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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Change Is the Operative Force of History

Featuring Drew Gilpin Faust

What are the dangers of not acknowledging what has gotten better? How do we understand the marks history leaves on individuals? And what does a former president of Harvard think of higher education in the US today? We hear from historian, civil rights activist, and the first woman president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, about how her story and how activism can actually make a difference.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and joined by Emma Varvaloucas, my co-host, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast, our conversations with interesting folks, some of whom are members of The Progress Network, some of whom are not. And we’re gonna talk to someone today, an historian who has a memoir and an incredibly distinguished academic career whose life has in part been animated by the awareness of change is the operative force in human society, the operative force in history, and that there is change for the better, as well as of course change for the worse.

Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today we’re gonna talk to Drew Faust. She’s a historian and former president of Harvard University. She just so happened to be the first ever woman president of Harvard and the first to be a president there without receiving a degree from Harvard. So she’s definitely a pioneer. She’s the author of many books, I think the count is at six right now. And we’re gonna be talking to her about her latest book, which is a memoir called Necessary Trouble. It follows her as she’s growing up in the ’50s and ’60s where she’s facing all the history that was occurring during that time. Racial unrest, nuclear crises, precarious foreign alliances, Vietnam War. The memoir ends in 1968. So of course, a time of rapid change and fierce reaction. And now we’re going to fast forward to 2023 and talk a little bit about some of the stuff that is still giving us aftershocks from that time period.

ZK: Drew Gilpin Faust, such a pleasure to be talking to you today and such a kind of moving, interesting memoir. So I met someone at a party a few weeks ago and they said me-moir, which I’d never actually heard as a thing, but apparently that’s a new thing to call a memoir. So I was thinking about this ’cause I was recently in the Shenandoah Valley where you grew up. I suppose I was in Clarke. Like most people, I’m kind of unaware of what county I’m in at any given point in time. And I was also kind of struck viscerally once again, particularly driving past James Madison’s mansion and driving near Charlottesville of the kind of continual conundrum of America’s founding, that conundrum of all these people who were writing about the rights of man, and yes, of course, it was the rights of man, and the need for freedom and the imperatives of creating a society where freedoms were preserved. And there are the slave quarters right next to it in these places, obviously true of Mount Vernon, and you grew up in the midst of all that.

And I guess I wonder, to what degree any of that registered as a thing. I mean, it’s because I’m so struck by it, and I think many people are so struck by it as this continually hard to square the circle, difficult to answer question, but this was your lifeblood, literally, or the soup in which you swam as a youth. And I wonder was that in any way part of the mix for you?

Drew Faust (DF): So thanks for inviting me, Zach. It’s great to be here. And I was just home in Virginia, see, I still call it home, a couple of weeks ago. And once again, struck by many of the aspects of that society that are still visible and that remains, like the houses you talk about and the history. I think I was made aware of these contradictions, these paradoxes, in their 20th century setting when I was quite young because I was imbued, as many young people are, with these notions of American democracy and freedom. And particularly, in the 1950s, when I was growing up, the Cold War aspect of this made the insistence on American freedoms very militant in a sense as the alternative, as the right way to do things in comparison to the Communist Bloc.

And yet, even when I was a very young child, it became evident to me that this sense of justice did not incorporate all the people in my community. And that became evident in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision when Virginia was told to integrate its schools and the white political leadership said we would prefer to close them rather than integrate them. And as a 9-year-old, that just seemed to me astonishing. And I suddenly realized that my all white school was all white on purpose, and that seemed at odds with the very ideals that I had been taught even as a young child. So these were kind of the manifestation of those contradictions and paradoxes still persisting into the 20th century and having their roots in the very conflict of slavery and freedom that was part of the founding generation.

EV: So, Drew, you’re talking about the roots of this still persisting into now. We’re obviously The Progress Network, so we believe a lot of progress has been made. And definitely, what’s striking about reading your book as someone that was born in the ’90s is that the ’50s and ’60s as a landscape is just unrecognizable to me as an American landscape. So if you were to have a pie chart of like out of 100% success, where are we now as compared to then in terms of, you know, you put it as a man’s world and as a white world?

DF: Well, one of the things I want this book to make a case for is that there has been change because there’s a lot of conversation and discourse now about how everything is terrible and always has been terrible. And there’s some people in the history profession who are talking about how little has changed even since the Civil War. And I find that dangerous in a couple of ways. One is, first of all, it has changed. And I wanted to remind people of this landscape that you said was unrecognizable, just the intricacies, the textures of daily life had so many unthinkable aspects as I grew into that world, unthinkable from our point of view now. And I want young people to understand how much has changed. But I also think it’s dangerous because if we don’t think anything has ever changed, we get discouraged. And why bother? Why bother to struggle? Why bother to try to make change still happen if it’s been shown to be impossible?

