Teaching Our Journal: Trouble with the Statistical Curve

By Ronald Seyb, Skidmore College

Teaching the Article:  Ideas and Exercises

The following exercises encourage students to examine both Roosevelt’s leadership during the first years of his presidency and Lippmann’s coverage of and commentary on that leadership with an eye toward learning how to think historically.  In their 2007 article, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke identified what they called “the five Cs of historical thinking”:  change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency.  These five Cs are equally pertinent for the journalist seeking to explain a novel moment and a political leader seeking to respond to fast-moving events that skirt the boundaries of existing frameworks for decision-making.  Thinking historically, in short, is not just for historians.  It is an analytical approach that anyone interested in making good choices, offering sound interpretations, and coping with uncertainty can profit from mastering.

Each exercise below asks students to review a series of columns and letters written by Lippmann—most of which Lippmann composed between 1930 and 1935—prior to addressing a series of questions designed both to give them practice in thinking historically and to help them understand the different interpretative approaches employed by historians and social scientists.

Lippmann’s columns in the New York Herald Tribune were syndicated in a number of newspapers and thus are available through most databases that provide access to historical newspapers.  The columns cited in “Trouble with the Statistical Curve” were accessed through “ProQuest Historical Newspapers:  Boston Globe (1872-1981).”

The historian John Morton Blum has published an edited collection of Lippmann’s letters in Public Philosopher: Selected Letters of Walter Lippmann (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1985).  All letters referenced in the exercises below can be found in this volume.

Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippmann
From the Library of Congress

Exercise #1:  How to Be an Island in the Stream of Time: Assessing Change over Time in a Moment of Flux

During Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, Lippmann sought in his columns to be both attentive to the exceptional characteristics of the economic crisis and cognizant of the ways that it represented the culmination of a series of changes that had played out over an extended period of time, with the result that, as he noted in his July 22, 1932, column, future historians would “see continuity where we see abrupt change.”

Lippmann was aware of the difficulties of identifying which of Roosevelt’s institutional and policy changes would have permanent effects.  He noted, for example, in his column that “the permanent forms of human life and of national existence change far less than it would seem that they must change when everything seems to be moving; for while nothing human is eternal, it is also true that nothing in the deeper patterns of human relations is easily altered.”  Lippmann did, nonetheless, seek to help his readers understand the ways the moment they were experiencing showed both continuity with and deviations from the past.

Read the Lippmann columns listed below and then answer the questions that follow.

Lippmann Columns

“Congress Is on the Spot,” December 8, 1931
“False Gods,” May 20, 1932
“Crisis and Renewal,” July 22, 1932
“Policy and Authority,” March 1, 1933
“States of Mind,” May 11, 1933
“A Crisis in History,” October 13, 1933
“The War Generation,” June 1, 1935
“The Paramount Issue,” December 26, 1935


  • Does Lippmann make a persuasive case that the generation that came of age during World War I confronted a unique set of problems and challenges? If so, what were the critical properties that distinguished these problems and challenges from those of the past?
  • If, as Lippmann wrote in his May 11, 1933, column, the most important lesson that can be gleaned from the study of history is “humility, that pride of opinion and easy certainty are folly, and then that he who would search for the lessons of experience will never reach the end,” then what is the value of the study of history? Can a “usable past” ever be obtained if history cannot offer lessons?

Secondary Sources

Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History, January 2007.

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002).

From the Library of Congress


Roosevelt’s Inauguration, 1933.
From the Library of Congress

Exercise #2:  Causality: That Obscure Object of Desire

Lippmann’s focus on Roosevelt’s leadership during the first years of the New Deal may have caused him to neglect other important, less perceptible variables that might have been equally or even more important for the nation’s economic and spiritual recovery.  Lippmann was aware of how journalists’ tendency to highlight perceptible events or actions could blind them to less visible but sometimes more important trends or processes that might be driving change.  For example, in a letter to Adolph Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times, Lippmann lamented the tendency of the Associated Press to focus on “accidents, crimes, or events of unusual interest” to the neglect of “a twilight zone of news of considerable importance in itself and even of greater importance to editorial writers….”  That Lippmann placed such weight on Roosevelt’s leadership in the first months of Roosevelt’s presidency thus illustrates the conflict that journalists often must manage between reporting or commenting on the visible while introducing their readers to the deeper currents that often propel human action.

Read the Lippmann columns and letters listed below and then answer the questions that follow.

Columns and Letters

“If Neither Roosevelt nor Smith—Then Baker,” February 10, 1932
“Roosevelt’s Opponents Baffled by Indecision,” February 11, 1932
“The Verdict,” November 10, 1932
“Roosevelt’s Achievement,” April 6, 1933
Letter to Adolph S. Ochs, December 30, 1925
Letter to Felix Frankfurter, September 14, 1932
Letter to Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., November 22, 1932
Letter to Felix Frankfurter, March 3, 1933


  • What does Lippmann mean by “the twilight zone of news”? Did Lippmann’s coverage of Roosevelt’s first months in office pierce this “twilight zone”?
  • Can a case be made that Lippmann was guilty of the sin that he maintained in his April 6, 1933, column the American public was prepared to commit before Roosevelt’s election in 1932: of being “in such a state of confused despair that it would have followed almost any leader anywhere he chose to go”?
  • Read David Rothkopf’s assessment of President Barack Obama’s first term, “Managing the Oval Office,” which appeared in The New York Times. Can Barack Obama’s failure to develop a coherent management strategy be understood as a Rooseveltian choice to reject comprehensive planning in favor of trying to “muddle through” an economic crisis? Why or why not?

