David Gordon Reflects on Role of Historian in Inaugural Roger Howell Jr. Lecture

By Tom Porter
“In what follows, I'll describe what inspired me to research and tell the history of others and how we should tell those histories,” said David Gordon in his introductory comments.
dgordon in kresge
Watch David Gordon's lecture

Gordon, a scholar of Southern and Central Africa, was addressing colleagues, students, and other members of the Bowdoin community in his inaugural lecture as the Roger Howell Jr. Professor of History, given on March 7, 2024, in Kresge Auditorium.

“History, as a discipline and as a practice, generally began by telling stories of the self, of one's own society, in part as it encountered other societies,” he observed, drawing a contrast with the more modern discipline of anthropology, which has focused on “the foreign, the other.”

In recent decades, he said, anthropologists have become increasingly self-critical and aware of what it means to discuss other cultures, “and partly as a consequence they have begun studying themselves.” During the same period, continued Gordon, historians have also “embraced the study of other histories but sometimes without the critical reflections that have characterized contemporary anthropology.”

His talk reflected on what the ethical consequences might be for history as a discipline due to this change in emphasis. During the lecture, Gordon, who is originally from South Africa, looked back on his own journey as an historian, describing several of his research projects over the past two decades and some of the connections between them. “By doing so,” he said, “I'll describe how other histories have also become my history, but I also hope to show how certain innovations in Central African history-telling in the nineteenth century offer guidance to contemporary historians concerning studying other histories.”

The Roger Howell Jr. Professorship was established by the Board of Trustees in memory of Roger Howell Jr. (1936–1989), member of the Bowdoin Class of 1958, Kenan Professor of Humanities, and the tenth president of Bowdoin College. The professorship was created to recognize his personal and professional devotion to the College, its students, faculty, alumni, and friends.