So, I would like people not to give up. And I think part of not giving up on all the changes we still have to make is to believe that this is possible and that things have improved though that there’s still an awful long way to go. You asked about a pie chart. I don’t think I could give a percentage. And I also think we see many ways in which we’re reversing, which is even more frightening, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, which was an absolute centerpiece of the civil rights movement. We’re just seeing again and again the effort to push back many of the elements of progress that we have made in the years since I was a child.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: You know, it’s funny, the older I get, and I’m always annoyed when I say things like that ’cause then it just makes me feel older, I’m much more aware of the kind of odd fluidity of time and memory. So I talked to my sons today about Vietnam today is substantially further away than World War II was when I was kind of coming of age in the ’70s. And World War II felt like ancient by then, by the ’70s. I couldn’t even fathom a world where that was the war that was being fought, and yet it’s basically the Gulf War to today. For me growing up in the ’70s, World War II was the exact same distance as the first Gulf War, the Clinton presidency one.

And I think about, you know, when I was reading your book, you grew up at a time when maybe not your grandparents, but certainly there were people who would’ve been toward the end of their lives if they had lived long enough who had been born just at the end of, or right at the end of the Civil War. So there was a kind of generational actual memory of these things as opposed to just the history book thing. I mean, does that matter? I mean, the sense of that you still had a kind of a culture of people? Because you talk in the book a lot about the narrative had been the lost cause and romanticizing General Lee. And yeah, I think you have a point in the book where you talk about you didn’t even realize in playing the war games, the little sibling war games with your brothers that actually, Lee had lost the war, right? Which I thought was a great twist, which I hadn’t thought about. How does proximity change memory? I know that’s kind of a big philosophical, but it’s one we all think about if we’ve studied history, and you certainly, having had a life as a practitioner, as an historian have thought about.

DF: Well, I share that sense that you just described of how close things seem in time as you get older. As a decade is only a fifth of your life or a smaller portion of your life, you realize how fast a decade can go. And so part of what happened to me as I was doing the research and writing this book is I realized how close in time a lot of these events were. First of all, as for you, though I’m much older than you, World War II seemed very distant, even though I knew my father had fought in it. But that was a long time ago before I was born. And then I realized, as I looked at my childhood, how close World War II was and the enormous impact it was still having in my family because of my father’s participation and the participation really of all the men that I was related to.

I also came to realize as I was working on the book, my grandmother was born who figures as a major presence in the book, she was born in 1894 and her father was born in 1861. So he grew up in the aftermath of the Civil War, and I’m sure communicated to her— He was a southerner. He was born in North Carolina, lived most of his life in Tennessee. My grandmother grew up in Tennessee. The ideas and experiences that were very vivid for her, as she heard them from her father and experienced them herself, were just part and parcel of that post-Civil War era with all the racial conflict, the racial hierarchies, the adulation of Civil War generals. My grandmother spoke about William Tecumseh Sherman with horror as if he was a very nasty man who she had known personally when she was growing up. Of course that wasn’t true, but he was nevertheless very vivid in her mind.

So the shortness of history is something that becomes very, I think, vivid when you get older. And it came that way for me as I was writing this book. And that made me think in a different way, a personal way, about the past, to use Faulkner’s much repeated phrase, never being dead, was never dead in the lives of the people that I grew up with and the family members who shaped me.

EV: Picking up on that, I was really struck by in particular the descriptions of your mother and your relationship with your mother and how much you painted some of your mother’s personal and psychological struggles. So you talk about maybe she had anorexia, you described her though as a product of like social, cultural, and historical conditions. That was very striking to me because I kind of grew up in a— it’s like we’re in a literary genre now when it comes to talking about your family and personal relationships that everything is trauma. And I feel like this way of thinking about your intimate relationships and the people around you as still products of larger forces has kind of, I don’t wanna say been lost, but it’s certainly gone out of style. Was that something that you had in mind as you were writing, or do you just write like that because you are a historian, so that’s how you look at things?

DF: Well, I think partly it’s I’m a historian and that’s how I look at things, but I also felt my mother was indeed contained by these social structures and expectations that were stifling and that these were realities for her that whatever her psychological makeup was, independent of them, she still was surrounded by these walls that prohibited her from taking a different direction in life. So perhaps it’s my historian’s view of things, but it also, I believe, is a valid way of thinking about what happened to her in her life. And I perhaps approached it that way because way I see how lucky I have been to have grown up in a time when those things were changing and where paths for me opened that she never had the luck or the experience of confronting. And so that’s what made a difference for me as opposed to her life, her very unhappy life, and my grandmother’s very unhappy life. These were changes in, in women’s roles that had a very profound personal impact on me.

