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Historian Douglas Brinkley visits CSB+SJU

Douglas Brinkley’s new book will not be out until November, but one of the nation’s leading historians provided students, faculty and others at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University with an advance glimpse of its contents during his lecture Monday (April 11) night in the Founders Room in the Quadrangle Building on the SJU campus.

That book – Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, and the Great Environmental Awakening – chronicles the rise of the environmental movement from 1960 to 1973 – a movement spurred, in part, by the publication of writer, scientist and ecologist Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring that culminated in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and measures like the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 during the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Monday’s lecture was Brinkley’s first in advance of his new work. The event was sponsored through a collaboration between the SJU President’s Office and the Eugene McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement.

“My book will be out in November, but I did want to kind of test run some ideas,” said Brinkley, a best-selling author, the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University, a CNN presidential historian and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.

“This seemed to be a perfect place. I’ve read about Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s so often – whether it’s from studying issues of Indigenous people to studying (SJU alum and former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate) Eugene McCarthy. I haven’t been here before. But I did my doctorate at Georgetown, so I’ve known a lot of people who have gone here over the years. This seemed like a great opportunity to visit, though I wish I could have come when there was a football game on.”

Another big factor in his decision to visit was his close friendship with SJU Transitional President Dr. Jim Mullen – a bond that dates back to Mullen’s tenure as President (Pennsylvania) Allegheny College from 2008-19.

Brinkley assisted in choosing the winner of the annual Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life, which was created in 2011 to “recognize two public figures, one from the left and one from the right, who argue passionately but with civility for their beliefs.”

The school also awards the Dr. James H. Mullen, Jr. Student Prize for Civility in Public Life, which is given to Allegheny students who are “exemplary student leaders (and) who have demonstrated a strong passion for, and deep understanding of, civility on the Allegheny College campus and in community work.

“I gave a commencement address at Allegheny College when he was president there,” Brinkley said of Mullen. “And I realized what a great leader he was of that community. We became friends. He was running the civility prize, where we would look for candidates who were in public life that exuded exemplary access and civility because society has gotten so used to brutalizing each other. We can’t have a dialogue between Democrats and Republicans without it descending into mayhem. Jim has been on the forefront of helping to have a civility movement in America.

“And, in addition, I write books on presidents and he loves presidential history, so we talk about my books and things. I consider the Mullens to be very close friends.”

Doug Brinkley 

Prior to his lecture, Mullen presented his friend with the Saint John’s University Presidential Medallion – the highest award the president of SJU can bestow.

“Doug Brinkley is an American treasure,” Mullen said. “He’s a presidential scholar, an extraordinary teacher, a student of American culture, a prolific author and a devoted son of the liberal arts

“Professor Brinkley embodies the liberal arts and represents the best of American higher education. The breadth of his mind – with interests ranging from politics to music to folk history and environmental policy – is simply extraordinary. His generosity to his students reminds us that a great teacher can inspire young people to find their own passion for learning.”

Matt Lindstrom, a professor of political science at SJU/CSB and director of the McCarthy Center, said having Brinkley on campus offered the community an opportunity to learn from one of the nation’s preeminent thinkers, writers and teachers

“Dr. Brinkley’s scholarship and engagement in environmental public policy questions demonstrates the importance of nuanced, interdisciplinary critical inquiry,” he said. “Through the lens of history, Brinkley offers us a deeper understanding not only of our problems, but also pathways to a more sustainable future rooted in the common good.”

Doug Brinkley

Douglas Brinkley