The Accidental American

Patrick Allitt, the first Cahoon family professor of American history, is ‘one of the great teachers you need to have’

By Terri McIntosh

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Can you guess who in this photo is Professor Patrick Allitt? (Hint: The man in the tie is the first Cahoon Family Professor of American History, a chair endowed during Campaign Emory.)

Kay Hinton

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Susan Cahoon and Patrick Allitt

Susan Cahoon 68C

Emory alumna and trustee Susan Cahoon 68C created the endowed Cahoon Family Professorship in American History, now held by Patrick Allitt, as a Campaign Emory gift to honor her family and address what she sees as a disturbing trend in education.

“I realized that there were fewer people majoring in subjects like history, and I was particularly concerned that so many people of the younger generation seemed blissfully ignorant about much of American history in particular,” says Cahoon, who majored in history and economics, earned a Harvard law degree, and is a partner in Kilpatrick Townsend in Atlanta.

“As I thought about what I could do with some of the money that I had been fortunate enough to make through my profession, my logical thoughts turned to Emory because it was so pivotal for me in the start of my career, and I have so many fond memories of my days here as an undergraduate,” she says.

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The Quotable Patrick Allitt

“Learning is hard, often joyless, and for centuries was understood to be so alien to youngsters’ inclinations that it had to be reinforced with frequent beatings.”

Commentary for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy

“If you only think comfortable thoughts, you’re never going to understand history at all. It’s much more difficult than that.”

Remarks during the Emory Alumni Association’s Faculty Within Reach series

“It looks like a Russian icebreaker just back from a rough trip through the Arctic.”

Description of White Hall during a campus tour for visiting high school counselors

“If you’re a teacher, you spend your life with people who are young and healthy and enthusiastic, full of good will, optimistic. They haven’t yet had all the hope beaten out of them by hard circumstances. They’re lovely people to be around, on the whole.”

Remarks to the Texas Community College Teachers Association

“Rise to the occasion and cover yourselves with glory.”

Challenge to his students, as reported in I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student

Historian Patrick Allitt, an Englishman who loves America so much he has made it his life’s work, is finally a US citizen. Last May he stood with a hundred others in Atlanta’s Immigration and Citizenship Center, took the “Oath of Allegiance,” and received a little American flag, which he has affixed to the Macintosh computer in his Emory faculty office.

“The whole thing was great,” he says, “and I left it much more emotionally worked up than I thought I would. Because I’d already been living here for so long, it wasn’t a big change in my way of life. But it was a change in my feeling about the place.”

The Cahoon Family Professor of American History, Allitt calls himself “an accidental immigrant” who came to the US to study in 1978 and fully intended to return to England. Instead he found the perfect home at Emory College of Arts and Sciences and is among the university’s most highly regarded teachers, scholars, and public speakers.

“Everyone on campus loves him,” says his research assistant, Emily Moore 16C, a freshman from Seattle. “He’s one of the great teachers you need to have before you leave Emory.”

Allitt teaches two courses each semester, leaving the rest of his time for research. This semester it’s History 385, an upper-level exploration of Victorian Britain; and History 185, Great Works in Western Civilization. Part of the college’s new Voluntary Core Curriculum, History 185 attracts some of Emory’s top freshmen. They come to a seminar room in Ignatius Few Hall three mornings a week to discuss influential writings in religion, history, politics, economics, biology, and psychology.

On a recent Wednesday, most of the students have arrived early and taken their seats around a square of long tables. A couple of them are talking about the day’s reading—a beautifully composed account of the dismal state of the Roman Empire after the suicide of the Emperor Nero. Titled simply The Histories and written by ancient Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus, it features actors such as the treasonous prefect Nymphidius Sabinus and the much-despised German army official Hordeonius Flaccus.

Allitt arrives, clad in a coat and tie and full of energy, and takes a seat at the remaining empty table in this class of ten students. He begins by asking whether anyone has seen a recent newspaper story about the discovery of the body of King Richard III, one of the great villains of history, and then they begin to discuss the chaos and bloodshed documented in The Histories.

The class talks about the virtue of nobility and the idea of moral complexity. They theorize about what motivates people to follow a leader. They discuss why people write history and what makes a good historian. They debate whether Tacitus, writing about events and recreating speeches forty years after they happened, had gotten things right and whether drawing on memory and talking with others are reasonable methods for historians to use.

Allitt asks questions, offers explanations, and responds to his students’ contributions to the discussion. When they speak he listens intently, leaning in and searching for evidence that they understand the material. At one point he looks as though he might leap from his chair.

He has given one student the assignment of describing the personality of the writing. Others are asked to read aloud. To theorize. To relate. He asks his shyest student to read a passage with “the passionate intensity with which Tacitus wrote it.” After some encouragement, she still is unable to raise her voice, and she reads quietly instead.

Although some are more outgoing than others, these students appear to have read the material well, marked it up, and thought it through, and the most striking fact about their discussion is that they are all freshmen. Teenagers. No matter how they may behave in other settings, in Allitt’s class they do not fill pauses with “like” or turn up the ends of declarative sentences.

Asked to read aloud a senator’s speech from The Histories, Tyler Wiegert 16C recites it from memory instead, with feeling, breaking character only to stifle a snicker at the phrase “tribes of mistresses.” A member of the Emory Political Union who was inducted into Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society in March, Wiegert has political aspirations accompanied by a specific plan that includes a graduate degree in public policy, a seat in Congress, and a run for US president. Allitt tells him the recitation is “Beautiful. Very well done indeed.”

