Tag Archives: Nicolas Hoffmann

Commencement Address

Recently, I was asked to give the Commencement Address at the first school I taught, Oak Mountain Academy. Luckily for me, the speech went over well, but printed below is the speech I wrote. Now, those who know me know that this speech is about 85% of what I said, but here it is, enjoy.


My name is Nic Hoffmann and I used to teach here at Oak Mountain. I know that sounds very 12 Step, but you know, I left about two years ago and it’s always wonderful to be back on the Mountain and doing so, I want to make sure that I claimed my credentials. I would like to thank Paula and the Board for welcoming me, the students for inviting me, and Michael for introducing me, that introduction was so kind, it is like I wrote it.

I don’t know about my other teacher friends out there, but I’ve often thought about what I would say if given the opportunity to give a graduation address. It is a challenge each time and it is not one I take on lightly. I am used to speaking in public in lectures and before students, but that is building relationships, this is one shot. Though the students are too excited to pay attention, and the parents are trying to get pictures, I know that my former boss is paying close attention. However, it is a challenge because it is to not just one year I am summing up or words of wisdom I am generically trying to impart. It is years of knowing the students. Lecturing to classes of more than 100 college students, you hardly get to know any students and I will most likely never teach them again. However, at Oak Mountain you get to teach on the same students over and over again and before that, they filter up from the elementary school and middle school where they begin to have a legend of who you actually are. There is a weird amount of pressure that seems to be put on us. Perhaps it’s the intimate setting of the small classes and the proximity of teachers and students that is almost unheard of anywhere else.  Perhaps more than that, it’s also a simple kind of connection that we all have to this this place.

The students, many of which have been together since middle school if not earlier, are attached in a way that’s kind of interesting.  There is a created environment on the Mountain that allows them to do the kind of learning and growing that makes the Oak Mountain experience a unique experience. It seems like students have lived in this world for so long now that this is almost like a family reunion much more than it is a graduation.

While leaving the Mountain presents some challenges, and going to college can be scary, it is important to note that while we protected you here, we have given you the tools needed to succeed. Now, I know that these tools are difficult to quantify; when you think of an English, Science, Math, or Social Studies, you don’t necessarily think of real-world experience. Additionally, even on this faculty I know there were people who knew they wanted to be teachers all along and those that found teaching along the way. In my own CV, which is what pretentious people call their resume, I have teacher, lecturer, and conference speaker, the kind of things you would expect of a teacher, but while doing my graduate work I added consultant podcaster and book reseller dealing with large auctions to that list.

The tools I am referring to are twofold. First, you have to be willing to try things and to adapt. The fact that podcasting didn’t exist really a decade ago may make it seem novel, but now it is a multibillion dollar industry and I am soliciting grant money for it. Several teachers here had other professions first or will leave teach. Similarly, the career that most of you will do in the next five to ten years may not even exist yet and you will most likely change jobs more than once. Even if you are a professional like a doctor, lawyer, professor, or reverend, (one of those careers with letters after their name), you will most likely have a specialty or training that is only in its infancy now.

With all of this, you may wonder why learn all the miscellany anyway. Clearly, the universities have become extremely focused as well, stripping out the liberal arts classes that make the students beg the question “when will I ever use this.” I understand this frustration. However, this should be an opportunity. It is now nearly impossible to learn what you need in your career from university education, it is only to get you started.  If you are an MD, you might be a specialist as a doctor in a field that didn’t exist when you started med school you and will definitely get be using medicines and techniques that were developed after when your textbooks were printed, every case in law could set a precedent that can change how you practice, and your first business might be the kind that your business school professor may have never even have conceived of.

I teach history because I see it as the lynchpin; the thing that holds the world and all knowledge together. However, when I teach it, what I want students to take away, other than Hoffmann is a really bad drawer and watch where you stop to ask for directions, it may start a world war, is that there is rarely a correct answer. History is gray area. When I was an undergrad, I had a microbiology professor who like to say there is no black and white in science, it’s all gray area, a 5 to 4 decision. Which in some ways is terrifying, because this is medicine and he’s the doctor, he’s the one is supposed to be treating me as a patient, I want him sure. However, think about it. You have four symptoms, it could be a common cold or, according to WebMD, it could be cancer. Five to Four. Now I realize that even some of the dates, facts, and figures that textbooks so love are wrong; if anyone states they can give you a precise, black or white, yes or no answer in most real situations, they are most likely not telling you the whole truth.

When I’m lecturing, and it doesn’t matter if it was in high school or in college, the most frustrating thing to me is people are so sure on something, generally, of course, that means that they are sure that I’m wrong. So sure, in fact, that they’re not even willing to look at other evidence. That is the second tool you hopefully learned to take to college, be willing to learn.

