The Law, the Blog, and the Historian

By Alan Ball

I started a blog on the Wisconsin Supreme Court a few years ago at the urging of my wife, an appellate lawyer whose career has ranged through both the civil and criminal fields. Apparently, no one had been providing statistical studies of the Wisconsin Supreme Court of the sort created by SCOTUSblog about the United States Supreme Court, and it was suggested—“even you could do this”—that I have a try.  For my part, this seemed like an interesting change of pace as well as a challenge, so I enrolled in a statistics class here at Marquette during my last sabbatical and launched SCOWstats—SCOW standing for Supreme Court of Wisconsin—(

scotusNow, a few years later, I’m still finding my way in some respects, but the response to the blog has been sufficiently encouraging to maintain my enthusiasm for the project. From time to time, Journal Sentinel reporters have relied heavily or entirely on SCOWstats posts for articles of their own, and SCOWstats has been the subject of articles in such publications as Milwaukee Magazine and Minnesota Lawyer.1  Other groups and publications across the ideological spectrum have circulated SCOWstats posts as well, most often via Twitter, though also by means of links to SCOWstats on their own sites.  SCOWstats “followers” include the Federalist Society, the Wisconsin Law Journal, and the State Bar of Wisconsin (whose “Inside Track” publication has drawn on SCOWstats posts for appraisals of recently-concluded supreme court terms). For someone like me, accustomed to the extended gestation period of scholarly volumes, the pace of creation, and especially response, has been exciting.

Along with highlighting SCOWstats overviews of supreme-court terms, the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Bar’s publications have cited posts on such issues as the voting patterns of justices in Fourth-Amendment cases, the question of whether the late Justice Crooks really was a “swing vote,” the degree of polarization among the justices, and the dramatic decline in the number of decisions filed in recent years. Most encouraging of all have been the opinions written by Supreme Court Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley that included citations to SCOWstats in support of their arguments.

From the outset, an important goal has been to provide readers and myself with a sense of how unusual—or not—the voting and other behavior of the justices might be. Initially I sought to furnish some perspective by comparing the performance of current justices with that of their colleagues in earlier decades, and with this aim in mind I plan to continue pushing farther back into the court’s past.  However, I’ve also begun to explore other vantage points from which to assess the work of the justices in Madison, which has led me most recently to weighing the work of the Wisconsin Supreme Court against that of supreme courts in neighboring states.  To this end, the first of two posts comparing Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appeared in September, with the second planned for publication in October.  I’m hoping that in the months to come I will have time to expand this spectrum to include the supreme courts of other states.

In the more distant future, I’d like to do something regarding sentencing disparities for various ethnic groups. Although this would have a less direct connection to the supreme court, the present Chief Justice has commented on the topic, and that could serve as a sufficiently-green light for me.  I’m also thinking that during my next sabbatical, I’d take a formal class or two on coding to supplement (that is, eclipse) my current rudimentary knowledge.  If nothing else, this would be a stimulating challenge, and it could equip me to do more with the visual side of the project.

Meanwhile, SCOWstats is sponsoring a fantasy league in which teams of law firms gain points based on the frequency of their appearances before the justices and their degree of success in representing their clients.  Now that our inaugural season is in the books following this summer’s (virtual) awards banquet, I’m sure that the Wisconsin legal community is anxiously awaiting the Selection Committee’s winter meeting, when the rosters for the 2017 season will be determined.

1 Matt Hrodey, “The Truth on Trials. A Historian’s Unique Perspective” Milwaukee Magazine, July, 2015; Mike Mosedale, “Report: High Courts in Minnesota, Wisconsin a Study in Contrasts,” Minnesota Lawyer, July 7, 2016.

Alan Ball is professor of history at Marquette University. He teaches course on Russian and Soviet history and on the Cold War.  He is author of Russia’s Last Capitalists: The Nepmen, 1921-1929 (1987); And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918-1930 (1994); and Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-Century Russia (2003).

