Talking History with Ernest Freeberg

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By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“History teaches you to think,” Dr. Ernest Freeberg told me over coffee at Panera. “History also helps us understand how diverse human experience is, and the study of history can help a student develop a sense of empathy and complexity.” Dr. Freeberg completed an undergraduate English major at Middlebury College in 1980 and then a Ph.D. in History at Emory University in 1992. After teaching at Colby-Sawyer, he came to the University of Tennessee in 2003 and became Head of the History Department in 2013. Our conversation covered his three award winning books and ways to teach and understand history.

After reading Walker Percy’s essay on Helen Keller, Dr. Freeberg became fascinated with the intellectual questions of how children learn language. This interest led to his first book, The Education of Laura Bridgman, that was a recipient of the American Historical Association’s Dunning Prize in 2002. Laura Bridgman was the first deaf-blind American child to learn the English language fifty years before Helen Keller. Under the early tutelage of Samuel Howe, Director of the Perkins Institute in Boston, Laura became an international celebrity, and she was even visited by Charles Dickens when he toured America in the 1840s. In her later life, Laura actually befriended Annie Sullivan when they shared a cottage together.

Dr. Freeberg’s favorite course to teach is the Impact of War on Democracy, a class that discusses how the advent of war and the expansion of presidential powers can challenge democratic liberties. These concerns had led to his 2008 book titled Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent, a winner of the David J. Langun, Sr. Prize in American Legal History. Debs was tried and given a ten year jail sentence for making an anti-war speech against United States involvement in World War I. Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President several times. His struggles eventually helped reshape the Supreme Court’s thinking on the rights of free speech during wartime.

With The Age of Edison, Dr. Freeberg explored how a single invention such as electric light could reshape an entire society.

With The Age of Edison, Dr. Freeberg explored how a single invention such as electric light could reshape an entire society. Although the book partially discusses Thomas Edison’s discovery, the main thesis is how electric light spawned an age of invention and technological change. The advantages and disadvantages of this invention are still felt in the modern world.

“American history teaches us a shared narrative and how to recognize the contributions the United States made to the world,” Dr. Freeberg said, noting that these contributions can sometimes be controversial. “But, given the Internet, historical research has become a lot easier for both students and historians.” As we finished our coffee, we discussed favorite books to read. I told him that my wife and I had actually named our first son after Walker Percy. We promised to revisit our shared interest in Walker Percy at a later date.

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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