Dr. Brian Dirck, professor of history, received his Bachelor’s in history at the University of Central Arkansas. From there, Dirck went on to receive a Master’s in history from Rice University, and later a PhD in history from the University of Kansas. Throughout his many years of teaching, Dirck has also written over half a dozen books focusing on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency.
Where are you from?
I was originally born in Missouri, but I moved around quite a bit growing up. I lived in Arkansas, Texas and Kansas.
Tell me a bit about your family.
I have a son, Nathan, who is a senior at the University of Indianapolis. And my daughter, Rachel, is a freshman here at AU. I’m so proud of both of them. They basically grew up on this campus.
How long have you been at AU?
I have been at AU for 21 years. It was my first—and only—academic job after I graduated with my Ph.D.
What brought you to AU?
I came to AU when my predecessor left AU after a distinguished career here to accept a professorship in Alabama. I quickly fell in love with the campus, the faculty and especially the students. AU quickly became home.
Why is history important?
History is our story, or rather, stories. All human beings tell stories, and all known human cultures have told their own stories of their own past, because this is an intrinsic, fundamental human need. We must tell our stories to know who we are.
What got you interested in history in the first place?
I guess that would be my grandma, a wonderful Christian woman, who told me all sorts of great stories about her own life during the Great Depression and our family’s Civil War stories. She just got me hooked.
Who is your favorite historical figure?
Well, I guess the obvious answer is Lincoln, because while he was certainly a human being with many faults and shortcomings, he represents many of the best qualities of being an American. He is at once larger than life and humble, inspiring yet endearingly flawed.
What is your favorite historical event and what makes it interesting to you?
Wow, that’s a great question. I’d have to say Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he invoked the righteous justice of God in explaining the Civil War as a great atonement for the sin of slavery, yet called upon Northerners to be merciful in their victory over the South. A truly sublime moment in American history, I think.
You’ve written many books about Abraham Lincoln. Which book is your favorite and why did you write it?
I think my latest book, “The Black Heavens,” is my favorite. Yes, the subject matter is grim—Lincoln’s encounters with death—but it shows his very human side. Plus, I wrote that book as my mother was fighting breast cancer. She passed away in 2015. There’s a lot of my mom in that book, in various quiet ways.
What sparked your interest in Abraham Lincoln?
I was fortunate enough to study under the tutelage of a very fine Lincoln scholar, Phil Paludan, while at the University of Kansas, and ongoing conversations with him about Lincoln’s presidency intrigued me. My dissertation was actually a comparative study of the two Civil War presidents, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Doing the research for that project sparked questions about Lincoln, which in turn sparked more questions, etc.
What do you think Abraham Lincoln would say if he saw our nation today?
I try to avoid commenting on present-day politics, at least in my role as a professor. But let me just say I think he would be deeply disturbed at the current state of affairs in the presidency, and the nation as a whole.
If you could ask Abraham Lincoln one question, what would it be?
Wow, that’s a really hard one. I think I’d ask him exactly when and why he chose to pursue emancipation during the war. The timing and his many reasons for doing so remain a bit of a mystery.
You’ve been given the opportunity to teach in a different country next school year. Tell me more about that.
Next year I will take a sabbatical leave of absence, because I have been awarded a J. Edward Fulbright Scholarship to teach American history to students in Japan. This is a really wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a new culture, meet many new friends, students and colleagues in Japan and act as an ambassador for AU abroad. I am very excited.
In regards to teaching in Japan next year, what are you most excited about?
I think I’m most excited about how my experiences teaching in Japan will get me out of my comfort zone, in a good way. I am very happy at AU, where I’ve taught for over 20 years. But sometimes we can get a little too comfortable, maybe even a little complacent, in such circumstances. Japan will force me to think and act and teach in ways I have never experienced before, and while I’ll admit that’s a little scary, it really is a great thing.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your time teaching?
To learn from my students as well as teach them. So many times I’ve encountered a comment or observation from a student that sheds new light on some subject which had not occurred to me.
What advice do you have for college students?
“Relax. You’ve got this.” In all seriousness, I worry about the level of anxiety I sometimes see in students. There is so much pressure on students these days, and I think this often produces a certain lack of confidence. I think nearly every student on this campus is capable of doing college-level work; they just need to take a breath and realize their talents and capabilities.
What role does faith play in your life?
My faith in God is the moral center of everything I do, and that especially includes teaching at AU. I’ve been blessed to work at this institution, and God has given me gifts I cannot afford to squander. I try to remember I’m here for a reason—God’s plan. I don’t know what that plan might be, but I just need to have faith in Him.