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.
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.