Douglas Brinkley is exactly what the American public needs right now: a thoughtful historian, and a dedicated teacher. In turbulent times, we turn to the past to provide a context in which to understand our current lives. Brinkley is truly the man for the job. As a historian, he studied at The Ohio University, Oxford, and Georgetown, and earned seven honorary doctorates. As a teacher, Brinkley worked at the U.S. Naval Academy, Princeton, Hofstra, the University of New Orleans, Tulane, and Rice. His books have been nominated for and received dozens of awards; he even has a Grammy. If ever an American embodied the exemplar of the historian-as-teacher, it is Douglas Brinkley.
In The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey, Brinkley recounts his earliest educational experiences, rooted in family vacations across the United States, when he discovered his teaching doctrine: “to find America, look within.” Embracing that ethos, he created his “American Odyssey” course in 1992, which originated at Hofstra and brought Brinkley and a select group of students around the country studying American literary, cultural, and intellectual history. As he describes: “There is something transcendent about Ken Kesey showing you the Oregon desk where he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chuck Berry letting you touch the St. Louis guitar on which he composed ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ and John Kenneth Galbraith allowing you to browse his home library in Cambridge.” Brinkley also insisted on reducing his group’s carbon footprint by running the “majic” bus on natural gas, long before many Americans grasped the stark realities of climate change.
This is another reason we need Brinkley right now—his dedication to environmental education and conservation. He has held leadership positions at the American Museum of Natural History, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the National Audubon Society, and the Rockefeller-Roosevelt Conservation Roundtable. Brinkley continually reminds us of what he first learned on road trips with his family as a boy: that when we take in more of the great big world around us, we realize how truly insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. As Michiko Kakutani wrote in 2007 of his Robert F. Kennedy Prize-winning book, The Great Deluge, Brinkley “captures the human toll of [Hurricane] Katrina . . . and his anger at the government’s mismanagement of the situation.” Who could forget that legendary Congressional hearing in November 2011, on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, when Dr. Brinkley artfully put certain less-educated House representatives into place? As he said in his testimony: “If we don't correct the record now, when is it going to get corrected?” During this time of historic tumult, his question echoes with urgency.
In 2013, CNN dubbed Douglas Brinkley “a man who knows more about the presidency than any human being alive,” and one of his gifts as an historian and a teacher is putting that office into perspective. His 1998 study of Jimmy Carter, The Unfinished Presidency, notes that only Carter “used the White House as a stepping-stone to greater global achievement . . . mediating an impressive list of foreign disputes, civil wars, and political transitions in . . . troubled lands.” Brinkley is the ideal teacher to help us remember the cyclical nature of history, and the pressing need to learn from the lessons of the past. As he wrote in 2006: “History, in the end, is homage; it’s about caring enough to set the record straight even if reliving the past is painful or disappointing. Buried history leads to rank defilement of the human spirit.” Let us allow Douglas Brinkley to cleanse our human spirits by unburying American history for us here tonight.