Drew Gilpin Faust, an American historian and the president of Harvard University, talks to The Post’s Steven Pearlstein about what the Civil War teaches us about the human tendency to resist change.
As a Civil War historian I spend a lot of time thinking about what brings people through crisis.
Historians deal with change. They think about change. And how it happens. How people adapt to it.
When I wrote “Mothers of Invention,” one of the aspects of the book that I found most striking was how resistant people were to change. I also saw them struggle with the burdens that greater responsibility imposed on them. Many white women in the South — slaveholding women — when their husbands and brothers and sons went off to war, the home front in the South became essentially white females and slaves. And these white females often resented having to take up the burden of managing plantations and managing slavery, which scared them because they were afraid slaves would revolt. And so they did not say, “This is a great time to get liberated and to become a person of responsibility and importance.”
When you parse out the advantages and disadvantages of what this change were, you can see why they’d be fearful of it. And you can see why people don’t always want more responsibility or authority.
The essential conservatism of human beings: That was the lesson. That change is frightening.
And so how do you make change less frightening? I’ve found if you tell people that in order to have the things they most want and that most matter to them, they have to change certain other things, that makes those changes seem not just desirable, but imperative. And that seems to me a good path to lead people along as they face inevitable change.
For the full interview, go to www.washingtonpost.com/leadership.