Renewing, Revising, and Reviving: The Scholars’ Workshop

By Bryan C. Rindfleisch

Our colleague, Bryan Rindfleisch, was one of just six non-tenured historians who had the opportunity to join the Omohundro Institute for Early American History & Culture this summer to institutework on his manuscript. The Omohundro is a think-tank for scholars of early America, based out of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the course of a month, Rindfleisch workshopped his manuscript – which focuses on the intimate dimensions of family, community, and power/colonialism in the Native South, British Empire, and Atlantic World in the eighteenth-century – with the Omohundro historians and staff. The following blog is a reflection on his time at the Omohundro:

Duran and I

By Michael E. Donoghue

Duran and his LionI first met Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, the famous “Hands of Stone” whose biographical movie of the same name has just been released this month (click here to watch a trailer), when I walked by his ornate home in the El Carmen section of Panama City on the way to a taxi to the National Library. He was getting into a car, surrounded by family and handlers, and I simply waved to him and called out “Buenos dias, campeon!  (“Good morning, champ!”)  He smiled and waved back and once even shook my hand with a grip so hard, it hurt. Whenever I walked by his home, I was always looking for Durán’s 700-pound lion Walla, which had been given to him as a cub. The champ would sometimes wrestle Walla in his backyard as a full grown lion until the Panamanian government forced him to put Walla in a zoo.

I met Durán on two other occasions several years later when I interviewed him for a research project. I was in the company of Rubén Carles, former economic minister of Panama. We met the boxer in his raucous restaurant/bar in the El Cangrejo section of the capital city. Even at the age of sixty-three, and wearing a scraggly beard, Durán still emanated the aura of a legend with penetrating dark eyes and a powerful physical presence.   He gave me the threatening glare he often directs at strangers who want something from him.  He warmed up after Rubén vouched for me.  Durán also respected the fact that I knew a lot about his career, especially his relationship with General Omar Torrijos, the military leader of Panama from 1968-1981 (he negotiated the 1977 treaty that transferred the Canal from the United States to Panama).  Torrijos was a sort of father figure to Durán; the latter had grown up on the streets, in horrendous poverty, as one of thirteen children. His father, a Mexican-American in the U. S. military, had abandoned him when Roberto was very young.

Durán rose out of that poverty to build an amazing boxing career. Over thirty-three years—from the age of seventeen to fifty—he boxed 119 fights, winning 103 (seventy of them knockouts). He won five world titles and established himself as one of the three or four greatest nationalist heroes in Panamanian history, as well as a favorite of boxing aficionados around the world. Ranked by several boxing journalists as one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters who ever lived (“The Fifth God of War,” one called him), Durán especially dominated the lightweight division (135 pound class), which he held for an unprecedented seven years (1972 to 1979).  He then went on to win the welterweight crown (147 pound class) in 1980, the junior middle weight title (154 pound class) in 1983, the middle weight championship (160 pounds) in 1989, and, finally, at the age of forty-eight, a share of the super middle title (168 pounds) in 2000.

Durán’s unique persona—ferocity mixed with empathy—intimidated his opponents but endeared him to his countrymen, who called him “Cholo” (“Indian”). They saw him as a representative of the mestizo majority of his country, the mixture of Hispanic and indigenous heritage that many Panamanians embrace. While researching my book on the Panama Canal Zone, Borderland on the Isthmus (2014), I came across Durán often in the literature as the personification of Panamanian pride and national identity during the long struggle to establish true sovereignty in the wake of U.S. dominance in the Canal Zone, a colonial enclave. Their second-class status offended Panamanian dignity and impeded the construction of an authentic nation.

When I sat down to interview “El Cholo,” he brushed off many of my questions with scowls and impatience—and an occasional playful though fearsome grin. You always had the feeling when you spoke to Durán and he looked at you that way that he might just take a swing at you. Durán was used to fielding inquiries about his fights so he seemed pleased when I switched my approach and asked him about something different: his friendship with the General Torrijos.  He told me the general would provide him with training facilities, even putting him on the island of Contadora, away from liquor, rich food, and other distractions while getting ready for a fight.   But the general was also very kind and generous to him and treated him like a favored son providing him with flights, vacations, and homes when he needed to get back to Panama or wanted some down time from his tough fight schedule.  The general even forgave him when Durán infamously quit in the ring during his rematch with American boxer “Sugar Ray” Leonard in November 1980 (Durán had upset Leonard earlier in the year). The second fight was the celebrated “No más” fight. The overweight champ had failed to train properly for the bout and grew frustrated with Leonard’s agile, fluid boxing style.  Leonard had not fought that way in their first fight.  Much of Panama turned against their hero when he quit in the ring, saying “No más” (“no more”).  Giving up in that way was an unimaginable violation of the macho code that Durán had upheld his whole life.

