By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – When Montana State University history professor Dr. Robert Rydell tells stories of the past, he expresses an innate ability to make history relevant.
Speaking on Oct. 8 during a lecture that marked the release of his newest book, “Democracy by Degrees: The 125th Anniversary History of Montana State University,” Rydell presented a green hat known as the freshman beanie from a time when MSU was Montana State College and enjoyed fame as the Aggies during the first half of the 20th century.
He described the ritual policed by upperclassmen when freshmen were required to wear the hat on campus. If they didn’t, the offenders could be placed in stocks in front of the Strand Union Building. “And you would have your bottom swatted. How does that register in today’s world?” he said, holding up a paddle that elicited many chuckles from the audience.
MSU President Waded Cruzado celebrated the release of Rydell’s book, thanking those who have helped to define the university. “They were and they are instrumental in building this cathedral of knowledge, and like any splendid cathedral in the world, ours is still under construction.”
In addition to sharing stories much like that of the freshman beanie, “Democracy by Degrees” is a companion book to “In the People’s Interest,” a 1993 edition commemorating the 100th anniversary of MSU, for which a much younger Rydell collaborated with fellow professors Jeffrey Safford and Pierce Mullen.
The new book explores the last 25 years, picking up where “In the People’s Interest” left off. Rydell worked on the project for roughly three years, finding himself amid many linear feet of physical records and documents in MSU’s special collections, touring nearly 2 miles of underground tunnels beneath Montana Hall and the Centennial Pedestrian Mall, as well as interviewing approximately 50 individuals in order to gather oral histories in the absence of paper records.
“The idea here is that the book has many themes,” Rydell said in an interview prior to the book release. “It talks about the rise of the research enterprise, it talks about the strong success of students, it talks about the changes in legislative funding.”
He added that one of his favorite aspects of the book is the vibrant photo essay highlighting public art on campus. “There is some quite wonderful art here on campus that people just walk by. I hope to make that a bit harder to do by calling attention to it.”
Another important aspect of the book, and the reason for the title, is what Rydell describes as the mission of a land grant college.
“I think an argument could be constructed right now that this institution’s importance is greater than it ever has been,” he said. “Looking forward, land grant colleges, I think, have to understand why they were created—not just to create economic opportunity, but to rebuild civic faith, to endow its students with a deep understanding of what it means to be citizens.”
Visit msubookstore.org to learn more about “Democracy by Degrees.”