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Examined Life
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Essays by

Scott Spillman


Charismatic Models

There is, and always has been, a vanishingly thin line between charismatic democratic rulers and charismatic authoritarians.

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These Truths

For educated liberals, Jill Lepore is perhaps the most prominent historian in America today.

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Potentially Much Better

In the summer of 2001, when the issue of embryonic stem cell research was one of the most important questions confronting his young administration, George W. Bush named Leon Kass—the physician, philosopher and author of The Hungry Soul, a book about “eating and the perfecting of our nature”—to head the newly created President’s Council on Bioethics.

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Conflict and Consensus

In 1953, the historian Daniel Boorstin testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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The Problem of Slavery

Is slavery a sin? What exactly constitutes our “full and complete humanity”? Because he considers such questions not just historically but also philosophically, Davis’s research opens out, like 12 Years a Slave, into broader topics such as freedom, forgiveness, and the possibility of transcendence. Slavery, Davis saw, was a profoundly human problem, and therefore to reckon with slavery would mean to reckon with human nature—that is, to reckon with the kind of being that was simultaneously capable of perpetrating such a system and also of coming to see the need to dismantle it.

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The Mansion of Happiness

This is the historian’s fallacy: to think that by using history to show what really happened in the past, the dispassionate but benevolent historian can free the world from harmful delusions, allowing us to implement clear policies for an improved future.

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Higher Education?

Electives and specialization worked against the old fixed curriculum and the college community, but they were enabled by an even greater change in American higher education: its expansion and democratization. More students in the late nineteenth century meant there could be more professors teaching a wider variety of courses—and those courses would have tuition-paying bodies in the seats.

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American Dreamers

The New Left’s insistence on personal authenticity, which drove its passion for freedom and its abhorrence of authority, reduced politics, and especially leftist politics, to a matter of identity.

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Revolutionary History

Wood uses history to take our myths out of the air and secure them, in somewhat humbled form, on a more solid foundation. By giving shape and structure to our idea of America, he allows us to choose well…

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