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Teaching as a Political Act

History Professor Bill Smaldone is a man of mirth, but there's one thing he's completely serious about: Teaching. "I regard teaching as a highly political act," Smaldone says.

"That's not to say you should inculcate your political perspective, but you should pass on a critical curiosity about the world. Creating an educated citizenry is one of the most fundamental things you can do to create a vibrant political life in America. If we have knowledge, we operate from a place of strength; if not, other people will run the world for us."

Smaldone has had a lot of practice helping run his small neighborhood of the world. He served as president of the Salem City Council, where his biggest concern was not his next academic publication, but constituents who couldn't afford heat in the winter and infrastructure that needed an infusion of cash. He now chairs the Southeast Salem Neighborhood Association, which promotes neighborhood parks and public safety, reminds older folks about Meals on Wheels, and mediates with developers.

Smaldone also chaired the Socialist Party of Oregon in 1996, the year the party ran a full slate of candidates, and served on the central committee of the Pacific Green Party of Oregon after the two parties merged with a common platform of social justice and restoration of the environment.

"To be a socialist you have to be an optimist at heart," Smaldone says. "I believe we are equipped with the ability to feel compassion for each other. Socialism is based on cooperation, emphasizing not only the individual but also the community. If there are crass differences between social classes, it can lead to the rise of violent political extremism."

Smaldone's community engagement informs his most recent book, Confronting Hitler: German Social Democrats in Defense of the Weimer Republic, 1929-1933. The book is set at a moment of historical significance. The most significant depression in world history had ransacked global economies, and in Germany 6 million were unemployed amidst widespread business failures. The bankrupt economy provided fertile ground for Adolf Hitler's violent ideology to take root.

"Americans know a lot about the bad guys of World War II," Smaldone says. His book recognizes Germany's Social Democrats -- including politicians, trade unionists and women's movement leaders -- who resisted the rise of the Nazis, and examines their defeat from the perspective of individuals enmeshed in political struggle.

"It's true that individuals can play a critical role in shaping history, but people don't act in isolation. Germany's Social Democrats wanted to build a world that you and I could be comfortable in, one based on social justice and democracy, but they operated in volatile social circumstances they couldn't control. Their failure helped unleash World War II and the later Cold War.

"Democratic socialist movements in the 20th century had revolutionary goals, but aimed to get there through democratic means. They sought to implement change, not through the barrel of a gun, but through peaceful measures. They were run over because politicians on the other side were willing to cast aside democratic rules and resort to brutal tactics. Their failure raises fundamental questions about how to effect change within democracies."

The messy, gray areas of history are what intrigue Smaldone. "In my high school American history was taught as a march toward consensus," he says. "I became more interested in European history because it was presented as chaotic.

"The next step won't always be better. History does not move in a straight line. That's why we have a responsibility to be engaged in politics, to change the trajectory."

When Smaldone was making choices about what to do with his life, he sought a profession that "wouldn't compartmentalize my life." The overlapping political acts of teaching, research and community engagement have given him a life of great satisfaction.

"Historians have an archaic, medieval kind of job," Smaldone says. "We're an old fashioned guild. We don't punch a clock, and the danger isn't that we work too little, but that we work too much." That suits Bill Smaldone just fine.



10-01-2008