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Northwestern University

Uncommon Thinking: Living Through History

2020 will likely be remembered as one of the momentous years in modern history.

As the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession and protests against racial injustice swept the globe, many people turned toward the past to learn how previous generations dealt with similar periods of crisis.

Someday, the events of 2020 will no doubt take their place in the history books along with other seminal moments of upheaval and change. Members of the Weinberg College community will then share their recollections of this year alongside those who can recall where they were at moments when the world seemed to stand still.

November 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall Peter Hayes Professor of History and German and the Theodore Zev Weiss Holocaust Educational Foundation Professor of Holocaust Studies Emeritus

"I was in Evanston when the Berlin Wall came down, so along with everyone else on campus, I watched it unfold on TV. Like millions around the world, I thrilled to the images of people dancing on the Wall and then smashing it with sledgehammers. I also paused to remember the first time I had stood on a wooden observation platform near Potsdamer Platz in 1969 to peer over the Wall, and to recall the three or four eerie occasions when I'd passed through East German controls to walk around East Berlin and the grimness of what I'd seen.

"The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, and the breakup of the Soviet Union were still to come, so it seemed that we were still in the middle of the fall of communism rather than at its end. But I knew immediately that the fall of the Wall was the beginning of German unification. I ran up against almost universal disbelief when I expressed that opinion, especially from the German students on campus

"I told them that according to the Willie Sutton Principle, unification was inevitable. Sutton was a bank robber who, when asked why he robbed banks, supposedly said, 'Because that's where the money is.' For a bankrupt East, West Germany was where the money was, and it was only a matter of time until Germans on both sides of the now-perforated Iron Curtain recognized that. I said something similar at an alumni event in Washington D.C., and was met with the same unwillingness to see where events were trending.

"So as a German historian, the day that truly sticks in my memory is actually Oct. 3, 1990. That's when the unification formally occurred, rather than the day almost a year earlier when the Wall came down.

Jan. 1, 2000: the dawn of Y2K

Time Magazine Cover on Jan.1, 2020

Robert Coen Professor Emeritus of Economics

"I was an associate dean for the College at the time, overseeing curriculum, advising and disciplinary matters. We had been moving from a paper course-registration system to a computer system, and there was a real concern that there might be some time bombs in the network that we would only come across when the date changed to 2000. We were all on edge.

"As critical deadlines were approaching, one of our assistant deans came into his office one morning and panicked when he found that his desktop computer wasn't working. Everyone in the office was totally rattled, including me, thinking that a malicious Y2K bug had probably sabotaged the computer and might infect the entire office. I immediately began trying to find a technical consultant to diagnose the problem.

"As I was about to engage someone, our office administrator walked into my office with a big smile on her face. She had fixed the problem: the computer had been unplugged!

"Lesson: before blaming your dead computer on computer viruses or landmark events like Y2K, first check to make sure that it is plugged in."

Sept. 11, 2001

New York 9.11

Susan Held ’05
Evanston, Ill.

"I was at the Northwestern marching band camp in Wisconsin. I was a first-year student, so I didn't really know anyone yet. We were rehearsing and taking a water break. I noticed people gathering around a radio and getting kind of quiet. They were talking about how one of the planes had hit a tower. It was hard to picture what the scope was, and it just seemed that it had been some sort of terrible accident. And then the second plane hit, and we realized it was not an accident.

"People were confused and freaking out. Mallory Thompson, director of bands at Northwestern, started singing Amazing Grace, and people began singing along, just for something to do. Very few people had cell phones back then, but those who did began passing them around so that people could try to talk to their loved ones. Everyone was leaving the same message: 'We're OK. We're scared, but we're fine, we're safe.'

"The worst part was that the drum line had been rehearsing separately. As we heard them coming over from the next field, we realized, 'Oh my God, none of them know.' It was a very long five minutes between the time that we knew and they knew too.

"Marching band camp follows the same schedule every year, and Tuesday is the day you learn the Star Spangled Banner. So that's what we did on 9/11 - we played the Star Spangled Banner together for the very first time."

Nov. 8, 2016: the 2016 presidential election

Election Night 2016 Sabrina Williams ’18
Arlington, Va.

"I was serving as co-president of the Political Union, a nonpartisan debate organization on the Northwestern campus. That night, we were holding an election watch party in Harris Hall. We had the election night news coverage projected on the screen and we all sat together and watched as the results came in.

"The night started off with jokes and smiles. Everyone was very relaxed. But around 10 or 11 pm, the room started to fall quiet. Around 12:30 am, my roommates and I walked home in shock.

"The campus was dead silent. I didn’t see anyone out. The expectation had been that Hillary Clinton would win, so everyone—my roommates and I, the wider campus—seemed very thrown off, wondering 'What in the world does this mean?'

"The next day, many professors told their classes, 'If you need an hour, if you need a day, if you need some time to process this, go ahead,' because I think the election of Donald Trump took everyone by surprise. Maybe some of the political science professors had had it nailed down, but most of the campus was pretty shocked by the way the election turned out."

Aug. 21, 2017: the solar eclipse


Shane Larson
Research Associate Professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy

"My family and I were set up on a hillside in Casper, Wy., with a vast number of our amateur astronomy colleagues. We arrived early: 5:30 am! We knew we were in for a wait, as the eclipse wasn’t due to start until 10:22am, and totality wouldn’t start until 11:42 am.

"We paced back and forth restlessly. We took selfies with each other. We joked around. We played games. We made cookie art to track the eclipse. You know — normal nerd herd stuff.
"And then, we knew the moment was coming. The light got really flat and dim all around. It started getting darker, quickly. At the last moment before the sun was completely covered, its left side burst out in a brilliant flare we call 'the diamond ring.'

"Simultaneously, the right side of the sun was illuminated with a sharp-edged circle that rimmed the edge of the moon. And then the sun was gone. The total solar eclipse had begun.

"That entire hillside erupted with a thousand other people cheering, screaming, whistling, and shouting with joy and astonishment. You can find a million photos online of those precious few moments of darkness, suffused with the effervescent, gossamer glow of the sun’s corona. But none of them capture everything I remember now in my mind’s eye: joy, stupefying awe, ineffable wonder.

"There is nothing quite so profound as standing in the shadow of an eclipse."


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