The class weighs in on the craft of writing. “The writing style is almost harshly eloquent,” says Matt Janigian 16C. “Tacitus uses pointed sentences like we saw in that second paragraph. He says a lot in a few words. This is appropriate for the time because so much happened in such a short period of time.”

Near the end of the hour, Allitt shares his own favorite sentence from the reading, in which Tacitus summarizes the reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba, who was emperor for only seven months before being murdered by his own soldiers. “‘He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.’ Isn’t that beautiful?” Allitt says. “It’s a heart-breaking sentence. He’s too good for one; not good enough for the other.”

Allitt’s weekdays begin on the squash court at Emory’s Woodruff P. E. Center, where he battles a series of regular opponents, including a sociologist, two historians, and the occasional undergraduate. He learned the sport while earning a degree in modern history at Oxford University in England, and he is a fierce player who will “do everything I possibly can to win, within the rules.”

He grew up in the English railway town of Derby, captivated by the trains, and both of his parents were teachers. His mother taught typing and shorthand in a secretarial school, and his father taught high school physics. His father also served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, contracted polio while stationed in the Middle East, and brought home a lifetime of adventure stories. Allitt credits those stories, along with his parents’ example, for his career as an academic historian.

His fascination with the United States also began during his childhood, when America was a Cold War superpower and its culture and fashion were everywhere. “American stuff was in the air,” he says. “All the time.” He decided to study American history in the United States, and his Oxford professors suggested three unaffordable private universities and the public University of California at Berkeley, where he enrolled in 1978.

He experienced the real America during a cross-country hitchhiking trip in 1977. After years of watching American crime dramas and violent Westerns on television, he was relieved to find that people were friendly. He also was surprised by how deeply religious so many of them were.

“The thing that struck me hardest of all when I first came here was the intense religiosity of American life. I remember on this first trip with my friend, a guy stopped to pick us up and he said, ‘Have you taken Jesus as your personal savior?’ It was the first thing he said. I’d never been asked a question like that. And it was really a way of saying, let’s be friends. The English equivalent of that is, let’s go to the pub. I think it’s the same question but in a very different idiom.”

Allitt specialized in American religious history at Berkeley and, after earning a PhD, became a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. Emory soon offered him an assistant professorship, which he began when the fellowship ended in 1988. He became a full professor in 1998.

In his twenty-five years at Emory, he has become a star in one of the university’s most highly acclaimed departments, having held three different endowed positions, won the Emory Williams Teaching Award, and directed Emory’s Center for Teaching and Curriculum. He now advises the student honor council and is a faculty representative on the Emory Alumni Board.

“We have a number of strengths in this department, and one is that we all aspire to be like Patrick Allitt,” says Jeffrey Lesser, department chair and the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of History. “We aspire to be great scholars and, because of our scholarship, great teachers as well. When we stand in front of a class and talk about something, we really know what we’re talking about.”

Allitt’s first four books were about religious history, and he has published an entertaining memoir about teaching an introductory American history class at Emory, I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student. His 2009 book, The Conservatives, was a study of ideas and personalities beginning with the Constitutional Convention and ending in the late 1990s. His latest, now under contract at Penguin Press, is a history of the great environmental debates of the past several decades. For years he has been recording a DVD lecture series for the Teaching Company.

When he’s working on a project, he often puts in twelve-hour days, going home for dinner and returning when the stream of students needing guidance has stopped and he can focus on his research. Now that his wife, whom he met at Berkeley, has retired from her teaching position, they have a “more traditional” division of household duties. “She cooks, and I read to her while she does it,” he explains. He is reading A Man of Parts, a novel based on the life of H. G. Wells.

Clearly Allitt loves the beauty of the Emory campus, its marble and brickwork and museum of historical treasures that help illustrate his lectures on ancient Greece. During a brief campus tour for two visiting high school counselors on a sunny February afternoon, he likens the well-appointed sitting room in Emory’s Oxford Road Building to the Palace of Versailles. He makes sure they notice the walkway crossing Dowman Drive. “You feel more important walking on this brickwork than you actually are. Don’t you?” he says with a conspiratorial laugh.

Escorting the counselors through the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, where he and his wife hold season tickets to the Emory Symphony Orchestra, he happens upon a conducting lesson in the auditorium. A chamber choir sings while a graduate student works to improve her technique under the supervision of Eric Nelson, director of choral studies. One of the singers is a student from Allitt’s History 385 course, and they wave at each other. As he leads the group through a backstage hallway, out of an office pops orchestra director Richard Prior, a fellow Englishman. “Only one English accent allowed in this building!” Prior calls out.

At Goizueta Business School, Allitt looks up at the arch connecting the east and west wings. “I find arches to be such spectacular things. The sheer fact that life is going on above you while you are walking below is thrilling.”

Allitt is imaginative and prone to outbursts of humor and delight. Adventurous and outgoing, he spends vacations hiking, climbing, kayaking, and mountain biking. Keenly observant, he often is moved by what he sees, which makes him as engaging on a campus tour as he is in the classroom.

In the Michael C. Carlos Museum, he directs his guests to the Nile River map painted on the floor leading to the Ancient Egyptian Collection and warns, “We are about to walk through the Nile Valley, so prepare for months of parching desert.” Suddenly remembering the curved staircase that offers a view of each collection floor, he asks, “Do you know about the staircase? The single most interesting staircase on campus? No? Then we must climb it!” And off he leads.

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