Sunday, August 04, 2019

John Herd Thompson 1946-2019 RIP

John Herd Thompson, a prolific historian of Canada and Canadian-American relations, who seemed to know and be admired by everyone in the Canadian historical community at one time, died recently at 72.  Obituary is here.

I did not know him well, but I interviewed him a number of times, and the interviews tended to turn into conversations.  When he was teaching at McGill, he became one of the founders of the Heritage Minutes, one of a few historians trusted to advise on the minutes. Patrick Watson, their impresario, called him "a real burr in my side who became a good friend." Thompson once described for me the essential challenge of being a historian working with film makers. The director planned an outdoor setting for one Minute.  John explained there was excellent documentation -- it took place indoors, and they even knew what the room looked like. "John," said the director genially, "it was three hundred years ago. No one is going to know!"

John taught at several Canadian universities and also at Duke University in North Carolina.  I can't remember why, but he once began to explain to me the difference between graduate-school education in the United States and Canada. In the United States, he said, it's an industrial process like the beef-cattle industry: highly scheduled, carefully managed, "and it's true they all come out a bit the same, but they do slice well." In Canada, by comparison, "we just set 'em loose on the open range and let them fend for themselves. It's not very efficient. Winter gets some of them, wolves get some. But some of them come through."

I don't think I wrote down his actual words, but I've never forgotten them. Is this true?  It kinda rings true for me, but I don't work with grad schools much. 
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