Photos: Peter Julian

What I've Learned: Seth Jacobs

A few words with the BC history professor and award-winning author.

A chance purchase at a used bookstore in Chicago changed Seth Jacobs’s life. It was 1992 and the then-actor had $1.25 in his pocket, the exact price of the Documentary History of the United States. He read it on his commute to the famed Steppenwolf Theatre, where he was appearing in Twelfth Night. “I was 28 and I had never taken a college-level history class,” said Jacobs, a history professor at BC since 2001. “I started feeling a little guilty that I didn’t know anything about the history of my country. That struck me as fairly irresponsible on my part.” So he enrolled in classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the rest, as they say, is history. We spoke with the beloved teacher—known for his impressions of Henry Kissinger, Lyndon B. Johnson, and other 20th-century figures—about accepting fallibility and following his passion(s). 

I grew up in New York City. My father was an actor and I wanted to be an actor. I felt at the time I had talent. I went to Yale as an undergraduate and majored in philosophy and psychology, but that was just because my parents told me they weren’t going to pay for a Yale education if I majored in theater. So I did a lot of plays as an undergraduate. I was not an especially stellar student, and I went on to the Goodman School of Drama [now The Theatre School at DePaul University] to get my MFA. I worked as a stage actor in Chicago and other regional theaters for about five years before I started a Ph.D. program in history.

Seth Jacobs

That career shift was the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life—except for the births of my children. I did get a chance to work with some incredibly talented people who went on to become very well-known actors, like John C. Reilly, Gillian Anderson, and Michael Shannon, but it gradually dawned on me that I just wasn’t as good as these people were. I signed up for some classes during the day at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One of them just happened to be on the Vietnam War. I got hooked.

I’ve spent most of my waking hours teaching about the Vietnam War, researching the Vietnam War, and publishing about the Vietnam War. It hasn’t bored me. It’s endlessly controversial. That’s why it’s my favorite class to teach, and it keeps getting better every year. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that a number of veterans have very graciously agreed to come in and talk about their experiences in Vietnam. And the students always say that that’s the highlight of the class.

We’re at a unique moment right now where, on one hand, we’re becoming more interconnected, more interdependent than ever. Nations have manifold connections to other nations—economically, culturally. But at the same time, the institutions that were set up mostly in the wake of World War II, like NATO, the United Nations, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, are breaking down. So it’s an unusually unstable and unprecedented period in world history, and you really need to know something about international relations in order to understand what’s happening now and to fully discharge your duties as a responsible citizen of a democracy.

The highest compliment that I can pay to a Jesuit education is that I really, really wish I had received one. Father Michael Himes nailed it when he said, “The purpose of an undergraduate education, particularly a Jesuit education, is a rigorous and sustained conversation about the most important questions relating to the human condition with the widest possible circle of the best possible conversation partners.” And as he points out, many of those conversation partners aren’t breathing anymore, which is why we have libraries and teachers.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people who win the teaching awards, at least in the history department, are people who have done other things with their lives. They didn’t stampede directly out of undergraduate into a Ph.D. program. They did other things. They’ve been out of work, they’ve been broke, they’ve served in the Army. They actually stood up for something or risked something or had some experience of life outside the ivory tower. At the end of the day, I’m glad I had the experience I did. I still wish in many ways I started studying history when I was younger, but I might have lost a valuable dimension of what makes me a good teacher now.

To quote Benjamin Franklin: “Doubt a little of your own infallibility.” That’s probably one of the more important lessons I’ve learned, both in theater and as an instructor: that sometimes my judgment is just wrong. Even if I feel really passionately about it, it’s wrong and counterproductive. Coming back to the notion of Jesuit education: Make it more about we, and a little less about me, and not only will the quality of your work improve, you will be an infinitely happier human being.


More Stories