Durán regained his nation’s love and admiration when he came back and won another championship three years later. But tears welled up in his eyes when he spoke of his sorrow at Torrijos’ shocking death in a still controversial plane crash in 1981 before Durán had a chance to fully redeem himself in his mentor’s eyes.  You could sense the love he still held for Torrijos who had nurtured and championed young Roberto earlier in his career.  He still misses the general deeply.  These reflections shaped the writing of my essay “Robeto Durán, Omar Torrijos, and the Rise of Isthmian Machismo” that was published last year in David M.K. Sheinin’s (ed.) Sports Culture in Latin American History (2015).

Roberto Duran and Me IIThe last time I saw the champ was in January 2016. I was returning from dinner with friends and stopped at his tavern.  Durán is not there every evening but he was in fine form that night drinking rum, dancing to the salsa band in his club, even getting up and singing with them which he insisted I do as well.  I danced and drank with him and his family and was surprised that he remembered me – and even called me “Miguelito,” my “apodo” (nickname) in Panama.  The snapshot of the two us is from that night.  It offers a glimpse of the both the danger and the humanity that Durán exudes.  I look forward to seeing the movie about his life in the coming days.  Viva Durán!  And Viva Panama!

Michael E. Donoghue is associate professor of history and author of Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). His current research is Race, Gender, and Identity in U.S. Military-Cuban Relations 1941-1964, which will examine the conflicts and intersections of race, identity, and gender that emerged between US military and the Cuban people from World War II until the 1959 collapse of the Batista regime – and how these associations contributed to the anti-American atmosphere of the 1953-1959 Cuban Revolution.

Welcome to the Department: Distinguished Visitors and New Colleagues

By James Marten, Department Chair

Although we tend to think of our department as a dozen-and-a-half men and women who come to Marquette as young PhDs, earn tenure, and stay happily ever after, that isn’t, of course, entirely accurate. It’s true that we have fewer adjunct faculty than any other history department I know, and that we also have much less turnover among the tenure-track faculty than most departments—several members of the department have been at Marquette for over thirty years, while several more have been here over twenty!

But there are other ways of coming to the department, and this year, more than ever, we have a number of visiting faculty who have taken less-traditional routes to Marquette. So, in this first blog of the 2016-2017 academic year, I’d like to welcome a number of historians who join us this year.

First up is J. Patrick Mullins, who is actually a new tenure-line faculty member.  Patrick comes to us after teaching for a decade at Marymount University in Virginia.  A spmullinsecialist in the intellectual and religious history of the American Revolutionary period; his first book, Father of Liberty: Jonathan Mayhew and the Principles of the American Revolution, will be published by the University Press of Kansas in 2017.  Among other things, Patrick will lead our public history and internship programs.

We also have three distinguished visitors for at least part of this year. Sharon Leon of George Mason University is the Association of Marquette University Women’s Chair in HumaLeonnistic Studies.  In addition to teaching a course on digital history and participating in the digital scholarship symposium we are co-sponsoring with the library on September 29, Sharon will deliver the annual Boheim Lecture on September 21 at 6:00 in the Beaumier Suites BC (the lower level of the Raynor Library).  She will speak on “Re-Presenting the History of Jesuit Slaveholding in Southern Maryland.”

The department also has the pleasure to host an Arnold L. Mitchem Dissertation Fellow, Sergio Gonzalez, who is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Mitchem Fellows provide time for emerging scholars to finish their dissertations, obtain Gonzalezprofessional mentoring, and gain experience teaching.  Sergio’s dissertation is “’I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me’: Latino Immigration, Religion, and Community Formation in Milwaukee, 1920-1990.”  In spring 2017 he will teach an undergraduate readings course on race and citizenship.

The department will host another dissertator, Michael A. Guzik, SJ, who as a Wade Professor will spend most of his time finishing his dissertation on Catholicism in Poland Guzikat the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.  But he will also teach a western civilization course in the spring.  Wade Professors—all of whom are Jesuits—can be a junior scholar, like Michael, or they can be a distinguished senior scholar like the department’s last Wade Professor, Oliver P. Rafferty, SJ, who taught Irish history her a few years back.

