Pulitzer Prize Winner Eric Foner Encourages History Students to 'Be Open to Being Surprised' During Classroom Visit


West Windsor, N.J. – Dr. Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, visited Mercer County Community College (MCCC) to lecture on the constitutional impacts of the American Civil War and Reconstruction on Thursday, March 7.

A historian who focuses on 19th century America, Foner is a Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prize-winning author, honors he earned in 2011 for his book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” Foner also serves as president of the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians.

Prior to his formal presentation, Foner met with students in Assistant Adjunct Professor Susan Kozel’s US History Since 1865 class. Dr. Craig Coenen, Professor of History, recommended Foner for the Mercer Distinguished Lecture, and suggested that Dr. Foner visit Professor Kozel’s class.

All students taking US I and US II history classes read Foner’s book, “Give Me Liberty: An American History. First published in 2004, the work examines the idea of freedom through centuries of changing American social conditions.

“Dr. Foner’s textbook presents a diverse American history that emphasizes all cultural experiences,” Kozel said about the value of Foner’s work in her course. “With its unique freedom theme, students and faculty are able to navigate American history while tackling important every day questions like, ‘Who is an American?’ and how this idea has changed over time.”

While the students asked Foner questions about his objectives and goals for penning the book, they quickly jumped at the chance to shift the discussion towards Foner’s interpretation of current events.

“What is your definition of freedom?” one student asked. Students also inquired about topics like institutionalized racism, political power and citizenship.

As Foner eagerly led the discussion, he encouraged students to look for answers from a variety of sources. “I don’t think there is any single definition of freedom,” Foner said. “As a historian, it’s not my job to suggest there is just one line of thought. My work gives one view, but I hope that it can spur continued conversations and research.”

He added that as students continue their studies, it’s important to keep an open mind. “The easiest thing to find is what you’re looking for. You have to be open to being surprised, and being wrong.” 

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From left: Students J'Son Hines, Rudmita Mark, Dr. Eric Foner, Daniel Luchansky, Jarquiza Ayers, Hyun Yoon, Tim Moomah and Professor Sue Kozel.

Foner lectured on the constitutional impacts of the Civil War and Reconstruction.