ZK: About the kind of contained in your time, I mean, there’s some standup comic— we’re in this weirdly golden age of standup comedy because of Instagram and Reels and TikTok, so it’s very easy to get lost when you’re wasting time watching all this, and there was somebody a few weeks ago I came across and they were, I think, making fun of the human tendency to always place your contemporary morality in some past circumstance. So people saying, you know, if I had been around in 1850, I would’ve fought against slavery, or if I had been around in 1939, I would’ve stood up against fascism. And the comic was saying, no, no, you wouldn’t have. [laughs] Meaning there’s always that, that post hoc tendency to feel like you would’ve been amongst what you had in retrospect defined as the operative morality. But of course, if everybody had thought it’d been the operative morality at the time that it wasn’t, then it would’ve been different. It’s because so many people believed in the lens that they believed in.

It is true, you were at a point where things were opening up. It is also true that as an individual kind of growing up into the ’60s, this idea of not being satisfied with the world as it is and kind of demanding it to change, whether that took the form of activism, or, in your case, probably more of that than others, but a lot of people, it would appear simultaneously and independently all coalesced in this same kind of collective reality. And I wonder what you think about that now. I wonder, is there just a mystery of that? Like, why does everyone suddenly, seemingly on their own, simultaneously come to a similar conclusion and then work together to try to make it real?

DF: Well, Zach, what you’ve just been saying in that comment is so much the essence of how one studies history and how one thinks about history. I mean, the first part of what you were saying, the standup comic part about people think they would be different and they would be heroes in a different time, that’s the essence of the scholarly inquiry of my life, which is how do people in societies that we see now as doing terrible things, how do they get up in the morning and live with themselves? And not so much, how do they revolt? How do they not revolt? How do you live with slavery? How do you get up in the morning and see the cruelty going on all around you and just live a life and think you’re a moral person? So that’s been one kind of emphasis of my scholarly work.

So the second part of your question, why did everyone come together and say at the end of the 1950s and into the ’60s that the horrors of of racial subordination in the United States needed to be challenged and the cruelties of the Vietnam War needed to be challenged? I believe that, in the book, I talk about this a lot, that the trust that my generation was asked to have in our elders and in the status quo was undermined significantly by changes in technology, by changes in the law, the Supreme Court cases, so that we began to see we had been told things that weren’t true.

And Sputnik plays a role in my book because I was 9 and 10 years old in 1957, and I was so terrified by this Russian satellite when I’d been told all my life that we were superior and we were technologically superior and morally superior, and we were in charge of the world. And suddenly, here’s this Russian satellite. We haven’t been able to put one up, and I’m terrified it’s gonna drop bombs on me. Quite literally, I slept on my back looking up because I thought it was gonna come on one of its circuits. It was gonna drop a bomb on me. And it was a betrayal. It was treated actually in the country more widely as a huge crisis. And Congress was saying, how did we not get there first? And why didn’t we put Sputnik up there? But for me, and I found as I’ve inquired, done research, pulled my college class, which has a Google Docs, a Google group, what did you think of Sputnik? For many people my age, it was a turning point in our understanding of how the world worked and whether we could trust our elders or whether we were being told things that were not true.

And so we began to question the whole racial arrangement as I referred to earlier. We began to see that American democracy, American justice, had huge flaws. And as we recognized that it wasn’t just, that we need to change them, we also thought, why were we misled? And so I think that sense of eroding trust was an important part of the ’60s.

And then I’d add something else to this, the sexual revolution, which divided us from our parents, as they, in many, many cases, felt that this kind of sexual freedom was immoral and dangerous and should not be permitted. And so we began to move away from them in our beliefs about that very personal part of the world around us.

ZK: You know, Emma and I actually had a conversation, we talked about Sputnik, and I don’t think there are probably a lot of podcasts where Sputnik has come up like twice in three weeks. I don’t know if that’s some sort of literally cosmic kismet, but part of the point of that conversation, and back to Emma’s question earlier about sort of the then and now and change and the mystery of how change happens. And part of the point of The Progress Network for those who are listening hadn’t have listened before probably know but bears repeating is this idea of like, ideas do create change, it’s just kind of mysterious how and when and in what way. I use the pebbles in the pond metaphor a lot. You know the ripples are going somewhere, you just don’t know who it’s gonna affect and when it’s gonna affect them.

DF: And there’s elements of this. I mean, the fact that so many more people were moving into higher education gave us a community. I mean, that’s sort of where a lot of this change and revolution of the ’60s emerged. And there we all were together, and we wouldn’t have been together in the same way when there weren’t so many people going to college. So they’re just different sets of factors that came together in a way led to the change that we’ve been talking about.

EV: It’s so interesting to hear you frame that as higher education opening up and forming a community because I feel like nowadays higher education on the one hand is more accessible than ever, more and more people are going to and have gone to college, and on the other hand, it feels like even more of a divide than ever. The education stratification, especially when it comes to politics, seems to be so stark. And the cost of college is such a prominent conversation. I mean, do you wanna offer any general thoughts on how you see the higher education landscape today?

