John Majewski: Understanding the World through History

History has always been John Majewski’s passion. When he was just a boy, Majewski began collecting World War II and Civil War books. Today he is a scholar and professor of history at UC Santa Barbara whose research considers the political economy of the United States around the time of the Civil War.

Late in his college career, Majewski decided to turn his passion for history into his college major and career path. Majewski says that the Institute for Humane Studies played an important role in that decision by emphasizing the importance and interdisciplinary nature of history.

John Majewski

The Institute always stressed that we can’t understand the present unless we understand the past. We can’t understand where we’re at now, unless we understand how we got there.

– John Majewski

Majewski first encountered the Institute for Humane Studies and the classical liberal tradition when he was in high school. IHS was running a high school debate program with Gregory Rehmke at the time, and Majewski participated in the program.

From a high school debate perspective, Majewski saw liberalism as “a really inviting way of understanding the world” with interesting solutions to various problems. “That also fed into my passion for history as well, and in a way that first introduction to the philosophy and history and economics of liberalism was really important in shaping my future research career,” Majewski added. “The different issues that I’ve investigated you can all trace back to those kinds of initial influences.”

John Majewski (left center) and Tyler Cowen (center) at an IHS event circa 1985.

Once in college, Majewski participated in his next IHS program: Summer Seminars. Majewski says the seminars opened up his imagination to the possibility of an academic career. “The Institute for Humane Studies was really important in opening up this world of academia and making academia a real career option,” he said. Majewski has since returned to Summer Seminars to teach the next generation of scholars about classical liberal ideas in history.

“One of the things I’ve always appreciated about IHS Summer Seminars is that the conversations and discussions are quite spirited,” Majewski said. “You have faculty members coming in with different points of view, you have students coming in from different points of view, and they’re also coming in from different disciplinary perspectives as well.”

Majewski’s relationship with IHS continued through graduate school, when he attended the London School of Economics and studied history under Joyce Appleby at UCLA. He participated in multiple fellowships with the Institute, where he received academic advising, financial support, and a community of dedicated scholars. “The Institute for Humane Studies provided fellowship support that was really essential to me and made it financially possible for me to take on studies,” Majewski said.

Majewski also met a future coauthor at the Summer Graduate Research Fellowship program in 1988. Daniel Klein, an economist at George Mason University and a fellow IHS alumnus, worked with Majewski on a number of papers on turnpikes as an example of early corporations. “What stands out about my experience with IHS is that there is that sense of connection and that sense of community that IHS has fostered over the years and has really been an important source of support for me,” Majewski said.

John Majewski (front row, left) with other IHS Summer Graduate Research Fellows in 1991.

Today Majewski particularly enjoys participating in IHS Discussion Colloquia, which gather an interdisciplinary group of scholars together to discuss a topic of interest like capitalism. “Those kinds of events, I think, are really meaningful for me now because they really present this opportunity to think in interesting, interdisciplinary ways about a certain topic.” Majewski believes that bringing different disciplines together—from law and philosophy to economics and history—can enhance each discipline.

I think that interdisciplinary approach by the Institute for Humane Studies was a big influence on me. I really think an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship—especially in the classical liberal and broader liberal traditions—is just so important.

– John Majewski

While working in academic administration, Majewski realized just how important interdisciplinary understanding is in the academy and beyond. After chairing the history department at UC Santa Barbara, he took on another challenge by becoming the university’s dean of humanities and fine arts.

“I always considered myself interdisciplinary when I was in the history department,” Majewski said, “but I think I really became much more interdisciplinary as a dean, when I suddenly had to learn about how disciplines operated that I had no experience with.”

Majewski is excited to apply what he has learned from his experience as dean to his research and teaching roles. He says that as dean he learned how different disciplines operate, what they value, and how he could help them succeed. “And I think it really helps shape my research,” Majewski said, “making it broader and more inclusive, and tackling topics that I don’t think I would have even considered without that experience of being dean.”

Majewski says it is a privilege to be an academic with the opportunity to think independently, make connections through research, and share important ideas with students and readers. “I love putting what I see as my own together and trying to make it as a persuasive story as possible,” Majewski said. “And that’s something I always appreciate about the academic life.”

Majewski not only incorporates his research into his teaching, but also integrates what he has learned from teaching into his research. He warns that it is easy to lose sight of the big picture while diving into the details of research.

“When you do research, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds; It’s easy to get lost in your own field and in the details of the archives and the stories that you find so fascinating,” Majewski said. “And that’s why it’s important so important to teach as well as research because that teaching puts that bigger picture back firmly in the center of your own work in terms of: why is this important and what does this really mean?”

When it comes to teaching, Majewski is most passionate about the anti-slavery movement, the abolitionist movement, and the coming of the American Civil War. He finds the abolitionist movement particularly fascinating because they sought to persuade others, at their own risk, that slavery is inherently evil. Abolitionists were despised in the North as well as the South at first, but they did not give up the fight for liberty. “They really had a deep-seated belief that racism was inherently evil,” Majewski said, “and they continued to fight against slavery, even though the odds were stacked against them.”

Majewski explains that while abolitionists did not succeed at first, their work contributed to an anti-slavery ideology in the North that eventually triumphed with the election of Abraham Lincoln and then the abolition of slavery during the Civil War.

I find that story really inspiring, and I like to convey that story of the abolitionists to my students: Of how a small group of people devoted to ideas of liberty—and taking liberty for all seriously—can change the course of history.

– John Majewski

The ultimate aim of his research, Majewski says, is to shed light on the origins of capitalism, origins of liberalism, and ways in which both continue to shape the world. He has published multiple books that intersect with those topics, and he is currently expanding his research to explore the relationship between creativity and capitalism.

Summer Seminars 1999

His first book, A House Dividing: Economic Development in Pennsylvania and Virginia before the Civil War, which started out as Majewski’s dissertation, examines the origins of capitalism and early corporations in the North before the Civil War began. In his second book, Modernizing a Slave Economy: The Economic Vision of the Confederate Nation, Majewski expands upon those themes by examining the economic vision of the slaveholding South. He explains that the Confederate vision represented a very authoritarian, anti-liberal vision.

“There’s a tradition that views the slave South as devoted to free trade and to libertarian principles, and I argue very much against that,” Majewski said. “I see the slave South as the source of political authoritarianism and slavery running directly counter to the American liberal tradition.”

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more spotlights on scholars, faculty partners, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

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