Brown U. President Paxson weighs in on history

Feb 28, 2013

Brown University president Christina Paxson was part of an interesting forum in the Atlantic Monthly’s March edition. The question asked of a group of intellectuals and academic historians was: What day  most changed the course of history?

Ken Burns, the documentary film maker, said it was June 28, 1914, the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, which started World War I. Yale history professor Paul Kennedy said  it was the day Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton politics professor, cited July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.

Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Penn State, chose June 22, 1941, the day Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s decision to send 3 million soldiers across the border of the Soviet Union, which led to a two-front German war effort that eventually led to Hitler’s defeat and the destruction of the Nazi state.

Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, said August 26, 1920, was the crucial date because that is when women in the United States got the right to vote.

Paxson did not choose a war or diplomatic landmark. Rather she said that the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg was the most important because ```western civilization turned into a path toward more efficient, accessible communication of knowledge. The ensuing democratization of ideas had a profound impact on societies in the second half of the second millennium.’’