Babson Magazine

Fall 2014

Challenging Perceptions

Historian James Bradford explores the past to make connections in the present with the aim of teaching younger generations empathy, sympathy, and how to think for themselves.

Bradford James

Photo: Pat Piasecki
James Bradford

James Bradford is a self-described history geek. So is his father. “My dad is a doctor, but if he wasn’t a doctor, he would have been a history professor,” says the lecturer in the History and Society Division. “He’s got this weird obsession with Abraham Lincoln. It’s kind of funny, but it really got me into the Civil War. That’s how I got into history.”

Years later in graduate school, Bradford turned his attention to issues such as the illicit drug trade, foreign policy, and economic development of Southwest Asia, especially Afghanistan. He became interested in Asia in part due to his mother. Although Bradford grew up in his father’s hometown of Bangor, Maine, his mother was born in Thailand, and trips to her homeland left him intrigued by its culture.

Taking classes in world history, however, and seeing what Bradford calls the disconnect between drug use and drug policy had a greater influence on his choice of studies. “At this juncture in human history, you can go to any city in the world and probably find heroin. What a testament to the power of that commodity that some form of heroin is in almost every major city in the world,” he says. “We often look at formal economies, and then you realize there’s a whole other economy that goes under the radar and is demonized in a way that doesn’t allow for proper analysis of the role that it plays.”

As he delved into the policies surrounding the illicit drug trade, he realized that South America, Central America, and Eastern Asia had captured the attention of many scholars. So Bradford looked elsewhere. “Southwest Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, basically, there was no published history whatsoever,” he says. “There was a lot of contemporary analysis, given the fact that it’s such a huge market, but no history.”

Bradford found his niche, but not without its challenges. Tools available to historians of other regions, such as official records and documents, often aren’t accessible—or don’t even exist—in some of these countries.

Focusing on Afghanistan, Bradford has learned Dari, one of the country’s official languages (the other is Pashto), to help decipher the documents he has uncovered. He also has visited Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, twice, most recently this summer when he stayed for nearly three weeks doing research thanks to a grant. He admits to being nervous on some days, and for good reason. On the third day of his trip, Bradford woke to hear unending rounds of automatic gunfire. “Everyone has a gun in Kabul,” he says. “You hear gunfire all the time. People fire them in the air when they’re happy. But this was different.” Fortunately, whatever was happening resolved. Later in his trip, Bradford came face to face with an agitated member of the Taliban while visiting an open-air market. The man, recognizable as Taliban from his eye makeup, threatened Bradford and his guide. “He came right up to me and was staring at me, then began talking in Pashto,” says Bradford. “My guide said, ‘We need to leave right now.’ The guy was saying get out or he would get more of his men.”

Until Afghanistan becomes more settled, Bradford is not sure when he will return. He hopes the resiliency of the people, and the energy and progressive thinking he witnessed in the youths, will prevail. In the meantime, he’ll continue to share his knowledge with students, having developed several courses based on his expertise and experiences. Since coming to the Undergraduate School last spring, Bradford has taught “Drugs and Intoxicants and World History,” “CIA in Asia,” and “Decolonization and Revolution in the 20th Century,” all of which he created. This semester he’s teaching “South Asian History” as well (that course already existed, says Bradford).

Initially, Bradford was a little concerned about teaching business students. Having taught at liberal arts colleges, including Berklee College of Music, he says, “I think the students and I went into this with skepticism of each other.” However, he has been pleasantly surprised. “The students want to learn more, even though they’re in majors that aren’t directly related to these classes,” he says. “I really enjoy teaching at Babson.”

He also maintains that knowledge of history is fundamental to understanding the contemporary world. “Students need to understand that history is nuanced. When I hear people speak about things in a sort of dogmatic way—black and white, this or that—it doesn’t convey the complexity of the situation, why people act the way they do. History helps people understand a little better that these aren’t black-and-white decisions, even if they come across that way,” he says. “If students can start to see how people make decisions and how events that unfold are not just products of one movement but of many things, many processes—that is what I’m pushing for students to take away from my classes. And not just as a student in terms of understanding history, but as a person empathizing and sympathizing with people to a certain degree about why they make decisions.”

In Bradford’s classes, students often deal with controversial topics, which can lead to heated discussions. He lets them talk and encourages respectful debate, and he makes sure not to force his opinion on them. He wants students to work toward making an informed decision on their own. “When I have students coming in asking about a topic that’s not even really related to class, but they’re interested, that’s the stuff I love,” he says. “I’m like, yeah, this is where you should look. Read this book, this book, this book, and let’s get as good a perspective as you can so you can come to how you see this topic.”

Apathy is a problem in the younger generations, says Bradford, but historically college students were the ones who pushed the most for societal and political change. “I try to get students to pay attention,” he says, “to care a little bit about the world and listen.”

James Bradford

Favorite sport?

I played football and basketball, and I love skiing. This was the first year we kind of got into it with my kids. My son is a total madman. He went straight down the mountain and fell on his face. He was 2½, and he just got up. Eating snow.

Hidden talent?

I’m pretty funny. I’d actually like to think that if I wasn’t a college professor that I’d be a stand-up comedian. My wife would probably disagree with me tremendously. I’m also really good at playing dress-up. If it makes my daughter smile, I’m all right with it.

Favorite movie?

I am a huge Monty Python fan. Life of Brian is one of the funniest movies of all time.