Last Lectures: Why History Compels, and Not Everyone Should Get a Trophy

Before she learned to see the world through the eyes of a historian, University of Virginia history professor and director of the American Studies program Grace Hale had always taken her grandfather’s version of their proud family history at face value. Discovering the truths he left out shaped Hale’s approach to research and to life.

In his long career of service both in the military and academia, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy Allan Stam has also learned a few things about the truth. He wants students to know the true meaning of leadership and what a valuable resource it is for the world.

On Wednesday evening, Hale and Stam shared these life lessons with students as a part of Housing and Residence Life’s 24th edition of the Last Lecture Series. An annual spring tradition, the Last Lecture invites the University’s  finest faculty members to impart their wisdom and knowledge to students as if it is their very last opportunity to do so.

Hale opened the evening by advising students on “why history is vitally necessary to the Earth.” Drawing upon her own personal history growing up in the South, she spoke of learning to see all sides of history.

Hale was born in Georgia in the 1960s, at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. She lived in a culture that she said was characterized by “silence and absurdity.” All around her, the world was changing; schools were being integrated, “white only” signs were being removed, and for the first time, an African-American woman was hired to work in the same courthouse where her grandfather was sheriff.

Although there were obvious signs of change, Hale’s family and many of the other white Southerners they knew never openly discussed this cultural shift. The changes were ignored and old racist attitudes were kept alive through unspoken agreement.

When Hale reached college and began to do her own historical research, she understood the dangers of this silence and how it could whitewash the telling of history.

“I saw the omissions that white Southerners used to hide the truth,” Hale said.

Armed with this new understanding, Hale traveled to her grandparents’ small town in Mississippi to research her own family history more deeply. Growing up, her grandfather had often told her the story of the night he saved a black prisoner from a lynch mob.

“In my grandfather’s story,” said Hale, “he was the ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ Atticus Finch-like character who protected an African-American man accused of raping a white woman from a lynch mob.”

Her grandfather painted himself as the sheriff who sat by the jail door all night to protect the man’s right to a fair trial.

When Hale began looking into the event with the eye of a trained historian, she quickly realized that while her grandfather never lied, he did omit the truth. He did protect the prisoner from the mob that night, but he never told his granddaughter the events of the next day. According to the local paper, Hale’s grandfather and two deputies took the prisoner back to the crime scene at his behest. They testified later that the man tried to escape and grab a gun from one of the deputies. In the tussle, three shots were fired and two killed the prisoner.

Reading the article, Hale realized that her grandfather – the man she looked up to and who first sparked her interest in history – was likely also a killer. By discovering the truth of her family history, she learned the importance of investigating all facets of the past.

“History isn’t easy and it isn’t neat. It doesn’t make you feel good,” Hale said. “It makes you think.”

She closed by explaining that the only way to make a better future is to have a true understanding of the past.

“Real history – not the nationalistic textbook version – makes us humble,” Hale said.

Stam took the stage and opened by asking students about the importance of learning another truth: the true meaning of leadership.

“Academics don’t much like to talk about leadership in the sense of defining what it is,” he said. “We talk about it in broad terms or about how to make better leaders, but very frequently we don’t address actually what leadership is.”

Stam pointed out that outside academia there are three major areas that frequently discuss leadership and are heavily invested in it: the military, the business world and athletics. All of these groups have one major thing in common: they keep score. They tally the best use of people and resources, sales and growth, and wins and losses.

“Unfortunately, keeping score has become unfashionable in certain parts of society,” Stam said.

He noted the generational trend of shielding children and young adults from failure as much as possible, arguing that it is harmful to make everyone a winner instead of keeping a true score. He advised instead that we teach young people the true meaning of leadership.

There are all kinds of leaders, but at its core, leadership means one thing – and Stam believes that the Batten School motto says it best: “Leadership is the art of getting things done.”

“If leadership is the art of getting things done, then how should we balance our failures against our accomplishments?” he said.

He told students that there are two sides to every leader: what he or she does, and what he or she fails to do. As an example and without naming him, Stam listed the many moral and political failings of Thomas Jefferson. He then listed Jefferson’s numerous accomplishments and asked students to consider which list ultimately impacted the world more.

“To assess true leadership, you have to ask, ‘Is the world a better place for someone having existed?’” he asked, adding that in Jefferson’s case, there is no doubt that he had a lasting positive impact on the world.

He asked students to ponder that as they prepare to leave the University and go out into the world. Failures will happen, but Stam said that it’s more important to focus on what you want to accomplish and how your achievements can improve your community.

“Find a vision that inspires you,” he said. “With that in hand, help others push the rock up the hill and reach toward a better world.”

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications