On Thursday night, Simon Schama, University Professor and renowned intellectual about town, delivered the first half of a two-part public lecture, “Obama’s America: War.” Victoria Wills was there to witness the elusive history legend!

Simon Schama, Commander of the British Empire, forrealz

The day I was accepted into Columbia, my high school History teacher congratulated me by yelling down the hallway: “Get me an autograph!”  Of course, he meant an autograph from Simon Schama—the captivating BBC historian whose distinct academic British cadence had often rung through our sleepy classroom.  From the outset, I was skeptical of ever encountering him.  Schama is somewhat of a rockstar in the history world, having written award-winning books, produced an Emmy-nominated BBC series, and secured the biggest advance deal for a TV historian ever.  On the Columbia scene, he has not taught a class since Spring 2010, and the first entry on his CULPA page (written in 2005) begins: “This course is offered about as often as England gets a new queen.”

I was therefore delighted to find myself in a half-full auditorium at the New-York Historical Society’s temporary space on West 64th, listening to the man himself address the role history should play in the navigation of America’s problems today.  Leaning casually against the podium in front of an audience of enraptured and mostly greying fans, Schama dove right into a comparison of the current crisis in Egypt to an 1882 uprising under Ahmed Urabi—an event that, with acid sarcasm, “astonishingly, has not been on the lips of…the commentators of MSNBC.” Though both Schama and his audience delight in such stabs at reporters and politicians unversed in history (on Sarah Palin: “did somebody not tell her, ‘do a little history, barracuda’?”), Schama seeks much more than to bash those less learned than he.  For him, history may be a thing of the past, but it “flows” into our present in ways we cannot ignore.

Perhaps Schama’s foremost message was that history cannot give us clear answers.  We can look back at a bloody war that kept South Korea from an oppressive authoritarian regime, but does this mean that the war in Afghanistan is necessarily justifiable?   Where do you draw the line and enforce your principles, and when do you have to settle?  When is it our business to make that decision at all?  Schama thrives on these “thorny” questions.

And while Schama offers no solutions, his point is clear: the questions of today’s America are unbelievably complex, but even more so if unaided by the insight of history.  So when history can inform decisions at all, we should embrace it, especially when there are people like Schama who work to make it as enjoyable as possible.

N.B. From the New York Historical Society’s website: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the program “Obama’s America: Banking” with Simon Schama, on Thursday, February 17 at 6:30 pm has been canceled. We apologize for the inconvenience.