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The History Of Time, Briefly

Facing the Faculty

By Douglas M. Pravda

John H. Coatsworth has an unusual talent in his ability to cover long periods of history in a relatively short time.

This semester, Coatsworth in teaching the first-half of a two semester survey of Latin American history, which covers from 20,000 B.C. to 1914.

When asked how he manages to cover so much material in a single semester, Coatsworth chuckles and responds "selectively."

Wearing a dark suit and tie, Coatsworth leans back comfortably in his chair and says the moves from 20,000 B.C.--"more or less the date human beings first arrived"--through the Aztec and Inca Empires in the 1500's in just two weeks.

No one has ever complained that he moves to quickly, he says.

Perhaps Coatsworth, Gutman professor of Latin American affairs, moves so quickly because he seems to have very little time on his hands.

An avid moviegoer and a ballet and symphony afficianado, Coatsworth has little leisure time because he is currently president of the American Historical Association, a post he calls a "one-year sentence."

"Like many other responsibilities, some professional obligations are a distraction from research and teaching," he says.

Coatsworth draws a distinction between the performers he admires and the professors he works with.

"I think teachers fall into two categories," he says. "Those who succeed because they are entertaining and good performers and the rest of us."

Coatsworth says the job of AHA president is time consuming because the association is in a major transition, "from which it should emerge as a more active organization."

The professor says the AHA is at a crossroads because currently "there is a huge amount of history-and historian bashing."

Some examples of this trend include "the controversies over efforts to create national standards for history in high schools, controversies over what kinds of history writing are politically correct or incorrect and debates in Congress over the survival of agencies that have promoted historical research."

When not working an AHA, Coatsworth is also the director of Harvard's new Latin American Center, which he says has three primary goals.

"It tries to promote interest in Latin America at Harvard, provide support for faculty and student research and helps to strengthen Harvard's ties to Latin America," he says.

Coatsworth first joined the Harvard faculty in the fall of 1993 after 23 years teaching at the University of Chicago, but he says he did not stay at Harvard for very long.

"My first year I spent on sabbatical in Madrid," Coatsworth says.

The University of Chicago had already arranged the trip, Coatsworth says, and Harvard agreed to match the promise.

Coatsworth says he worked on two books while in Spain, but was only able to finish one, titled. The History of Central America and the U.S

The other book, which he says he began about 20 years ago and hopes to complete soon, fittingly covers a long period of history--the economic history of Mexico from 1700 to the mid-20th century.

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