Academic Festival – Mann and Human History

Photo by Krista Pylant & Cheyenne Cole

Cheyenne Cole
Managing Editor

Cameron University officially kicked off Academic Festival X, “American Identities in the 21st Century,” on Sept. 28.

Author and journalist Charles Mann visited campus for a discussion with students at 3:30 p.m. in the Johnson Auditorium in Ross Hall and to lecture about “Migration, Immigration and Emigration” at 7:30 p.m. in the University Theatre.

Mann is a correspondent for “The Atlantic,” “Science” and “Wired.” Publications including “Fortune,” “The New York Times,” “Smithsonian,” “Technology Review,” “Vanity Fair” and “The Washington Post” have published his work.

Additionally, Mann is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Lannan Foundation.

He is most well-known as the author of “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” which explores human civilization in the Americas before Columbus’ arrival. It won the National Academies Communication Award for Best Book of the Year.

As a writer, Mann wanted to create a product that would retain readers’ interests. Differences between what he’d learned in school and new science research sparked his interest in the topic.

“It wasn’t so much the discoveries themselves as the kind of impacts that they’ve had on our society,” he said, “and I began getting more interested in those, and one of the things that struck me was that new developments in technology were actually changing our views of the past as well as the present and future.”

Mann decided to narrow the broad subject down to three main sub-topics – the population in the Americas, how long the inhabitants had lived there and the natives’ effect on the environment.
To him, one of the most interesting elements was that the Americas’ population matched that of Europe.

“There’s a tremendous argument about the exact number [of people],” he said, “but typically, they say 40-60 million, and I should note that the estimates keep rising. I wouldn’t be surprised if it shook out at around 80 million by the time everything is done.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Ronna Vanderslice said Mann’s publications are unique because he writes about history from the perspective of a journalist.

“Charles Mann is fascinating because he’s a journalist,” she said, “so he’s not a historian. He’s a journalist who’s written these incredible books by researching topics that are just very really fascinating to the typical person.”

His follow-up, New York Time’s best-seller “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” examines how European settlements affected the Americas.

Mann said Alfred W. Crosby Jr.’s book about the Columbian Exchange inspired him to research and elaborate on the concept.

“The first 200 million years ago,” he said, “a single giant land mass, Pangea, [existed]. Geological forces break it up, and the various parts of the world separate for tens of millions of years, so there’s almost no communication between them and no communication between ecosystems. What Columbus does is bring it all back together.”

He said the truth is much more complicated than the photos shown in history books of Columbus and pilgrims arriving to an empty land in the Americas.

“It just wasn’t a matter of people,” he said. “It was a matter of plants, animals, insects [and] microorganisms, and then, they have just as much effect on human history as humans do – sometimes more.

“One of the biggest kinds of things that move around are really ideas – these range from ways of thinking about agriculture to cultural movements to things as fundamental as freedom and liberty.”
According to Vanderslice, Mann’s acute attention to detail is what sets him apart.

“Most of us remember ‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,’ and that’s kind of what we know about,” she said, “but what he studied about was – what were the effects of his discovery and how the most minute details that maybe we didn’t think about have really influenced kind of where we are today.”

He advised students to consider the various ways humans can learn about the past today.

“Genetics is now teaching us huge amounts about the human past,” he said. “All these new methodologies are contributing to our understanding of the past, which then helps us understand the present.”

According to Mann, applying the past to the present is helpful.

“The politics of the day don’t have much to do with what has actually gone on in the past and what is now going on in the present,” he said. “Maybe if you talk about what happened in the past, it gives you a different kind of [perspective] to look at what’s happening in the present and makes you think about it a little differently.”

Mann’s next book “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Vision’s to Shape Tomorrow’s World” considers two scientists’ conflicting opinions on how an increasing population will live in the 21st century. It will be released in January 2018.

Every three years, Cameron hosts a themed academic festival year in which noted guests address relevant topics.

Vanderslice said this year’s academic festival theme is appropriate during the current political climate and corresponds to the major social issues, such as race and national security, in the U.S. today.

“American Identities in the 21st Century is a very timely topic based on all the discussions about diversity and race and where we are today,” she said. “It shows the insight of the [academic festival] committee picking this a long time ago.”

Mann said he was pleased to join Cameron for the academic festival and to interact with the students.

“These state-regional universities are the frontlines of education,” he said. “These are the schools that really make a difference in students’ lives, so if I can – in a small way – help the school on its mission, I’m really happy to do that.”

Throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, two more guest speakers will visit Cameron to lecture in conjunction with Academic Festival X.

Former NPR host, special correspondent, founder of “The Race Card Project” and journalist Michele Norris will discuss “Social Justice and the American Dream” at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 in the University Theatre.

Retired General Jack Keane presents “America’s Place in the World: Power, Diplomacy and Commerce” at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 27, 2018 in the University Theatre.

Students, faculty, staff and the community can reserve free tickets to each presentation approximately 30 days before each event at

For more information about Academic Festival X, call the Office of Public Affairs at (580) 581-2211 or email


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