DF: The higher education landscape? Well, I worry a lot about the attacks on universities. I think they are targeted. They are a kind of movement to try to discredit what is seen as a liberal part of society. They’re coming from the right, in many cases. There’s lots that higher education needs to change. I think costs and openness and accessibility are all issues that universities been working on and need to continue to work on. But I would just underscore that American universities are a wonder. They are admiring around the world in a way few other parts of American society positively. They have been magnets for people all over the world. They are sources of innovation and important technical developments that have come out of the research in universities. And they also have transformed so many student lives.

So I worry that we no longer see higher education as a public good, as something that’s good for all of society. We increasingly focus on how it’s good for this single individual who therefore has to pay for the whole thing. I mean, our social support for higher education in public higher education in the States has declined significantly since the time of the financial crisis in 2008. And therefore, these debts that students are facing are noticeable part due to the transfer of responsibility to the students themselves away from some sense that this is a wider social good. I also worry that we need to understand that education is about more than just you’re getting a job or your first job.

Now, Emma, I just read a piece that you wrote where you talk about the importance of technical education, and I completely agree with that. We need more people who are able to play those very important roles in society. But I think we also need to recognize that education is something that is about building citizens. It’s about expanding people’s horizons. It’s about making people part of a larger polity and community through the kinds of inquiries that will last them a lifetime beyond any single kind of job they may get.

And I would just note that for all the criticism of higher education, most of the people criticizing it are sending their children to college. And I worry a lot that we’re gonna have a sense of, okay, a certain element in society goes to college, but the rest of society, just let them go to technical school. And that we’re gonna have a kind of class divide around how education is seen to play a role in people’s lives. And that would be terrible. So as we criticize college, let’s think about the large role it plays beyond simply job training in addition to what it does in job training. I’m not saying that’s not important, but college is about more than training. It’s about something we call education, which is broader. So those are some of my reflections on the kinds of critiques and demeaning of higher education, which I, I mean, as you would expect, find quite dangerous. But I believe that it’s not just about the world in which I have lived as an adult, but rather the ability to witness the kind of impact it’s had on so many lives.

EV: I will say it was really interesting to me reading your book, how jealous I felt of your experience at Bryn Mawr. Not the curfew stuff and that kind of thing, not that part, but the quality of education it seemed like you received, and the attention that you received from the instructors there was just miles away from miles what I got. And I went to NYU, which is not the best school in the country, but a totally fine one. And I think that some of my feelings about colleges do come from a bit of a disillusionment about what the actual experience is like across different colleges in the US.

DF: One of the things that I have witnessed in my time at Harvard, I came in 2001, is a real transformation in the place of undergraduate education in life of the university, but also in the minds of the faculty. The faculty, most of them now, I would say, are just devoted to teaching. They really love the kinds of interaction with the undergraduates. They’re fascinated by all the approaches to teaching that are now talked about in a very overt way, what technology can do. I think that the pandemic in a way accelerated this because when people had to do it online, then they thought, oh, I could bring in a guest or I could bring go to the loo for doing my history of art class because it’s visual. I mean, it’s on video. And so teaching and student-faculty relationships around intellectual matters I think have changed significantly. There are many more small classes. You could probably get through Harvard sitting in the back row of a bunch of lectures if you really just wanted to be kind of a vegetable. But the opportunity is there to have a lot of interaction with faculty and a lot of attention. So I think there’s an awareness that there has been the kind of dissatisfaction you describe about what higher education represented in terms of teaching. And I think it’s changed significantly.

ZK: Yeah, it’s funny, my experience going to Columbia as an undergraduate, I mean, I was a teacher at Harvard, but I was never an undergraduate at Harvard. And the core curriculum was a big deal at Columbia and still is, that all students spent a couple of years reading the same curriculum, the great books, and even though the actual books read has changed and continues to change. But when I was an undergraduate there, it was almost entirely taught by tenured faculty, some assistant faculty who really wanted to, like, they thought that that was sort of part of their mandate, their profession. And until about 10 years ago, there was about a 20 year period where it was only taught by TAs like the way I taught at Harvard, so graduate students, because it was really hard to get faculty to commit to it, hard to get tenured faculty, hard to get assistant. So I think these things kind of go in waves and I’m a little hardened. Michael Crow who’s a member of The Progress Networks is the president of ASU and he’s also been really at the forefront of this is an educational institution and has a public role, kind of apropos of the things you’ve just said.

DF: I think faculty recognize that they have the opportunity for enormous influence through teaching, and that their scholarly articles may influence their field, but they’re sending young people out in the world. And this is just a marvelous way to spread the knowledge and the things they really care about. So I think that’s a factor in it as well.