 A second Jesuit colleague will begin his two-year regency this fall. Fr. Stephen J. Molvarec, a recent recipient of a PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame, will be a Postdoctoral Fellow.  He will teach two sections of the Western Civilization Molvarecsurvey and two sections of HIST 2001, our course for honors students, in the spring.  He will also revise his dissertation, which explores the Carthusian Order in late medieval France.  After completing his Regency here at Marquette, Steve will go on for additional theological training, and then go on the job market.

Finally, Sam Harshner will be Assistant Director of the Center for Urban Research, HarshnerTeaching and Outreach, which is currently housed in the History Department (under acting director James Marten).  In addition, Sam—who is one of our own PhD students, studying early American history with Kristen Foster—will teach an American history survey and run the internship program in the Department of Political Science.

We’re delighted that Marquette is part of these new colleagues’ professional journeys, however long or short their stays in the department will be.

A Year in the Life of the History Department

By Jim Marten, Department Chair

When we started this blog several years ago, we promised to explore the “journeys” we historians take—literally and figuratively—while doing our jobs. We’ve made a custom of posting a blopictureg at the end of the academic year that provides glimpses of the professional and personal expeditions that the faculty and students that make up our little community have undertaken during the last twelve months.  As always, it’s been a trip!

Every year sees life passages of our faculty and students. This year Julius Ruff announced his retirement (although we still have him part-time for three years), but we gained Patrick Mullins, a new faculty member who writes about colonial and revolutionary America and will, among other things, be responsible for our public history and internships.  Several PhD students have completed their dissertations and moved on to other places and jobs, while our MA students will go on to jobs or to PhD programs in Wisconsin, Washington, DC, New York, and California.

Faculty members have, over the last year (with a few more trips coming this summer), conducted research, given papers at conferences, gone on study trips, or attended workshops all over the world, including Ireland (Tim McMahon and Bryan Rindfleisch), Rome (both Julius Ruff and Lezlie Knox!), Munich (Peter Staudenmaier), England (Lezlie, again), El Salvador (Laura Matthew), France (Bryan, again), Panama (Mike Donoghue), and Kazakhstan (Dan Meissner). And Mike Wert will spend the entire fall 2016 semester researching in Japan.

Members of the undergraduate class of 2016 will, of course, head out on their own adventures; several will teach English—in Japan, China, Azerbaijan, and to a Native American tribe in Alaska. They will attend graduate school in Edinburgh, Scotland, Washington, DC, and Las Vegas. And at least one will serve his country as an officer in the US Navy.

Finally, visiting speakers brought the world to us, with a series of speakers examining the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, the Casper Lecturer exploring current events in Syria, and other speakers examining the opening of US/Cuban relations and the Hizmet movement in the Muslim world.

There’s much more in this year’s newsletter—research and publications, awards, among other things—which you can read at

Have a great summer!

Commemorating Easter 1916

By Timothy G. McMahon

On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, nearly 1,500 men and women in Dublin launched what came to be known as the Easter Rising, the prelude to the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21. Over the ensuing days, several hundred more in counties Galway, Louth, Meath, and Wexford joined in this effort to create an independent republic. Plans had called for even more to participate, but a series of events—including the failed landing of an anticipated arms shipment from Germany and a countermanding order from the chief of staff of the paramilitary group being used surreptitiously by the rebel leaders to carry out their design—thwarted that larger enterprise. Nonetheless, the rebels held out for six days before surrendering.

Among the factors that led to greater retrospective sympathy for them, three stood out. The first was the harsh response from the United Kingdom leadership, which was understandably shaken and angered by such an event on the home front while the country was embroiled in the Great War: Rebel leaders faced courts martial and execution, while nearly 3,500 others—many of whom had had nothing to do with the Rising—faced arrest and periods of imprisonment that lasted from a few weeks to nearly 15 months. The second was the recasting of the executed leaders as martyrs, aided in part by the glossing over of their often radical (if not fully anti-clerical) pasts by a new generation of leaders


An original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on display in Dublin.

who appealed to the Catholic strain that had motivated many Irish nationalists of the pre-Rising period. And the third was the breadth of their political idealism, expressed in their Proclamation of the Irish Republic, drafted by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly and read outside of the rebel headquarters in the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin at the start of the Rising. Its call to “Irishmen and Irishwomen” and its promise to cherish “all the children of the nation equally” seemed a far cry from the traditional politics of the island. What is beyond question is that the move to a more independent Irish state than had been on offer prior to the Great War began in earnest that April Monday.


