A scholar of modern German culture and political studies, Dr. David T. Murphy is a history professor at AU where he has served for 29 years. He is also the co-director of the Honors Program, and the director of the Jeeninga Museum of Bible and Near Eastern Studies. Currently writing a scholarly article and preparing a manuscript, Murphy has published three books, 21 scholarly articles and roughly 20 book reviews. He is happily married to Marcia, with seven kids and three grandchildren.
What is your origin story?
I was born in Rockford, Illinois, where I studied journalism at Southern Illinois University and got an undergraduate degree in that and worked for a couple years. And I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana; that’s where I got my PhD in history.
Why did you come to AU 29 years ago?
They were advertising for a historian. I defended my dissertation in May of 1992, and AU was advertising for what they called a “generalist in history”—someone who would teach a broad range of topics. So, I applied, and they hired me.
I was very lucky because the market is pretty difficult—both then and now. There’s not a lot of jobs for historians, probably a few more then than now. It was very difficult then—it was considered a very sparse time. Many of my friends were on the market for some years before they found a position.
Why was it difficult 29 years ago for a historian to find a job?
Enrollments in the humanities are already shrinking. They didn’t call it “STEM” yet, but that’s what was happening, and it’s continuing to happen. The universities with a commitment to the liberal arts and the humanities, the places that hire historians, were cutting back on enrollment, and they’ve really continued to.
What is it about German culture and political history that draws you to study it?
It seemed to me that in the modern era, Germany was really at the center of so many things, both in good and bad ways. Obviously in America, the lay person associates Germany with being our main adversary in the World Wars, and that’s true—they played a crucial role, obviously in the beginning of both of those. These were events that really transformed the twentieth century.
But it struck me, if you look at so many other fields from about the time of the great revolutions, the late eighteenth century to the present, in the sciences, in music, in the visual and literary arts, in the developing world we think of as professional history, in so many fields Germans were remarkably prominent. So, I was curious about accounting for the remarkable vitality and attractive power of German culture.
You have a manuscript in the works, what’s it about?
It’s about a war crimes trial that took place in Nuremburg in 1947, right after the very famous Nuremburg Trial concluded. The case was called US v. Greifeld, and it has to do with Nazi Germanization policy in Eastern Europe and their efforts to essentially eradicate the indigenous Slavic population so that the region could be colonized with German settlers.
How has the field of history studies declined?
It’s strange because there’s this weird, popular split. Recent surveys of higher-ed show the percentage of people in higher-education choosing to major in history is definitely in decline, a pretty dramatic decline over the past 20 years.
At the same time, what’s weird about that is that at the popular level, history remains enormously popular. Look at the best-seller list at any given time, the nonfiction best-sellers list. It’s loaded with books of history by historians. So clearly, there’s a big popular demand, a market, a hunger for information about history and the study of history.
What motivates you to instruct history each day?
I enjoy trying to think about the past with clarity and precision. Being with students and having to think about how they’re understanding what I say and teach helps me to do that better. Although this may turn out to be false, we hope that we can learn from history.
Is history merely a secular discipline or can we see God through it?
The ancient Christians, St. Agustin is the best example that comes to mind, believed that human history reveals the unfolding of God’s will for humankind. I agree with that. I’m not sure that I understand it. So, I think that, while there is a structure and intent infused by God into human history, it takes courses that we’re not really able to understand. So, we have to do the best we can as historians at investigating and explaining the things that we really can understand. That tends to be rather secular than spiritual.
If you could time travel to witness any historical event, what would it be and why?
There are so many. Obviously, one is inclined to say “the trial of Christ before Pilot,” but that seems only an easy way out, to say something like that. One thing I would like to do is go back and be present while the poet Virgil was composing the last part of his Aeneid, because he was dying at the time and knew it, and tell him that he should be grateful that his secretary refused to burn the manuscript. Virgil very famously wanted it destroyed because he was this obsessive craftsman who manically reworked every line and everything he wrote, sometimes spending an entire day on one twelve or eighteen-syllable line. When he was dying, he instructed his secretary to burn the manuscript because he hadn’t had enough time to rework it. Fortunately for all of us, his secretary disobeyed his appointer’s request, to preserve it. So, I’d like to meet Virgil and tell him that, if I could go back. I’ve read a lot of it, really ever since high school, and every time I go back to it, I get something new and valuable out of it.
When students leave your classroom, what do you hope they take with them?
I hope they take away that their relationship with their past ought to be a creative one, that they realize they are both inheritors of conditions as the past has created them, also actors in the ongoing creation of those conditions. That’s what I hope they take away. I don’t want to use the fashionable word ‘empowered,’ but in a sense it does capture what I want them to feel, that we are all, in one way or another, agents of history, creators of it, as well as inheritors of our shared historical past.