EV: We’ll be right back after this break.

Welcome back to What Could Go Right?

ZK: You know, I was thinking of where you end your book, which is the election in 1968, and you cast a vote for Dick Gregory. To be fair, for people who don’t know, you’ve had a very successful established career. I mean, voting for Dick Gregory was an odd thing to do, even for somebody who was politically activated in 1968. You didn’t vote for Humphrey. That was unusual even at its time, even as everyone else was coalescing. And I’m just wondering, when you thought about your future at that moment in time, did you envision yourself going into politics more as an activist as opposed to channeling those passions into being an historian, having a public intellectual role? Would the 1968 you who voted for Dick Gregory be surprised at your subsequent life?

DF: Well, just on the Dick Gregory point, the Ivy League newspapers, as I cite in the book, overwhelmingly recommended and endorsed either Dick Gregory or Eldridge Cleaver. Bryn Mawr is not an Ivy League school, but in the student generation, there was a real disillusion with Humphrey. So it wasn’t as extreme a position to take as one might imagine just thinking about it in the abstract.

ZK: Although in Clarke County, you were one of two you said, right?

DF: Yes, yes. In my hometown, yeah, one of two. So could I have envisioned where— no, and that’s one of the things I tell undergraduates is that if someone had asked me or if I had said at that point, “I wanna be president of Harvard”, it would’ve been laughable. I wasn’t even allowed in the undergraduate library, I wouldn’t have been until my junior year. Just the roles for women were so limited. But as I grew older, things kept opening up for me in ways that I never would’ve anticipated.

I write in the book about how I was very uncomfortable with a violent turn in the student movement. And I think that bespeaks a sense of that I became very well aware of, which was I didn’t think I was gonna be on the barricades for my life. I thought I needed to find a way to enact my values in a manner that was more consistent with my contemplate temperament. And so I didn’t leave and worked in an institution. I worked for HUD for two years on programs to improve life in cities. There’ve been all these riots in cities in preceding years. This was a matter of concern to everybody. And so I went and thought, can government do something? But I quickly learned that I wanted to be back in the academy. I wanted to be thinking and studying and writing. And so I went back and thought, all right, I’ll get my PhD and then I’ll see where that leads. But it was always one step at a time because you couldn’t, as a woman at that time, imagine the kinds of paths that actually happily opened.

EV: I was just really curious what the experience for you was like writing a memoir since you have been a scholar and a historian, and the memoir obviously is very personal. I’m curious what the process was like.

DF: I wrote a lot of it during the pandemic, and I think that sense of isolation, I mean, I had my husband in the house, but other than that, there was no distraction to go have coffee with somebody or go to a meeting or go to a class. They were on Zoom. And so I got into this kind of bubble around the memoir that I believe sent me more deeply into myself. When I was contemplating the book, I really wanted to find an editor to work with who would push me towards the memoir form ’cause I knew it was different from anything I’d written before. And so his reactions of it needs to be more personal, you’ve gotta include the boyfriends. And sometimes he would say something like, it needs to be more personal. And I’d say, how? What am I not saying here that I should be saying? And so that was really helpful to have an interlocutor to kind of hold up to me what a memoir is and push me towards revealing things that, I mean, it’s not that I was keeping them secret, I just didn’t know what needed to be done. So that was really helpful.

ZK: You know, that leads me to the question of like, the role of the historian in society, leads me in that I was also thinking, one thing that struck me in my brief moment of being an academic historian is how much of the inner lives of so many people are lost. I mean, it’s not if they’ve left a lot of letters, presuming those letters are personal, which very much depends on the person. But I do wonder more than I wondered years ago about the role of history in a society that seems increasingly ahistorical. There’s always people who are gonna read history and they love history and there may be people who study history in university as something that’s part of their passion. But the idea of a collective narrative, the idea of a shared past seems ever more distant from our fractious present, which doesn’t make me less passionate about the potential role of history, but it does make me question what the actual role of it is particularly in an American society today,

DF: History is a way to travel outside yourself and see how people in different circumstances and different eras have confronted dilemmas that are like and unlike your own. In this book, in the memoir, one of the themes that I hope would be illustrated is the one of change, and that change has happened in my lifetime, and change can happen again. But we do have to recognize the dimensions of where we’ve been and where we’ve come and therefore understand what we might expect about where we’re going.

Another book I wrote about death in the American Civil War chronicles how a people faced a crisis that seems inconceivable in its impact on human life, but it’s about a dilemma that we all face, which is mortality, and how have people confronted that in different times, and how does that inform our own sense of the finite nature of our lives and what loss means and how something like the pandemic takes us back to an experience not unlike that of many 19th century Americans. So I see history as a way of expanding understanding of where we are now and incorporating people whose lives are over into the voices that can inform us about where we wanna go.

