The Importance of History: In Memory of Ronald Schultz

– By Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. candidate in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A couple of months ago, I received terrible news: one of my mentors from my graduate studies at the University of Wyoming had passed away.  Ronald Schultz was an accomplished historian, a scholar whose imparted knowledge I am only beginning to fully realize and understand.  As I reflect back on my time as a Ph.D. student, I can identify multiple moments during just my first year where, without Ron’s generous and constant guidance and advice, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to make it through my classes or stay in the program.  There were nights I would be up late, frustratingly putting my shoulder to a reading, and he’d help me decipher its relevance.  There were times where I was frustrated with where I saw myself in PCS, and through a back and forth correspondence he helped me sift through my thoughts and ideas and figure out a path forward.  His mentorship went beyond my time at Wyoming: in many ways I depended on his mentorship throughout my first years in the program.  It was through Ron that I began to understand how Marxist historiography was integral to the political and intellectual milieu they shared with cultural studies.  It was through Ron’s insight that I really began to conceptually see the relation between knowledge, power, and agency, and the intellectual importance in defending the complexity and exuberance of the past: that our contemporary political discourses are historically conditioned in ways we sometimes can’t seem to discern.

In many ways, his book The Republic of Labor gave renewal to the historical assertion that not only were the working classes present at their own making, but that social, cultural and political changes were active forces in the formation of working class consciousness.  Examining the historical experiences of Philadelphia artisans and workingmen from 1720 to 1830, Ron uncovered a history in which an American class consciousness formed through, rather than despite, active historical forces like religion and political party affiliation.  Like E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, Ron Schultz’s The Republic of Labor, at root, showed how a working class consciousness surfaced in the past, and how cultural diversity and economic, political, and social changes were not antithetical the formation of collective, politically-vibrant working class.

Ron’s interests spanned multiple areas of knowledge, and in a recent publication (2011) studied the complicated history of American immigration and naturalization procedures, the mechanisms that implemented immigration policies and that fascinatingly escaped decades of historical scrutiny.  For Ron, these neglected aspects of the past needed to be studied: it was through complicating the assumed that we can gain a deeper understanding of how systems operate in conjunction with power relations.  Because of this, Ron studied the significance of how, despite the many number of immigration laws, social and political changes and administrative upheavals throughout nineteenth-century America, the nation’s naturalization procedures remained relatively unchanged.  These were the things that revealed important insight into the nature of American political power.  “[I]t is the things that are unnoticed,” Ron wrote, “the things taken for granted and unexamined, that give us important insights into the workings of social, political, and intellectual systems” (151).

Even though Ron did not specifically frame his works as histories of the body, I can now see how my current work in PCS has been influenced by his studies, and how his insight can contribute to scholarship within the project.  Ron’s work, like many other historians, brings a necessary historical complication to concepts like race, gender, capitalism, and embodiment.  We are taught that the more we think the things that occur in the present are new, the more we must examine their historical conditioning.  We discover that the past was as culturally, corporeally, and experientially complicated as the present.  We fully realize that even though we can never fully access and represent the past, it is through historical discourses that contemporary power relations derive their strength.  When I think about those things, I realize how indebted I am to Ron’s mentorship and insight.  And as I strive to become a burgeoning PCS scholar, I know I will continue to depend upon the knowledge and historical sensibility he generously afforded me.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

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