Little wonder, then, that the Republic of Ireland determined to mark this year’s Easter weekend (27-28 March) with a spectacular series of public events in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. I had the great good fortune to attend as an invited speaker at two venues on Easter Monday and as an interested spectator for the rest of the weekend—because these events conveniently coincided with Marquette’s long spring break this year. Falling in the middle of what Irish people are calling the Decade of Commemorations (or Decade of Centenaries), these events featured everything from solemn wreath-laying ceremonies at sites redolent with echoes from the Rising (such as the prison exercise yard where the leaders faced the firing squad) to the opening of new museum exhibits, and from the holding of public concerts to the presentation of more than 100 panels that explored aspects of the Rising from various academic perspectives. (Depending on the venue and time, panels included historians, literary scholars, sociologists, or political scientists.)

72342_10153406024515308_1948023962092155836_nThe central public action was a parade that wound through the center of Dublin and past a reviewing stand of dignitaries that included the elected President (Michael D. Higgins) and Acting Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Enda Kenny. Along the route, giant viewing screens enabled the assembled crowds—estimated at well over half a million people—to watch a live feed of the parade broadcast on the national television network, RTÉ. In the middle of the parade, the marchers paused so that a member of the Irish Defense Forces, wearing the uniform of the Irish Volunteers (the paramilitaries at the time of the Rising), came to the front of the GPO to read the proclamation. A band struck up the national anthem (“The Soldier’s Song,” in Irish “Amhrán na bhFiann”), which the assembled crowds along the parade route joined in singing. What made that moment particularly poignant for me, as a historian of the Irish-language revival, was that the 40-50,000 or so gathered on College Green where I stood sang the Irish lyrics to the song spontaneously. At what was a particularly solemn moment of commemoration, they chose to use the first national language, a language that all had been taught as a school subject but that a relatively small percentage use on a regular basis, yet it was that language which—for whatever reason—expressed their collective sensibility at that moment.

In addition to witnessing the parade (albeit with an obstructed view, thus my own reliance on one of the aforementioned big screens), I will relish four particular memories. First, visiting the newly opened “Proclaiming a Republic” exhibit at the National Museum of 12321263_10153402990215308_1031891175934311784_nIreland’s Collins Barracks location. This superb and extensive collection of items from the revolutionary period includes an original copy of the Easter Proclamation (owned by one of the women prominent in the revolution, Dr. Kathleen Lynd), as well as the flags flown by the Volunteers atop the General Post Office and that of the Irish Citizen Army, which these labor activists raised above the Imperial Hotel as a particular act of defiance against the hotel’s owner, William Martin Murphy, whose conflict with the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union led to the creation of the ICA.


Liam McMahon exploring the Gaelic League HQ.

Second, my family’s tour of the present headquarters of the Gaelic League, the organization at the heart of my work on the language revival, with its present archivist Cuan Ó Seireadáin. I had visited there years ago doing research, but what made this two hours completely enthralling was that the building at No. 6 Harcourt Street was, during the revolutionary decade, the headquarters of the Sinn Féin party and the republican women’s organization Cumann na mBan. Cuan pulled out all the stops, including having my children read from witness statements from Ireland’s Bureau of Military History about raids on the room we were


The author (blue sweater, right of center) speaks at the Royal Irish Academy.

standing in—which just happened to have been Michael Collins’s office. Third, having the chance to speak at events on Easter Monday, including a talk in the Royal Irish Academy sponsored by the Digital Repository of Ireland and the Inspiring Ireland digitization project. That talk highlighted the part played by Bulmer Hobson in reinvigorating the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood. It also underlined the irony that his opposition to the Rising led to his being held over Easter weekend in 1916 by his former comrades. In the audience that day were descendants of Mortimer O’Connell, one of the IRB men who kept Hobson at bay. Meeting them at that moment was extraordinary. And fourth, attending a roundtable on the historical legacies of the Rising that featured an address by President Higgins and talks by leading scholars in my field, including Mary E. Daly and Diarmaid Ferriter of University College, Dublin, and Kevin Whelan and Bríona Nic Dhiarmada of the University of Notre Dame.