ZK: Well, thank you for that, Drew. It’s a lovely book. It’s a lovely memoir. I encourage people to read it as well as your other books that are more on the history of the 19th century, which is something that I think, again, we’ve had a few conversations with people about and is a constant source of meaningful and necessary reference. And thank you for this conversation today. I know Emma and I have been enriched by it, and I’m sure others have as well.

DF: Well, thank you to both of you.

EV: Thank you so much.

ZK: So, Emma, I just wanna say that’s Drew Gilpin Faust is the perfect podcast guest. Answers that are neither in soundbites nor soliloquys, thoughtful, both specific and general. Again, it just had a purely podcast interview level.

EV: Hit the nail on the head.

ZK: Exactly. Now, on the substance too. I mean, there’s a lot more we could have talked about. We didn’t even get into the way in which the title of her memoir came about.

EV: John Lewis reference, right?

ZK: John Lewis reference. She later got to know John Lewis, longtime civil rights activist and then congressman, and she talks about him getting I think an honorary degree at Harvard when she was president and talked about the role of the historian to create necessary trouble, that there’s a degree of, like, that’s what’s important. Not complacency, not sort of telling people what they want to hear, but telling people perhaps more what they need to hear. I think it’s a great title, but it’s also bestowed as a title in a perfect way.

EV: Yeah, I mean, we should say, I guess in today’s discourse, that she did ask permission from him to use the title. So just so everyone knows, it was kosher. I feel like we maybe didn’t hit on this in the podcast so much, like you said, but it is very clear that her personal life as in relationship with her civil rights activism and her feminism was very much so difficult, like for her mom and her dad. She just did not fit in with the prevailing expectations at that time. And it wasn’t like she had a family that was like, you go girl. She had a family that was like, what are you doing? [laughs]. And she separated them pretty early when she went off to boarding school. I forget how old she was, but, what, 12, 13? Something like that.

ZK: Yeah. I feel like more historians should write memoirs, and granted, that’s kind of counter to a lot of the academic training of an historian. And you, Emma, were pointing out that you felt that that individual narrative is far more prevalent today rather than the idea that we’re the product of larger forces that are shaping all of us. And like anything else, they’re both true. It’s like the nature and nurture question. And one of the advantages of an historian at best is bringing to bear the nature part, the nature being the larger society, the forces, the history that came before, and juxtaposing that with the nurture. And in many ways that’s what Drew Gilpin Faust is able to do. But it’s an example of what could be done more.

Anyway, it was a great conversation, and now it is time to turn to the news du jour, the stories that we’ve missed, the ideas and the things going on in the world that are constructive but buried under an avalanche of negative stories.

EV: Let’s start today with paid sick leave in the United States. People may or may not know that there’s no federal law that says that companies must provide their workers with paid sick leave in the United States. There was one that was briefly passed during the pandemic, but it expired. So this is something that’s been up to the states. And Axios just put out a report from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, so do with that information what you will. They want people to have paid sick leave. That’s what they’re going after here. They’re using numbers from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they have good news, what I would call good news, to report that the share of all workers in the US with paid sick leave has gone up since 2010. So 78% of all workers in the private sector can now take a paid sick day compared to 63% in 2010. And that’s because a bunch of states have passed their own individual laws. So, over the past 10 years, 15 states as well as Washington, DC, Zachary, do you wanna guess which state was the first to pass?

ZK: I don’t know. I mean, my record for correct guesses in this is probably about as good as the record of heads or tails. The guess is for the first state to pass paid sick leave, right?

EV: Yes.

ZK: That’s my Jeopardy question?

EV: It was in 2011. Yes.

ZK: 2011 for paid sick leave?

EV: Mm-hmm.

ZK: I mean, California is always a temping one. I’m just gonna go with California.

EV: It wasn’t, but California was a good guess ’cause they have passed paid sick leave, although I don’t know which year.

ZK: Okay.

EV: The first was Connecticut. It was also a C state, so we’re gonna give you points for that.

ZK: C state. So I get like maybe not half credit, but something. I mean, there’s only Colorado—

EV: 35% at least. [laughs]

ZK: Right. I mean, how many C states are there? There’s Colorado, Connecticut, California.

EV: California. Kentucky. I’m kidding, that’s a joke.

ZK: Kentucky. [laughs]

EV: That’s a joke. [laughs]

ZK: If you’re in a blue state, Kentucky is a C state. All right, so.

EV: So of these 15 states that have passed paid sick leave, most of them are blue except for— not all of them, most of them. But Missouri coming in with a paid sick time initiative on the ballot in 2024, which is interesting. So 63% to 78% is decent. There’s a lot of disparity hidden in that number. So, the report breaks it down from the bottom 10% to the top 10%. So the bottom 10% in terms of their income in 2010, 20% of them used to have paid sick leave, now it’s 39%. Huge change. It’s just that we started so low that it’s still not particularly impressive. Bottom 25% went from 33% coverage to 56%. And then if you wanna know what things look like more on the upper tier as far as income goes, the top 25% went from 84% coverage in 2010 to 94%. And the top 10% went from 87% to 96%.

