A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Bringing Social History to the Forefront

March 18, 2011

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Peter Stearns

When Mason provost Peter Stearns was in graduate school at Harvard, social history was in its infancy, yet the future historian wasted no time immersing himself in the field.

“Social history was an invitation to look at aspects of history not seriously considered before,” Stearns says. “The idea that we could learn more about the past if we extend the human record beyond politics, wars, and the formal intellectual life really excited me.”

Stearns was only the second person at Harvard to choose social history as his field of study. He then spent the next decade focusing on the history of the working class.

“I was interested in how groups of people adapted to the huge change that the Industrial Revolution brought—workers, middle class, women,” he says.

For many scholars, their dissertation is often their first book. Not Stearns. It was actually his third. He published his first book, European Society in Upheaval: Social History since 1800, in 1967 when he was four years out of graduate school, and he has continued producing scholarly books at a rapid pace. In fact, Stearns has the distinction of being one of the few people in the world to have published more than 100 books. As of January 2011, he was awaiting publication of his 112th book, Satisfaction NOT Guaranteed: Dilemmas of Progress in Modern Society, which will be quickly followed by book 113, World History: The Basics.

While many of his books deal with world history, a significant number provide an interesting historical lens with which to view such popular culture topics as parenting, dieting, anxiety, being “cool,” and even death. Some of his titles include Revolutions in Sorrow: The American Experience of Death in Global Perspective, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West, and American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style.

It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Stearns began exploring this area of history. “I became interested in choosing social topics based on current issues then looking back at the past,” says Stearns who has served as provost at Mason since 2000. “I realized you could make a useful and illuminating connection between the past and the present, and you could also make comments about current conditions based on the past.”

One reason Stearns is published so widely is that he chooses topical subjects. For example, Anxious Parents: The History of Modern Childrearing in America is about “helicopter” parents, but it was written before the term was even coined.

“I don’t use the term in the book because I didn’t know it then, but that is what that book is about,” he says. “History is relevant and useful. I am really interested in picking topics that involve current behaviors that are interesting and how history can help us understand them.”

Over the years, he has provided a historical perspective for dieting with Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West; the post-September 11, 2001, world with American Fear: The Causes and Consequence of High Anxiety; and jealousy with Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History.

Of all the volumes, Stearns doesn’t really have a favorite, but if he had to single one out, it would be American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style, published in 1996.

“I think American Cool was my most significant single contribution,” he says. “I have had a number of books that have been reasonably widely cited and used, but that’s the one that most fundamentally shaped the field in emotions history.”

Stearns has also written a number of textbooks, which he says he enjoys writing. “Not all the time but some of the time,” he quickly adds. Facilitating the teaching of history is a frequent motivator of his work.

“I do find pleasure in putting things together and trying to convey the big picture,” he says. “One of the things I really love to do is to take other people’s work, and sometimes my own, and attempt a new synthesis, putting things together in a fashion that I hope makes history more intelligible.”

Despite the pressures of serving as the chief academic officer of a major public university, Stearns continues to do the scholarly work almost as a diversion.

“Being able to write a little bit every day is actually relaxing for me,” he says. “Also, it helps keep some of the other issues in perspective and in balance. And I hope, every so often, I do have something to say.”

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