Needless to say, I had much to share with graduate students in my seminar on Memory, Commemoration and Material Culture when I returned to the USA, but the experience also enhanced what was already shaping up as an amazing experience with my undergraduate students in Irish history. They were participating in a special interdisciplinary program that I had planned out with my colleague Dr. Leah Flack from the Department of English.

Knowing that people would be commemorating the Rising and reflecting on its impact over time, we hoped to ask questions such as “What creates revolutions? How do people process what is happening around them? How do they reflect back on those experiences as they build a new state and society?” With Leah scheduled to teach her course on Irish literature during the same term I would run my course on Modern Irish History, we proposed to do things: first, we would link our courses to focus on the period surrounding the foundation of the modern Irish Republic (me) and on the poetry, short stories, novels, and plays that interrogated the revolution’s impact throughout the twentieth century (Leah); and second, we would host a series of public lectures and in-class discussions featuring major scholars in the field whose works would be among the readings we used in our classes. We, therefore, applied for a Mellon Grant from the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences to fund this interdisciplinary look at the Irish Revolution that we called “Reconsidering the Rising.”

We launched our “reconsideration” in January with the College’s endorsement. I led off the lecture series in early February with a look at the role of land agitation from the 1870s through the early 1920s. Professor Mary Trotter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an expert on Irish theater and literature, visited in early March, discussing the important role of women as cultural and political revolutionaries. Professor Brian Ó Conchubhair of the University of Notre Dame, who publishes widely in Irish- and English-language publications on the Gaelic revival in language and sport, came in early April. Later that month, Professor R. F. Foster of Hertford College, Oxford, addressed questions about the expectations and hopes of the revolutionary generation, as well as their disappointment with aspects of the independence achieved in the 1920s. And Leah concluded the series with a wide-ranging discussion of literature from James Joyce through Seamus Heaney to Colum McCann.

Individually, each talk addressed a different aspect of the revolutionary era; collectively, they raised numerous issues for our students to consider, especially about the importance of taking interdisciplinary approaches to questions as profound as what leads to revolution. Of course, every answer raised further questions, including what constitutes a revolution and whether or not what occurred in Ireland between 1916 and 1922 constituted a revolution. (I am of the opinion that a revolution did occur, albeit not the one that the planners of the Easter Rising anticipated, but I recognize that such questions remain fiercely debated.) Bringing them up with our students—alongside scholars noted for their innovative readings of the period under review—was truly exciting. Watching Marquette students asking our visitors about their evidence, about their methodology, and about the stumbling blocks they had to overcome in the research process was one of the highlights of my fifteen years on campus. So too was reading their final papers and examinations, which provided ample evidence that they had incorporated insights from our visitors into some of the most sophisticated reading of sources and argumentation that I have seen from undergraduates.

Since coming to Marquette in 2001, I have tried to remain cognizant of the strong tradition of Irish scholarship here, and I have sought to extend that line in my work, always with the support of colleagues in the department, the College, and the Graduate School. This spring carried that support to a new level, such that those few days in Ireland in March, coupled with the “Reconsidering the Rising” program, made Spring 2016 one of the most intense, challenging, and delightful terms of my career.

Tim McMahon is associate professor of history at Marquette, the author of Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910 (Syracuse, 2008), and editor of the memoir Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork, 2000). He is currently writing a monograph tentatively entitled Éire Imperator: Ireland’s Imperial Ambivalence .

“May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art”: Schooling and Graduation, (Really) Old School Style

By Jenn Finn

As we approach the last days of the semester and the traditions that surround commencement ceremonies, it seemed a propos to take a deeper look into the ways that these modern conventions have evolved since the ancient and medieval periods. Formal

Sumerian King List

The Sumerian King List, a popular tablet for copying in early Mesopotamian schools. Image courtesy of The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

systems of education began very early, almost as soon as the first invention of writing. In Mesopotamia (approximately 3500 BC to 323 BC), children might receive a standard education in copying cuneiform tablets; we even have a very early composition in Sumerian relating to the experience of being a student of cuneiform. It reads very much like a description of a school day for a modern young student (the translation is from Samuel Noah Kramer’s famous 1949 article “Schooldays:”

Schoolboy, where did you go from earliest days?’

‘I went to school.’

‘What did you do in school?’

‘I read my tablet, ate my lunch,

prepared my tablet, wrote it, finished it; then

my prepared lines were prepared for me

(and in) the afternoon, my hand copies were prepared for me.