So everybody is getting more access to paid sick leave. Of course there’s much further to go in the bottom 10% and the bottom 25%, but at some point, for this to keep going, red states are gonna have to go after this as well ’cause there doesn’t seem to be a lot of appetite for this to pass federally. But still, I mean the fact that we don’t wanna send people to work when they’re sick, I’m gonna call that progress.

ZK: Yeah. And clearly, as we learned during the pandemic, at least I think as a lot of people learned and I was one, that states have just immense control, authority, ability to shape the healthcare outcomes of people within state borders. And I don’t think we were as sensitive to that as we were sort of now after the pandemic. We certainly always were aware of that with education, that the federal role, particularly in K-12 education is very limited and has always been. And in the absence of federal mandates about healthcare, you’re left with a lot of variety state by state by state, just as you are with state tax rates. So it’s interesting to see how this plays out given that we are not going the direction some of our more affluent country peers have gone, which is things like paid sick leave, paid maternal leave, paid paternal leave are all givens as opposed to a patchwork of you get it somewhere, you don’t get it other places.

EV: Yeah. And I thought that we had made some progress over the pandemic as well as thinking, do we really want sick people at work giving us all of their germs anyway? But I’m not sure how much that stuck. When I was doing this research, I was thinking about last Christmas when I had norovirus, and I’m almost positive it came from a restaurant. And I was just thinking maybe this poor guy or woman had to go to work ’cause they didn’t have paid sick leave. And now what’s happened, they had norovirus, 10 other people just in my immediate radius had norovirus, please, let’s pass this on a federal level because we can do better than this. As you said, we can do more aligned with our peers.

ZK: Yeah, absolutely. All right, so what have we got next? Paid sick leave. Now?

EV: So we have paid sick leave and now we’re gonna talk about teens and smoking. Actually, not just smoking, teens and tobacco altogether. We had a super viral TikTok once on TPN about Gen Z and how they don’t drink or smoke or party nearly as much as previous generations. And a lot of people responded to that TikTok and they said, but what about vaping? I see everybody vaping. The CDC and the FDA just released the first week of November, their 2023 National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Audio Clip: A new report by the CDC shows fewer kids are using tobacco and vaping for the second year in a row.

Audio Clip: E-cigarette users down nationwide, at least among high school aged teenagers. A study by the CDC reveals that in 2022 to 2023, use declined about four points from 14% to 10%.

EV: And this decline, they say, was primarily attributable to reduced e-cigarette use, 14.1% to 10%. So they tell us that this is 588,000 fewer high school students who reported current use of e-cigarettes. So short term, that’s down. If you look at slightly longer term, vaping, your e-cigarettes went up in the past maybe five or so years, and then started to decline already one or two years ago. But even considering vaping, I’m not sure that everybody knows this, that the percent of teenagers in the United States that smoke or use tobacco is massively down from where it was 50 years ago. So even if we see short term increases or decreases, we’re talking about a completely different playing field than we were once in. So that’s high school. And middle school, it’s slightly different. There’s a small increase from 2022 to 2023 with tobacco, 4.5% to 6.6%, but still quite small. One small little fun fact is that the survey this year for the first time included flavors including like iced stuff like iced cherry. And so the federal government is keeping up with the times, guys, in case you were worried about that.

Last one for today, I wanted to mention this because I hadn’t seen it covered anywhere else. The New York Times had a really interesting story about divorce in the Philippines where it is illegal if you didn’t know.

Audio Clip: We want to be free. That’s the message of an increasing number of women in the Philippines who are trapped in marriages they cannot escape. That’s because divorce is illegal in the Catholic majority country. The only other place in the world where this is the case is the Vatican. Calls by activists are growing louder for divorce to be legalized, but they face a powerful opposition.

EV: It has a really strange and long history of being legal and illegal in the Philippines with American occupation, Japanese occupation, the New York Times goes further into detail about that. But generally, it’s been illegal in the country since 1950 except for Muslim citizens, which are 5% of the population, they’re allowed to divorce. The rest of the population cannot. Little quirks in the Philippines. But in recent months, the New York Times says the Senate committee there approved a bill on divorce for the first time in more than 30 years, the bill is now awaiting, they say, a second reading in the Senate, which lawmakers say could happen next year. So it’s not a sure thing, but it seems like there is a possibility that it could pass, which would be a massive change. Of course, divorce is very important for a lot of different reasons, fear in an abusive marriage, the fact that even if you just hate each other’s guts in the Philippines, you still need to get your spouse’s signature to buy a house or do anything, if you have kids. So it’s messy.

