Like many in my profession, I am shocked and deeply saddened by the sudden and violent death of Ethan Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. As I’m writing this, many of the details of today’s shooting in Jobe Hall on the Delta State campus remain unknown. What we do know – that Dr. Schmidt was gunned down, in his faculty office – puts my friend and former student in a long and baffling list of Americans of all ages murdered by men with guns.
Ours is not usually considered a dangerous occupation, but in today’s milieu of seemingly unchecked (and depressingly un-responded to) gun violence, I am unsure whether any profession is truly safe. My thoughts, and those of many, many others, go out to Ethan’s wife Liz, his colleagues, family, and especially his three young children.
I was not Dr. Schmidt’s dissertation director at the University of Kansas – that honorable job went to my colleague Paul Kelton. But I did know him, and taught him, and felt considerable pride as he progressed through our Ph.D. program, defended his thesis, accepted first one and then another tenure-track job, and published his book The Divided Dominion: Social Conflict and Indian Hatred in Early Virginia (University Press of Colorado, 2015).
I also fondly remember his stack of recommendations from teachers and mentors at his undergraduate institution, Emporia State University, where he also earned his master’s degree. What these letters promised – and Dr. Schmidt delivered, in spades – was a deeply thoughtful and unabashedly enthusiastic student of history. As he said in an interview on the American Historical Association site, history was, to him, at “the very core of what it is that makes us human.”
What is also interesting, at least to me, is that Dr. Schmidt became an accomplished historian of how, in his words, the “use of force [came to] seem unquestioned” as a Euro-American right in pursuit of property in 17th-century Virginia. Central to his dissertation (which he revised into his first book), was an attempt by a settler named Nathaniel Bacon and an army made up of servants, slaves, and poor Virginians to “ruine and extirpate all Indians in Generall.” The ensuing months of warfare that became known as Bacon’s Rebellion remained a particularly terrifying and potent memory for colonists well into the era of the American Revolution. That someone who so well understood American violence in one century became a victim of it in ours is both ironic and deeply sad.
Sad because not only have we lost a particularly good man – and teacher, and colleague, and scholar – but also someone who had in his short time on the planet already thought deeply about history, and discovery, and what makes Americans tick. Here’s how he put it in that AHA interview: “I value the fact that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is honored in the profession. We never accept the conventional wisdom or current paradigm as an acceptable answer. To be a historian (and a practitioner in any other humanities field for that matter) is to grapple with the very core of what it is that makes us human. Our triumphs, our tragedies, our flaws, and our strengths are all laid bare by the scholarly study of history and without this kind of inquiry there is little hope for mankind I think.”
It would be hard to improve on that.
Jonathan Earle, dean of LSU’s Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College, taught at the University of Kansas from 1997-2014.