Upon the school’s dismissal, I went home,

entered the house, (there) was my father sitting.

Later on, we are told that the schoolboy has performed his duties well, and his teacher duly praises him:

‘Young man, because you did not neglect my word, did not forsake it,

May you reach the pinnacle of the scribal art, achieve it completely.

Because you gave me that which you were by no means obliged (to give),

you presented me with a gift over and above my earnings, have shown me great


may she show favor to your fashioned reed,

may she take all evil from your hand copies.

Of your brothers, may you be their leader,

of your companions, may you be their chief,

may you rank the highest of (all) the schoolboys.

There were different levels of schooling even in ancient Mesopotamia, but only the most talented would continue on into a more formal school system that would train them to become scribes in the employ of the king.

A more defined system of education (paideia) evolved in Ancient Greece, focusing on all aspects of the student’s life, including the study of philosophy, reading, writing, and physical fitness. For wealthier members of Greek (in particular, Athenian) society, education would continue into their teenage years, with a new focus on the physical and cosmological sciences. As in Mesopotamia, only a select few would receive the highest levels of education, which would include advanced military education as well as instruction in the Classics of Greek literature (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey being the most popular). And, also as in Mesopotamia, a premium was placed on knowledge because of its ability to produce productive members of society and government: this is the basis of Plato’s argument in The Republic (Book VI), where he defines the Philosopher-King as the most fit to rule the state because his knowledge is based in many years and many steps of the educational process.

Roman stages of education were similarly sophisticated, but in Rome, the ability to participate in a declamatio was the utmost sign of one’s ability to function in a highly competitive political atmosphere. Very few students would learn the art of the declamatio following the last formal stage of education, in which a young boy would study with a grammaticus in order to perfect his skills in reading and interpreting literature (especially poetry). The declamatio consisted of two types: the suasoriae and the controversiae. In the former, the individual was expected to persuasively argue about a theme arising from a historical circumstance: for instance (as Juvenal i.16 tells us), one possible theme was whether or not Sulla should have resigned his dictatorship; Seneca (Suasoriae) gives several more options for possible topics, including whether or not the 300 Spartans should have remained or fled from the famous battle of Thermopylae. These were the “amateur” argumentations; the second and more sophisticated level came with the controversiae, where students were asked to argue on themes based on a thorough knowledge of Roman legal institutions.

While there was no formal “graduation” per se from these higher levels of knowledge, the acknowledgment in the Greco-Roman system that one could become a master of their discipline was a prerequisite for the standards of the school system that were set up in the Renaissance period (when, consequently, Europe experienced a revival of Greco-Roman literature and institutions). Some of the first universities were founded in the 11th and the 12th centuries, with the universities of Bologna (1088) and Oxford (1096) being the oldest. At these earliest “formal” universities, the arts course would last from 4-6 years. There were BAs and MAs, just like we have now, but to teach in a university one would have to acquire an MA, which could take up to 8 years. They also had PhDs, which could take 10-15 years to complete. That means that a potential course of study from the BA to a PhD could total 20+ years!

It was only in these later periods of history that some of the more familiar formal institutions of graduation began to appear. Academic dress began to be worn during the Medieval period—but not for the reasons you might think. We are told that during this period, most of those who attended universities were of the clerical orders, and thus

All Souls Quad

All Souls Quad at the University of Oxford, courtesy of

already wore long robes (complete with hoods!), which were useful in the university buildings that lacked heating capabilities. It later became the official graduation garb of academic scholars, and became standardized, at least in the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge, by the reign of Henry VIII (16th Century). The accompanying mortarboard hat that we still use today probably also derived from clerical apparel (the biretta). The traditional “hat toss” is a more modern invention, originating at The United States Naval Academy in 1912. Before this year, Navy midshipmen were required to maintain possession of their hats until they could become officers (approximately two years after graduation). This policy changed in 1912, allowing the midshipmen to serve in other capacities besides midshipmen or cadet directly after graduation, so they were then free to toss their caps in the air without a care.

So for those of you who will graduate from Marquette in the next few weeks, know that you are in a long line of historical tradition. And most importantly, Congratulations!

Jenn Finn is assistant professor of history at Marquette University.  She is nearly finished with her first book manuscripot, Much ado about Marduk: Texts and the Limits of Authority in First Millennium Mesopotamia.

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