One of my favorite classes and, of course least favorite depending on the material, always was literature courses. I loved them and I hated them simultaneously, because you know you could hit me over the head with the Aeneid and that would be the closest I would get to understanding it, but there are those emotional cues and emotional moments that make me have a connection. It doesn’t matter if it’s Huck Finn realizing he can’t turn in Jim, or Biff understanding why Willie had to kill himself in Death of a Salesman, and whether or not Hamlet goes crazy or is just acting, it is these big emotional moments that we were asked to feel and interpret. Most English teachers I ever had hated multiple choice, they wanted us to explain and understand. They may have been the only ones laughing at Candide or Tartuffe, but we were expected to understand why.  It is this tool that we are challenged with the most in everyday life. Yes, math helps me every day, but in English we were encouraged to interpret. I fear that people assume with other things there should not be such interpretation.

In my mind, academic history is this nebulous thing with tweed and suede patches. They studied ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. My studying of American History comparably is civics. Why things a century ago affect the current election, why the poor stay poor, and what does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican. If these were documents in an English class there would be discussion and debate, but in real life people treat such things as black and white. Further, there are probably books that you have read and reread, each time getting something new out of them. In high school and college, there seemed to be some books I never could get away from. However, for some reason, if someone learned a simplified fact in an elementary or middle school textbook, they seem to think such things never change. I sometimes wish my dissertation could be translating a wallet sized piece of parchment and call it a day, because everything in American history becomes political and people seem to not like challenges. I know that if I construct my narrative out of thousands of pages of Civil War letters, diaries and orders, someone else can look at the same materials and come up with a completely different conclusion and I would have to engage them and I accept the challenge. So my call to you, of course, is to challenge as well.

I know that generally, people get told to follow your passions. Which is fine advice and necessary to fulfill the ever important 10,000 hours of deliberate practice so important to Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson’s idea of expertise. However, more important than that is be willing to learn and apply that learning. Going to most universities, you will need to take you basic 101s again, the same liberal art classes you took in high school; a math or two, a science here, a social studies course there, and an English. This is to replace the classical education we no longer deem super necessary, but for whom the term Academy is named (after Plato’s famous one).

The idea of taking these classes was always to teach people to question, to learn by surrounding them with the all-important knowledge that would allow them to be the critical thinkers that lead the world. When you leave here and even when you leave college, I will acknowledge that it may never come up that Chester Arthur became president after James Garfield (who hated Mondays), was assassinated, that his doctors most likely killed him, or that his assassin Charles Guiteau was kicked out of a sex cult three times. However, it does matter you will now look up that fact.

We are surrounded by people who state things as though they are facts that aren’t fact, opinions like they are facts that are also not facts, and call the people who fact check them liars. This is not discourse. It doesn’t matter whether you love or hate Ronald Reagan, think that Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman belongs on the front of the $20 bill, or politically identify as Democrat or Republican. Your job is to actually learn what that means.

Throughout this nation’s long and often delicate history, the most important question was who is American. The answer has changed over time, with racial components, gender components, and class components all boiling down to who deserves to call themselves one of us. In the end, we decided that the best way to make people we deem Americans, Americans was with education. Slowly, over time, we decided what was needed to learn to be a good citizen. This may seem either archaic or conspiratorial, but you can see it when you look at the news and apply for college. SAT, ACT, AP Exams, Graduation Exams, Common Core, none of which are designed to make you think, they are designed to make you memorize. Teaching to the test has become a mantra. In fact, as a state Georgia was doing so bad on the exams, we stopped taking them, but there are still end of course exams in eight fields. The idea was to guarantee you had the knowledge to become a good citizen in black and white. Your parents, at this point, may be the ones nodding. The world of graduation exams is one most of you never really knew. They put you in a place like Oak Mountain to avoid such things, that is your special advantage.

You are now entering a world where your ability to think critically is key and it is what will make you a star. You will be celebrated for challenging and seeking. You have the opportunity to be an expert learner and put in your 10,000 hours of study and learning. It is not just for those in liberal art fields; it is in engineering and law, medicine and business, science and math, all people who challenge and think creatively and critically of results. Even the sciences need more of a critical eye and meta-analysis.  If you can tell me if dark chocolate and red wine are good or bad for me, I will give you tenure. It is not just media reporting on science that is contradictory, it is textbooks that are decades out of date before they print, politicians and economists saying things they believe, with numbers to prove it that are utterly out of sync, and people expecting what they tell you never to be questioned. However, that is their job. It is up to you to educate yourselves. It doesn’t matter if you learned your history from me, Mr. Louttit, Mr. Tuttle, a lecture hall professor or John Green on Crash Course; you have to be willing to think critically about all of it.

In the end, it is important that all of us are willing to do this. As students, your job is to learn as much as possible, to engage and grow. Even as academics, we learn and we listen. I recently took my PhD exams. After reading 200 books, writing 53 pages over three eight hour days, the first thing said in my two hours long oral defense was, “now, Mr. Hoffmann, that is not how I would have interpreted it.” Don’t worry, I passed, but the struggle is what made it feel worth it. As you go forward, make sure you are willing to challenge and to learn so that you feel like you have earned it too. Thank you.


