Professor Max Ward on Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan

By Drew Jacobs

I recently met with Professor Max Ward to discuss his soon to be published book, Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan. Before speaking about his book, however, Professor Ward highlighted his undergraduate and graduate school studies which led him to his current work. As an undergraduate History Major, he focused mainly on European History in the 20th Century. He wrote his thesis on the Spanish Civil War, focusing on Fascism in Spain in the 1930’s. The books he researched often mentioned fascism in Japan at this time, yet did not provide much detail. In graduate school, Professor Ward focused on intellectual and philosophical history. In his research, he noticed how intellectuals in the 1930’s were often arrested or defected from certain countries. Looking more closely at Japan in the 1930’s, he repeatedly encountered a specific term: Tenkō. This term indicated a shifting, or conversion, of political ideology from the Left to the Right, brought about by suppression and military force.

From this starting point, Professor Ward set out to more deeply understand the history of Tenkō in the 1930’s. He began researching legal institutions and policing practices to comprehend how the state shaped their people’s beliefs. Including his time at graduate school, Professor Ward has spent 20 years studying the ideas and power dynamics of 1930’s Japanese history, with the last 10 years specifically focused on his upcoming book.

The book centers around a law passed in 1925 called “The Peace Preservation Law.” The categories of the law are ambiguous, yet it was meant to suppress political radicals. Professor Ward explains how the law was initially intended for Communists and anarchists, yet soon spread to suppress religious groups, pacifists, and those simply exercising their freedom of speech. The book analyzes how the law was developed and how it evolved over the span of 20 years, until it was repealed in 1945 after Japanese defeat in World War II. This idea of Tenkō represented the ideological conversion of Left leaning citizens toward the more rigid, conservative ideologies of the state. The Law evolved from people first being allowed to simply renounce their past oppositional thoughts, whereas in time they were forced to more actively support the state.

Once identified as having political beliefs opposed to those of the state, the individual was detained and a prosecutor would decide if he or she was capable of reform. Ultimately, 68,000 Japanese citizens were arrested and detained under the Peace Preservation Law. These individuals were then subject to reports from friends, family members, and monks who would comment on the persons character and whether they were progressing with regard to their political ideologies. Ultimately, all but 4,000 of these people were released, as the Japanese state hoped to highlight its benevolence compared to other fascist states at the time. While other nations sent political prisoners to concentration camps, Japan strove to reform and release them. These captivating themes and issues are among the central focuses in Professor Ward’s new book, Thought Crime: Ideology and State Power in Interwar Japan.


Connor Williams ‘08.5 on his Graduate Studies

By Drew Jacobs

Connor Williams graduated from Middlebury in 2008.5 with a degree in History and is now in his 4th year of a PhD program at Yale in History and African-American studies. He is writing his dissertation on African-American communities in Northern California after the Gold Rush until World War I. Additionally, he works at the writing center at Yale and also at a local adjunct college. Prior to his PhD program, Connor spent five years teaching at a Prep School.

His dissertation focuses on African-Americans in Northern California in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and asks the question of whether they were living out the so called “American Dream” or whether they were living in a largely white supremacist society. His research centers around one the history of one specific family who were slaves, got their freedom when California abolished slavery, and had 9 children. Connor retells the story of how this family went from living in a 3-room shack to a 3-story townhouse over the course of several generations. Focused mainly on written letters of the family, Connor describes how only 2 African-American families lived in this specific town, yet were able to form a community with other African-Americans in neighboring districts. Connor describes his dissertation as narrative history, telling the stories of this specific family.

Connor spoke highly of his time as a History major at Middlebury. He fondly remembers his First Year Seminar: Domination and Resistance. He describes this course as an important look at colonial powers dominating their subjects. In the course, topics ranged from Apartheid, American Slavery, India, and North Africa. These various examples gave Connor a new perspective through which to view history. Connor also mentioned Professor John McCardell’s Civil War and Reconstruction course which keyed his interest on 19th Century American history and how this century shaped the nation’s history moving forward.

Connor described his Senior Thesis as a great opportunity, one which proved to him that he truly enjoyed historical research. While he credits the History department with strengthening his writing, Connor highlighted two Creative Writing classes which taught him how to write narrative stories. This experience with more narrative writing has benefitted him in regard to his dissertation.

Looking forward, Connor hopes to graduate from Yale in 2 years and begin teaching. He expressed his desire for a tenured track, and emphasized that teaching excites him just as much as researching. He looks forward to improving the writing of his future students and teaching them important lessons through a historical perspective, while also researching and writing on his own.

A Conversation with Elizabeth Farnsworth

By Drew Jacobs

I recently spoke with Middlebury History alum Elizabeth Farnsworth about her work as a journalist and author. Elizabeth knew by her second semester of Freshman year that she wanted to be a History Major. She fondly remembers a course titled Contemporary Civilization, centered around various struggles for civil liberties throughout history. The class examined important U.S. court decisions, the rise and fall of the 3rd Reich, as well as a project analyzing 3 American magazines with different political agendas. Elizabeth counts History Professor Pardon Tillinghast as a mentor at Middlebury, and now a close friend, who has had an enormous influence on her life’s work.

