Today marks the start of University Press Week. The goal this week is to highlight the extraordinary work of nonprofit scholarly publishers and their many contributions to culture, the academy, and an informed society. In 2016, our theme is "Celebrate Community," which is meant to include a range from academic or campus communities, to communities of readers across North America, to the very geographically-based communities in which we are based. To kick off the discussion as part of the UP Week Blog Tour, our history editor, Natalie Fingerhut, offers the following thoughts on how the Higher Education Division of University of Toronto Press has found a role for its authors in a like-minded community of seniors in downtown Toronto who are eager to learn more about why history matters.
Besides being the acquisitions editor in the Higher Education Division of University of Toronto Press, I also sit on the Board of Directors at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (MNJcc) in downtown Toronto.
Several years ago, I helped conduct a needs assessment of the MNJcc’s “Active 55 Plus” demographic. I asked them: “What kind of programming do you want the Jcc to provide to you?” These are the answers I received:
“We want stimulating lectures!”
“We want history and politics and current events and book clubs!”
“We want to learn. Just because we are in our 70s doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything new!”
“Our bodies may hurt, but our minds are intact!”
“We are lonely. We want to be with people learning!”
I kept their voices in my head.
In the fall of 2015, I collaborated with Lisa Roy, the dynamic programmer for our Active 55 Plus group, to launch a new series called “Why History Matters Today.” The series features authors I have published through University of Toronto Press. They come to the Jcc and lecture on historical events that remain relevant today.
Our first lecture in fall 2015 attracted about 80 people. It featured Steven Bednarski, a professor of medieval history at the University of Waterloo, who spoke about the relationship between climate change, the plague, and medieval anti-semitism. Next was award-winning Renaissance lecturer Kenneth R. Bartlett from the University of Toronto who spoke on Andrea Palladio and Palladianism, demonstrating to listeners Palladio’s influence on Venetian villas as well as on Toronto condos. The final lecture of fall 2015 was a Canadian Jewish historian, Professor Franklin Bialystok from the University of Toronto, who spoke about the history of the Jews of Canada.
At all lectures, the audiences were alive with questions and curiosity. The “Question and Answer” periods went into overtime. Project evaluations were all 10 out of 10.
The following spring, we had Trent University’s Dimitry Anastakis, who energetically dispelled the common perception that Canadian history is boring. Professor Harold Troper from the University of Toronto shared his vast knowledge of a shameful event in Canadian history, the participation of Canadian athletes in the Munich Olympic Games.
This past September, we welcomed back Kenneth R. Bartlett and Franklin Bialystok and asked them to focus on the theme of historical demise. Kenneth spoke about the demise of Renaissance Florence at the hands of a fiery populist preacher, Savonarola, and warned the audience that we were facing another fiery populist south of the border. Frank took on the contentious and emotional issue of the demise of one of Canada’s major Jewish organizations, the Canadian Jewish Congress.
After every lecture, people came up to thank me for helping to put this series together.
“Well,” I said. “I think history is important. It is a good teacher for anyone at any age.”
This belief in the value of history as a teacher is both my motivation for being a history editor and for engaging the Active 55 Plus group at the Jcc. As Steven Bednarski said in his inaugural lecture, it’s not that historians believe that if we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it. It’s more that history can help us predict outcomes: climate change leads to disease which results in scapegoating, and often scapegoating minorities.
History is also a warning bell. Kenneth R. Bartlett, in his lecture on Savonarola, outlined a list of factors that contributed to the rise of a religious populist—some of which contributed to Trump’s recent victory. History can also dispel popularly held beliefs about the past. Franklin Bialystok, for example, implored the largely Jewish audience to know their stories better to understand that Canadian Jewish history is not simply about anti-semitism, but rather a proud history of contribution and accomplishment.
I believe that knowing one’s past makes us more caring, more curious, and more critical citizens of today. And no one is too old to be caring, curious, or critical!
The “Why History Matters Today” series at the MNJcc is an example of two organizations sharing the same values and then working together to put those values into action. The Higher Education Division at University of Toronto Press believes in sharing knowledge by publishing accessible books for generations of students. The MNJcc believes in providing accessible programming for older generations. Together, these two communities have joined forces to provide accessible programming devoted to the sharing of knowledge.
History Editor, Higher Education Division
For more great content during University Press Week, follow the hashtag #UPWeek on Twitter. And don't forget to check out other stops on today's UP Blog Tour, including Fordham University Press, Seminary Co-op Bookstores, Athabasca University Press, and the University Press of Florida.