GAH on Air

Thanks to the support of David Parker, Dudeletter Podcasting (my podcasting arm) was a part of this year’s Georgia Association of Historians annual conference. While there, I interviewed Ben Parten and talked about his paper on The Confessions of Nat Turner. This project will expand over time, but the first episode is up on the Georgia Association of Historians website. 




Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

I know this quote is probably not the ontological narrative or historiographical prose you expect to see at the downloadbeginning of one of these posts. My passion is cultural and intellectual history, however, when I developed this interest as an undergrad, I pictured writing about the history of Christmas and Superheroes as a concept. So my when my Masters was filled with the overwhelming sinking feeling of nature of being introduced to Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Judith Butler, et al., I felt overwhelmed, like I started to lose touch with the history I so enjoyed. As a teacher at heart, I see the cultural narrative in the zeitgeist of poetry and song. For me, there is more about the working class struggle and drive for success in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman than in Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.“

As an academic, in my mind, my job is not singular; it is two-fold. I need to love being in the library. I need to love research. And, frankly, I need to love Max Weber. I have overcome that fear of Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, and Judith Butler. However, the other part of the job is to teach that information. One’s research needs to add something to humanity (as my professor Dr. Denis Gainty told my 7045 class). Unfortunately, a lot of what history adds to the narratives has wide reaching extremes.
As a child of cable TV, I grew up in the era of commercialized and commoditized history on the History Channel. The 1960s I was taught was very polar, between hippies, Civil Rights, and Anti-War against the establishment. Black and White. Over time, these ideologies won or lost, but are long since gone. Nixon was evil. History was sterilized and closed. Anti-War people today? They were a different breed! Movements were contained to an era. The radical ‘60s were such an era. On the other extreme are the dense, almost foreign texts, designed more to impress one’s peers than to impart knowledge to the populous. It was this that nearly kept me out of academia.

As an undergrad, between my Attention Deficit Disorder (diagnosed not slang) and some of the books I was assigned, such as Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolutions, made me think that academia was beyond reach. I felt like professors were a breed apart until History 101 + 102.

As a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was in a US History survey course under the impressive skill of Dr. Allan Winkler, a brilliant professor who had a predilection for leading lecture halls of some 300 students in the chorus of “Wabash Cannonball.” As outside reading for the post-Civil War segment of the course, we were assigned Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. Through the predictable dime novel plot and the simple “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” morality is the nugget of the American Dream; the sly and cunning object at the heart of American Identity which drives immigrants to these shores and the working class to hope for a better life. As we sat down with the TA and discussed it, my experiences with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came roaring back.

Like many readers in the decades since its publication, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream has resonated with me. I know this associates me with the dozens helpless druggies that see deeper meaning in all things, but I urge that this is not the case. Along with many others my age, I saw the Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro movie in high school and soon after read the book. However, not unlike The Big Lebowski, the movie seemed merely to exude a form of livelihood my mundane middle class white upbringing did not. I was not a druggie. I was a nerd, frankly, and with that, all the trappings of school work and attentiveness to study. Fear and Loathing represented a challenge to that.

The story is told through the character Raoul Duke, a representation of Hunter S. Thompson’s own experiences in Las Vegas. Thompson’s urging in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is much more complex than a standard exploring America narration like Kerouac’s On the Road. Thompson’s search for the American dream is a definin
g literary moment of New Journalism, becoming, as Thompson himself put it, Gonzo Journalism. The sensational mixture of fiction and autobiography, curiosity and confidence, fear and loathing, creates a world in which the broken man looking for the American dream finds both its death and still beating heart and the core of shallow soullessness in a vivid parody of the 19th and early 20th century oddity that is the Circus Circus casino.

While the book writhes in the bizarre and hilarious from the opening lines of “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” to the description of the drugs in the trunk “We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” However, the books core message is one of loss. They really are trying to find the dream lost and as a desperate searcher, he looks for the signs of victory of his movement; his people.

“Strange memories onthis nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”


In many ways, the Wave Speech (as seen above) is the very essence of what history is. The book is filled with utter chaos and distraction. Yet out of that chaos, comes a sad truth, a narration of a bygone generation. The job is the historian, the true historian, is to not just describe what happened, but why. To get to academia, we have to denigrate the ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and the ‘who,’ to being just the starting point of the story.

In depicting the character of Raoul Duke, Hunter Thompson is the cartoon of a character after the era. He is the quintessential sixties washout. While his attempts to grapple with the idea of America are humorous, his attempts to discover the American Dream are incredible. The dark heart of the American Dream he discovers is sublime. The sense of loss, the sense of defeat, the realization of the end of an era is incredible. History is not mundane and finished. History is a social and cultural movement. It is not black and white.

This work had weight to me. As I started to understand that weight, I put into context some of the heavier works. I spread out to Howard Zinn and James Loewen. I realized that Hunter S. Thompson’s form of journalism as a foil to the other “new journalists” of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion represented the recollection of a tarnished era that its survivors still grapple with for meaning. If that is not academic, then I cannot be either.