Elizabeth traveled to Peru the summer after her Junior year at Middlebury and worked in a clinic in a poor neighborhood. After this experience, she realized the need to improve various policies and to tell the stories of people around the world. She wrote her Senior Thesis on a topic in Peruvian history and upon graduation, earned her Master’s in History from Stanford. Following this 1 year program, Elizabeth knew she wanted to work as a journalist, and has been a journalist ever since. Elizabeth always urges aspiring journalists to major in history, as she feels that in order to understand the present, one must understand the past.

Elizabeth recalls that when she was 13 years old, a protestor of the Hungarian Revolution came to her hometown of Topeka, Kansas to speak. From this point on, Elizabeth became obsessed with why people risk their lives to improve their lives. Revolutionary struggles are of particular interest to her. She has reported on violations of human rights in Chile, made a film on and was present for indigenous wars in both Vietnam and Guatemala, and is active with the University of California Center for Human Rights. Her documentary film “The Judge and the General,” which she directed and produced, was nominated for the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing. Elizabeth also served as a chief correspondent and principal substitute anchor of PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and has received four Emmy nominations.

A Conversation with Brett Alessi

By Drew Jacobs

I recently spoke with Brett Alessi, a Middlebury History graduate now working to improve public education. Brett explained how Middlebury played a large role in determining his career path. In regard to history, Brett chose the major simply because he had always enjoyed it. That said, the lessons he learned proved incredibly valuable. Brett fondly remembers courses with Professor John Spencer on the colonization of Africa. From his history courses, he learned that there is never one single truth, but instead multiple sides of a story. He also emphasized how his writing vastly improved as a history major. He wrote his Senior Thesis on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. In regard to his current career, Brett admits that there are tough problems ahead in terms of improving public education, but he feels confident that the lessons he learned at Middlebury will help him in his pursuit.

As Cofounder of Empower Schools, Brett works to empower educators, specifically in urban areas, in an effort to improve public education. He went to public school through 8th grade and, while appreciative of his time there, realized that there exists room for improvement. With his mother works as a teacher and his father as a college soccer coach, education has always been a central part of Brett’s life. At the core of Empower Schools mission is the belief that every school has different needs and thus requires different support. Instead of having a superintendent handle every decision regarding the town’s public education, Empower Schools is an organization that allows the educators to make these important decisions. Brett explains how these decisions often start with the individual school’s principal, yet teachers must also play an important role. For this reason, Empower Schools helps set up a teachers’ leadership council to contribute to decisions on curriculum, resource allocation, and hiring.

Empower Schools initial foray was in Lawrence, MA in 2012. Since then, the organization has teamed up with additional schools in Texas, Colorado, and Massachusetts. Brett explained how schools will often approach the organization due to low test scores. Yet, Empower Schools takes a more holistic approach than just viewing test scores. The organization emphasizes community engagement, attendance, and tests taken throughout the year, rather than the traditional testing just once a year. Clearly, Empower Schools is a terrific organization and one which Brett Alessi believes is stronger due to his History degree from Middlebury.

A Conversation with Richard Eldridge

By Drew Jacobs

Richard Eldridge is a graduate of Middlebury College who double majored in History and Philosophy. He currently serves as a Professor of Philosophy at Swarthmore College. Richard fondly explained to me how he went directly from Middlebury to graduate school to teaching, effectively spending his whole life in academia. During his time at Middlebury, he was particularly close with Professor Stanley Bates of the Philosophy department and Professor Pardon Tillinghast of the History department. In college, he grew deeply interested in the relationship between social history and intellectual history. He wrote his Senior Thesis on how these big ideas about life are played out in reality. Richard explained how his current work is a continuation of his philosophy studies during his last two years at Middlebury. Ultimately, Richard found himself more interested in big picture commitments than studying history in archives, and set out for a career in Philosophy.

Richard’s most recent book grew out of his frustration with philosophers who do not care enough about history. He explained how he has read and interacted with countless philosophers who do not care if their respective theories can be lived out. At the same time, Richard worried about history work that was solely archival and did not investigate philosophical ideas. As such, Richard combined his passion for philosophy, history, and literature to write his most recent book: Images of History: Kant, Benjamin, Freedom, and the Human Subject. In short, Richard argues that history without philosophy and literature is chronology. He stresses that literature without history and philosophy is entertainment. Finally, he asserts that philosophy without literature and history is narcissistic. Richard read and researched for 5-6 years before writing his book in about 1 year.

On the subject of teaching, Richard was unable to identify one particular class as his favorite, but rather admitted his passion for teaching all of his courses. He explained how he enjoys getting his students to care about philosophical problems. He particularly enjoys bringing new ideas to his classes from his writing and vice versa. Richard worries that, once retired, and without the experience of the classroom, he will not be as strong and thoughtful of a writer. He finished by highlighting the importance of teachers publishing their own work in order to remain motivated, thoughtful, and up to date with fresh ideas.