ZK: Yeah, I didn’t know. I had assumed most countries, divorce between two heterosexual adults is legal, clearly an incorrect assumption. It’s widely seen that while many people worry about divorce rates as eroding families and leading to all sorts of negative social consequences, that’s the kind of conservative argument, and I think almost every country, small C conservative. This is not making that as a generalizable about political conservatives. The the lack of optionality has clearly not served particularly women very well in any society, which is different than saying, is it good thing to stay together? Is it better to have a family unit for raising children? Does that lead to better long-term outcomes? Those are legitimate questions to ask in terms of should divorce be something one does easily or in a hard way. But that’s totally different than, should the state make it harder? Should one individually be more mindful of the consequences, particularly with young kids? Sure. I think that’s probably a discussion worth having, but that’s totally different than the coercive powers of the state telling you you can or can’t do something.

EV: Yeah. And the Times quotes a judge’s ruling from some woman who wanted to get her marriage annulled and spent a lot of money trying to do it, and they called marriage an insoluble institution by the state, something like that. Which, yeah, despite your point about the conversation of is there too much divorce happening? Should parents stay together for the sake of the kids? In these more extreme circumstances, as I mentioned, especially in the case of domestic violence, viewing marriage as something that is forever in the eyes of the government, something very different from the discussion that we’re having here. And I also didn’t realize that there were countries in the midst of having that discussion. So yeah.

ZK: There you go.

EV: There you go. So we leave that to people to form their own opinions about. I wonder too what requirements that you will need in the Philippines to get a divorce, if the bill is just how it would be in the US, where you can just kind of say I’d like one, or if it’s gonna be more strict. I imagine it would be more strict.

ZK: I mean, look, it is clearly the case, and we talk about this in terms of progress or regress, that authoritarian governments that rely on kind of traditional values are more likely to be against the expansion of LBGTQ rights, of divorce, of abortion, of contraception, of all sorts of things that characterize the mid-20th century, particularly, the opening up of what had been more traditionally closed frameworks as well as drug use, right? We talked about just now. And that there is a global tug of war going on where there are a bunch of countries that certainly utilize sort of social conservatism, traditional values, no divorce, no premarital sex, no abortion, no contraception, women’s place being home, family, kids.

So you do have this in Russia, you have this in Uganda. There are places where these things clearly are being pushed back from whatever advances were made. But we’ve tried to highlight a lot and you’ve highlighted a lot in the newsletter and we’ve discussed on the show, there are a lot of times where these things don’t line up and places that are otherwise politically dysfunctional or maybe more authoritarian minded can also be somewhat socially liberal. But it is something to I think look out for where you do have a tendency of more authoritarian governments to want to reinforce more rigid social mores and rules rather than the kind of fluidity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll that has characterized a lot of contemporary 20th and 21st century culture.

EV: Right? And let’s not forget that there’s probably a happy medium between those two things. I reminded myself to add in the Philippines, which is interesting, that they legalized contraception 10 years ago, so they’re kind of on a particular path, it seems.

ZK: Right.

EV: Maybe not to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but a little bit more open.

ZK: Yeah. Well, and as we just saw from our conversation with Drew Faust, the loosening of these rules has been absolutely essential to, I guess, liberating women or creating more gender-neutral societies where the opportunities for women are at least somewhat equivalent to men, which includes things not just like paid sick leave, but paid childcare and childcare leave. So not linear, not straight, not simple, not without a step back with the two steps forward. But if you’re to look at the world today versus the world a hundred years ago, and again, in light of our conversation with, Drew Gilpin Faust, you’d have to say that there has been more positive movement everywhere or almost everywhere in the world than not.

EV: A hundred percent. So that’s it for today.

ZK: That’s it. Let us know what you think. As usual, let us know your thoughts, comments, criticisms, suggestions, ideas for something else. I know these conversations, we’re just gonna keep reminding ourselves, are occurring against a backdrop of war and difficulty that is occupying a lot of mindshare for all of us. And we don’t have these conversations indifferent to those realities, but we also do think that we’re all able to hold multiple realities simultaneously, and that it’s important to remind ourselves of other things that are going on in the world. And this is our attempt to do just that. So thank you again, and we’ll hear you next week or you’ll hear us next week as the case may be.

EV: Thank you.

What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


Progress and Backlash

Featuring Fareed Zakaria

When we hear the word ‘revolution,’ we often think of the bloody conflicts of the past. But what constitutes a modern-day revolution within our current economic system and forms of government? Both parties within American politics have seen cultural revolutions and shifting value sets with each decade. Zachary and Emma discuss these changes with CNN host, journalist, and author Fareed Zakaria. His latest book, ‘Age of Revolutions,’ explores past and present conflicts that define the polarized and unstable age in which we live.

The Social Media Generation

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