculty. Living on Chicago’s north side, he and his family root avidly for the Cubs.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Thanks to scholars of historical pedagogy—and thousands of dedicated teachers—today’s history classrooms frequently look dramatically different from their predecessors several decades ago. The most prominent recent change in history teaching involves the centrality of primary sources. Primary sources give students the opportunity to experience and explore real voices and agents from the past at the same time that they provide students with the ability to learn crucial historical thinking skills such as contexualization, corroboration, and critical reading. Yet the primary source revolution has only partially fostered its avowed goal of encouraging students truly to “do history.” To make that revolution complete, we must inspire students (K-12 as well as college) to grapple with changing and contesting historical interpretations. The ultimate goal: empowering students to craft their own distinctive, and well-evidenced, historiographical interventions.
Mainstream opinion, whether from public health officials or op-ed writers, has a simple response to controversies over vaccination. Those who favor vaccines are enlightened. Those who express skepticism are deluded and dangerous. Yet conflicts over immunization in American history are much more complex--and interesting--than this simplistic narrative would suggest. For one thing, such conflicts actually pre-date both the nation and vaccination, going back to vicious and nearly deadly struggles over inoculation during in Puritan Boston. Moreover, recent historians have compellingly argued that vaccine dissenters have, not infrequently, offered perspectives on medicine and politics that have actually expanded liberty and democracy. I seek to extend this basic insight. I do not question that portions of the historical anti-vaccination movement have been radically anti-science as well as anti-civil libertarian (think Dr. Strangelove and bodily fluids). Yet vaccine dissidents’ commitments to bodily autonomy, and to a broad conception of populism, have also informed democratic struggles--from resistance to slavery to immigrants’ rights, from Progressive Era fights against monopoly to feminist movements to expand women’s control over their own bodies. Historians often do their best taking seriously even the most marginalized or seemingly benighted voices. We should not allow presentist lenses, or a facile spirit of condemnation, to miss the complexity of the fascinating range of past debates over vaccination in American history.
The polarization of American political debate reaches far into the academy. Yet such polarization plays out among historians far differently from how it does within the broader public realm. In the civic sphere, everyone has access to a wide variety of viewpoints, even if pundits bemoan the bubbling of America within an increasingly concentrated media landscape. In contrast, a great a majority of influential history departments have a mere handful—if any—conservative voices (or voters). The result: a crucial loss of intellectual dialogue as well as a failure to model complex civil conversation within the civic sphere. So how to bring together the liberal/leftist perspectives prevalent in the academy with conservative historical viewpoints? Through an exploration of both right-wing and left-wing historiography and present-day public commentary on progressivism and the Progressive Era, I point toward a path that highlights the value of respectful, as well as critically sophisticated, reaching across even extreme ideological divides.
The onslaught against populism among mainstream opinion is stronger than it has been since Richard Hofstadter more than a half century ago condemned the naïve—and dangerous—impulses of late nineteenth-century agrarianism. The anti-elitist rhetoric associated with the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and abroad has recently led to the scholarly (and popular) conceptualization of such anti-democratic movements as “populism.” Yet it is a grand analytical, and political, mistake to sweep up all past populisms in a condemnatory dragnet. Johnston surveys populist movements from artisanal radicalism in the Revolutionary Era to radical Progressivism a century ago to multicultural movements for popular empowerment closer to the present which brings fruitful opportunities to broaden our ideas about what populism is and to re-evaluate the democratic promise of such traditions for today.
Historiographical disputes strike lay people—and honestly, most scholars—as arcane and disconnected from the world. They deserve to be buried in footnotes. Yet the major historiographical disputes over the Progressive Era, and Progressivism, are deeply related not just to internecine squabbles among scholars with nothing better to do than score some careerist points. Rather, the debates over the Progressive Era relate, in the largest sense, to how we view the prospects of our present—and our future. The increasingly prevalent scholarly critique of Progressivism argues that the early 20th-century reform impulse flowed from some of the most anti-democratic currents in our history: white supremacy, class hegemony, xenophobia, empire. Yet ultimately I find a counter to that viewpoint most compelling. Despite the many ways in which historians who emphasize anti-democratic patterns are indeed on the mark, they too frequently downplay the many—often subterranean—democratic movements, ideas, and activists of the period. In this lecture, I explore this historiographical conflict and argue that if we “re-democratize” the Progressive Era, we provide both a more accurate and a more nuanced perspective on an era that might still inspire us with genuine civic hope.