Volume 26 Number 2
©2004 Tyagan Miller
Herman B Wells, left, and Magnus Kreisle, of Tell City, Ind., attend a banking conference at French Lick Springs Hotel in 1931.
Indiana University Archives
Portrait of a Historian as a Young Man
Living on First Street gave me a connection with the city I live in, something my suburban classmates didn't have. To them, Francis Joseph Reitz was just F. J. Reitz, the name of the West Side high school and my alma mater. For me, he was more real: Reitz's house, now a beautifully restored museum, was down the street, my father worked in downtown offices practically next door to Reitz's bank, and the train at the museum where my mother and I often walked was from Reitz's railroad, the Louisville and Nashville. Other houses had similar, now forgotten, civic importance: (the late) Gov. Orr was born three blocks down the street, early 20th-century mayor Benjamin Bosse lived a block and a half away, and the founder of the Sterling Brewery's house was across the street. Even my house had some importance, though at only 80 years old it is a younger brother to its larger, grander neighbors: the Nesbitt house seven blocks away was built by a wealthy dry-goods merchant, the father of the man who built my house when Harding was president." from "Portrait of the Historian as a Young Man," by Paul Musgrave
The prose is confident and bears the mark of a well- read person who knows his subject. A clear sense of history's resonance in public and private life shapes the writer's description. Author Paul Musgrave wrote "Portrait of the Historian as a Young Man" as a seminar essay when he was an 18-year-old Indiana University Bloomington freshman, but even then, he demonstrated a self-assured, knowledgeable tone that has given depth to his many writings sinceon former IU President and University Chancellor Herman B Wells, on weapons of mass destruction, on his own life as an oft-celebrated Wells Scholar, and on nearly every political topic that catches his interest.
A double major in history and political science, Musgrave, now a senior, is also a student newspaper columnist, a poet, and winner of a Mitchell Scholarship that will take him to University College Dublin to study politics in the fall. He is spending his last semester as an undergraduate this spring studying international relations and Mandarin Chinese in Shanghai. He's completed two honors theses, one on the national missile defense program, the other on Herman Wells's involvement in state banking reform during the Depression. He's been a diversity educator in a large IUB dormitory, a research and teaching intern, even a football homecoming court prince. But, he says, "I don't really consider myself to be exceptional."
That may sound disingenuous coming from someone like Musgrave, but consider this entry from his personal Web site (www.paulmusgrave.com), in which he argues that the very system that has encouraged his success is flawed in the way it compares students:
"Official honors mainly go to those who succeed in narrowly defined areas that happen to coincide with the fads; thus, entrepreneurship is less valued than community service, good citizenship is less valued than oratorical skills, and everything is less valued than SAT scores. . . . The structure of our educational institutions fosters an idea of success which is narrowly defined and poorly constructed. The Culture of Achievement, with its National Honors Societies and Good Citizenship Awards, views students as inputs into a quasi-industrial process, whose qualities can be precisely measured and ranked. It thus provides a disservice to those who win awards and those who don't alike by giving them a false idea of human worth. It is an irony that the Culture of Achievement creates exactly the opposite."
An award-winning debater, Musgrave has a passion for discussion. But Scott R. Sanders, Distinguished Professor of English at IUB and former Wells Scholar program director, points out that Musgrave's drive to debate comes less from a concern with winning than "achieving insight." It's that search for insight, for increased self-awareness, that keeps Musgrave from being so easily defined by the accomplishments enumerated on his CV. It is precisely his conviction that even his own success should be considered from other intellectual points of view that makes Musgrave stand out.
Gregory J.E. Rawlins, IUB associate professor of informatics, recalls Musgrave's obvious zest for investigation when they first met at a dinner a few years ago. Musgrave, Rawlins observes, is the sort of person who "wants to know how good he is." When Musgrave became Rawlins's student, they spent a great deal of time talking, and the question of why China never went through an industrial revolution came up. Rawlins pointed Musgrave to a shelf-full of heavy tomes, and Musgrave dug in.
Likewise, when he joined IUB Associate Professor of History James Capshew to work on Capshew's Wells biography project, Musgrave worked zealously through the annals of Indiana banking in the 1920s. It is a period essential to Herman B Wells's evolution as a public figure in the state and at IU, but there was a great deal of "wonkish" arcana that Capshew had not yet taken the time to research. Musgrave "took to it like a duck to water," says Capshew, and began to investigate the laws and business history that led to the creation of Wells's political character and reputation. By the end of his sophomore year, Musgrave had finished a draft of his first undergraduate thesis.
Musgrave explains that his passion for history and his more specific curiosity about Indiana's past are driven by growing up in a historic section of downtown Evansville. His family is also politically engaged, his parents very much involved in local and state Republican politics. When Musgrave first arrived at IU, he joined the student government, the debate society, and the newspaper staff. According to Rawlins, Musgrave argued "the usual, conservative explanations" for things; "Social Darwinism" seemed to form his worldview.
But recently, as is clear from even a cursory reading of his articles for the Indiana Daily Student newspaper and on his Web site, Musgrave has undergone an evolution of sorts from conservatism to progressivism. As he describes it, he went from "young Republican to sort-of Democrat to whatever I am now." Musgrave is candid about contemporary politics, current events, and his sense that there are very few politicians who excite any sort of popular interest. He asks too many questions and considers too many angles to espouse any one party line. His investigations and passion for understanding have made him no longer comfortable with the views that once shaped him.
"I'm not sure he's reached his objective yet," says Capshew of Musgrave's evolution, "but he's trying to figure out a way to be the sort of public intellectual you don't often find in this country.
"Paul certainly characterizes what Wells would have expected from the scholars program created to honor him," Capshew continues. "In some ways, they would have been on the same level. They could easily have conversed."
An important factor in Musgrave's ongoing evolution is his keen interest in public officials, ethics, and the uses of power. That interest animates his work on the Wells project, his investigation of Indiana's past and present political leaders, and his goal to write a biography of former Indiana Gov. Paul McNutt one of these days. These subjects also figure into another of his fascinations: the notion that we each create our own personal mythology. Musgrave cites an example: "Wells is seen as this grandfatherly figure, but really, he was very calculating and knew exactly what he was doing. It's remarkable, after all, that he never pursued a doctorate and yet he became so powerful at IU. It's a legacy, a mythology he created for himself."
Success and failure are available in equal measure for intelligent people; a willingness to work and learn make the difference. Just as Herman B Wells accomplished things through a combination of intelligence, drive, and determination, so Musgrave has built an impressive list of pursuits and accomplishments for a 21-year-old. The obvious question is, of course, what becomes of someone who has accomplished so much so early?
"History is full of remarkable individuals who reached high and burned out young," Musgrave acknowledges, but he still describes a future scenario for himself in which he graduates from law school, returns to Indiana to become a lawyer, and builds a political life. "That would be 2008, 2009," he says. "Probably back in Evansville, with a practice, beginning to build my connections in state politics, working on the McNutt biography."
Ultimately, he envisions becoming the sort of strong political figure he does not now see in state politics, but admits that opportunities such as the Mitchell Scholarship and graduate school may change the picture.
His mentors see a different path, one that may better encompass the breadth of Musgrave's interests and experience. As Sanders puts it, "While he aspires to hold political office himself one day, or perhaps to become an adviser to an elected official, he enjoys using his mind too much to stick at that profession for long, I predict. I fully expect him to end up writing the kinds of books he so enjoys readingample, subtle, witty, and smart."
Paul Karns is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind. He is currently at work on a novel.