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Dr. Selby’s “Last Lecture”


Tuesday, February 4th, John Selby gave the next chapter of our “Last Lecture” series. Dr. Selby received his bachelor degree from the University of Arizona and his further degrees from Duke University, and began working at Roanoke College in 1986. Since coming to Roanoke College he has won many accolades and has become very distinguished. He has won, for example, the award of Outstanding Professor as well as been chosen by the Dean and President for the first endowment chair for the History Department. In the last thirty years, Dr. Selby has also made himself known as a published author and coauthor. In his history classrooms, he is known for bringing the Civil War and other moments in history to life.

On this night in the ballroom, Dr. Selby began by bringing characters of history to light. His first character was Ulysses S. Grant, who began as nothing. He was a good horse rider and a good soldier, but with hardly anything to distinguish himself. He could have let his failures knock him down, but in his late thirties, his career skyrocketed. He then gave us the advice to not despair at failures or a delay in being where we want to be in life. His examples continued with Dwight D. Eisenhower who also had to overcome setbacks, but eventually ended up in a position of more worth than he could have imagined.

Often we hear lessons of history, but we do not hear enough about the lessons from history. Lessons of history are the things we hear over media or from peers, even from teachers. Such lessons include phrases like “history repeats itself”, which Selby says is untrue. Things can never repeat themselves because no situation is ever the same. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” Selby also claims this is untrue. It’s good to know and remember the past, but it’s not essential. Sometimes, blindly moving forward does work. Some will say that the winners write history, which is true, but the losers write it also. The final example Dr. Selby brought up is that “History is simply a pack of ‘damn dirty’ lies” which the history majors in the room would all agree is an impossibility that would make their futures look pretty dim. More important than all of these things is the lessons from history, such as what we can learn from Ulysses S. Grant or Eisenhower, or what we could learn from his next example, Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, even in the height of the Civil War, would make time to speak to the common man. Sometimes those we expect to succeed do not succeed, and those who become great are the last we would expect. He even brought up less famous examples such as Clara Barton. She was one person who made a world of difference; ordinary people can make extraordinary difference. Two more lessons are that enemies do not need to stay enemies, and that a country can overcome its past. Both of these can be proved in our own country; our relationships with countries such as England and Germany or in our relationship with the Native Americans.

There is not justice in history or in this life. Look at Stalin or Hitler whose names everyone knows, when great men and women never become recognized. However, if we learn anything from history rather than of history, then we will believe that greatness is not the key, it is to live the way that the greats lived, the ones worth imitating.