On June 7, James “Bud” Robertson, Jr., a Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, addressed a lively and attentive crowd of 150 people under a big tent on the lawn of the Black House at the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Center in downtown Blacksburg
Cultural Center board member Bill Aden gave Robertson a warm introduction. Aden had been an undergraduate student decades ago in Robertson’s Civil War history classes.
The Cultural Center staff video recorded Robertson’s talk and the question-and-answer session that followed and posted them to Youtube. The recording is at https://tinyurl.com/Robertson2018.
As noted in an earlier column here, Robertson discussed the rhetorical question “Is History Dead?” and almost immediately answered “Of course not, it’s alive,” and went on “…it will be alive long after we’re all dead. Tomorrow, today will be history.”
As for the value of history, he insisted: “We cannot forget our past. We must have it. If for no other reason so as not to make the same mistakes twice.”
But there is a problem with history in America today he asserted, with that problem being “… that there are just too many people out there who are trying to twist it, to erase it, to change it, to alter it.”
Robertson labeled the people trying to change history “snowflakes” and said that these snowflakes are perpetually offended troublemakers who stand against everything.
“I call them snowflakes,” he said, “because they suddenly appear, but with the warmth of common sense and intelligence they melt away real quick. Typical snowflakes jump to judgment with no understanding. They want to rewrite history, which they can’t do.”
Robertson has concluded that the political life of America today has become “largely dysfunctional.” People he meets on his travels ask: What is wrong with America? What’s happening to this country?
He believes that Americans have never been more divided and have never been more argumentative. Somewhat scarily, he believes that we never have in America “…been more lacking in the ingredients that make democracy work.”
Summing up, he emphasized his distress with both the modern-day diminishment of history and the parlous present-day state of our nation.
“So is history dead? Oh no! But it’s in critical condition, I do tell you that. And I wish I could stand here and bring you happy thoughts, but I can’t,” he said.
Speaking as a Civil War historian, Robertson compared the time before that war to the present day: “I think this country is at a critical point. I think we are seeing history repeat itself from the 1850s.” It was “…in the 1850s when this country … [determined to fight] … the bloodiest war America has ever known.”
As remedies, Robertson recommended the maxims of good citizenship to the assembled crowd: get out and vote, encourage your neighbors to vote, participate in civic activities, and go out and buy a good history text book and read it.
Other incidental targets he aimed at were the decline of cursive writing, the neglect of geographical knowledge in modern schoolrooms, and the over use of computers. Robertson himself proudly continues to write with a typewriter.
To those targets one can no doubt add the gigantic rise in the use and abuse of social media by many people over the past couple of decades.
Later this year Robertson will publish a study of Robert E. Lee, a historical figure for whom Robertson holds abundant admiration — bordering on veneration. This veneration poses a challenge and dilemma for any serious amateur reader of history in Robertson’s audience.
There are already at least seven full-scale biographies of Lee, along with many online lectures about him by history professors, Park Service historians, and others. Lee has his critics as well as his admirers.
So for an amateur to arrive at some considered, semi-independent opinion about Lee there is a great deal of requisite information to be digested. Life is too short.
In a different vein, this columnist took good lecture notes and was scribbling away on a notepad all the while Robertson talked. Reviewing the recording reminds him that even good lecture notes are a poor substitute for an actual video.
Check out the online Robertson lecture to hear the end-of-career thoughts about the nature of America and its history from a prominent, lifelong student of the Civil War with a southwest Virginia perspective.
Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.