What began as a course commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution evolved into a 20-year friendship.
D.A. Smith, professor emeritus of history, first invited French historian Ran Halevi of the Institut Raymond Aron in the Ecole des hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris to teach at Grinnell as the John R. Heath Visitng Professor of History in 1989. The two have kept in touch for more than two decades, and both say “it’s the mystery of friendship; that democracy of age” that transcends the differences and politics that may have been the genesis of the Franco-American scholarly relationship.
“Don’s idea to teach a course and lead a lecture series was ambitious,” Halevi said. “The first class began as a challenge . . . to bring someone from France to Grinnell, which I knew nothing about . . . to speak about France . . .in English. It was my first time to the Midwest. The prospect of teaching in English was alarming.”
Smith admits that he too was “anxious that it might not work out; 'what have I done?' I remember asking myself after everything was settled.” The experience proved rewarding for all concerned, and French historian and politician Alexis de Tocqueville may well have played a role in the long-term relationship.
In the mid-'90s Smith attended a four-week-long seminar at Princeton on John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville, and occasionally taught a seminar on Tocqueville in the years before his retirement in 2006. His own interest coincided with Halevi's and they remained in contact on both sides of the Atlantic.
“All good historians of politics are readers of Tocqueville,” Halevi said. “Don and I read Tocqueville differently for different perspectives and purposes, to nourish fruitful dialogue. We always find something new to say about Tocqueville.
“What is so symbolic is that I taught The Old Regime and The Revolution in 1989,” Halevi said. “and now I teach Democracy in America,” referring to both Tocqueville’s prescient 1835 book about the equality of Western social conditions and the short course he taught Aug. 26-Sept. 16. Halevi's return to campus this fall as an international visiting fellow also marks the growth of international studies at Grinnell, supported by the Center for International Studies.
When asked to compare Grinnell students over the 20-year period, Halevi says, “What I notice is that more students now are coming from elsewhere. They are well-trained and have profound perspectives. I came to know students better when assigned to a full semester, and I kept correspondence with several after the first big class of first-rate students.
“There are two parallel things that make the experience at Grinnell memorable: the teaching experience and the great friendships,” Halevi comments. “What bridges the two parallel things is affinity that brings opportunities to shape and blossom beyond all differences.”
Smith travelled to France last August where he visited Halevi and his family. “Through Ran, I have met two distinguished British historians. Those relationships have grown out of that first lecture in 1989. The contact with Ran has opened scholarly ties and associations I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Tocqueville’s Democracy may not have foreseen this Franco-American friendship but the book and the scholarly friends have stood the test of time.