Secondary Sources

Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York:  Random House, 1996).

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2013).

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (1963; repr., New York:  HarperCollins, 2009).


Exercise #3:  The Near Occasion of Social Science:  Sensitivity to Contingency as the Cure for Generalization  

Lippmann argued in his 1929 book, A Preface to Morals, that the scientific method offered a way to cope with the unprecedented uncertainty of the modern period.  Lippmann, however, bristled when he thought that science was being employed as an epistemology rather than as a tool.  A journalist who used the scientific method effectively must be aware of both its limitations and its promise.

One of the most important of these limitations is the tendency of social scientists to indulge in what John Lewis Gaddis calls in The Landscape of History “general particularization” or the practice of constructing a theory based on the study of a single set of historical events that purports to produce conclusions that can be generalized across time.  Gaddis offers as an alternative the historian’s practice of “placing generalizations within time” in order to highlight that findings are not applicable “beyond specific times and places.” The temptation to draw lessons for the future from the present moment is great, particularly for a columnist.  It is worth inquiring whether Lippmann always successfully resisted this temptation.

Read the Lippmann columns listed below and then answer the questions that follow.


“A Whole View of the Crisis,” April 7, 1932
“Technocracy I: The Appeal to Science,” January 31, 1933
“Technocracy IV: The Promise of Salvation,” February 3, 1933
“Masters of Their Fate,” August 11, 1933
“The Savannah Speech,” November 21, 1933
“Elusive Curves,” April 13, 1935


  • Lippmann characterizes Howard Scott’s technocracy movement in his January 21, 1933, column as “scientific hocus pocus.” How does Lippmann’s conception of science differ from the understanding of science that he contends undergirds the technocracy movement?
  • Is Lippmann’s contention in his August 11, 1933, column that “a community of free men, who proceed by argument to leadership and consent, necessarily work out their policies as they go along” an example of Lippmann acting as a social scientist determined to engage in “general particularization” by establishing a doctrine of leadership that can be generalized across time, or is he here making the case that a successful leader must be sensitive to context and contingency?

Secondary Sources

William E. Akin, Technocracy and the American Dream: The Technocrat Movement, 1900-1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Morals (1929; repr., New York:  Time Incorporated, 1964).

Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).


Exercise #4:  The Duality of Presidential Leadership:  Lippmann as Leadership Theorist?

Lippmann viewed human judgment through a gimlet eye.  In the first chapter of his 1922 book, Public Opinion, he argues that a series of changes at the turn of the century had interacted with humans’ perceptual and cognitive limitations to make a complete and accurate view of the world impossible.

Lippmann’s contention that Roosevelt was right to “muddle through” in his first months in office was consistent with his concerns about the limitations of human judgment in the new century.  Lippmann was, however, also aware of the demands of public leadership in a democracy.  The consequence of Lippmann’s appreciation of these dual imperatives is that near the end of Roosevelt’s first term he encouraged the president to explain to the public that the New Deal was not a series of ad hoc responses to events but a coherent plan for recovery.  This pivot, however, caused Lippmann to write columns during this period that seemed, at first blush, to be in tension with his earlier calls for muddling through the crisis.

Read the Lippmann columns listed below and then answer the questions that follow.


“The President’s Task,” October 10, 1933
“On Our Way,” April 20, 1934
“Making Things Too Complicated,” June 15, 1934
“Why the Administration Is Weaker,” February 21, 1935
“Cure for the Jitters,” April 23, 1935


  • Is there a way to reconcile the apparently different perspectives on leadership that Lippmann offers in his earlier and his later columns? If not, then is one left to conclude that Lippmann was inconsistent, or is there another explanation for his change of mind?
  • Does Lippmann present a coherent theory of leadership in these columns? Is it a theory that is only suitable for managing a crisis as severe as that of the Great Depression, or is it one from which, for example, modern presidents could benefit?
  • Read Frank Bruni’s New York Times column entitled “The Man or the Moment: Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson, and Presidential Comparisons.” Do you think that Lippmann would agree with Bruni’s conclusion that “… It’s undeniable that we treat our presidents as larger than life, simplifying the stories we tell.  They’re not always mighty frigates parting the waters.  They’re just as much buoys on the tides of history, rising and falling with the swells”?  Why or why not?

Secondary Sources

Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922; repr., New York: Free Press, 1997).

Stephen Skowronek, The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).


Exercise #5:  Presentism at the Creation:  Journalistic Objectivity and the Management of Complexity

Michael Schudson argues in Discovering the News that Lippmann was “the most wise and forceful spokesman for the ideal of objectivity” in the interwar years.  While scholars disagree about the precise moment when objectivity became a professional norm for journalists, there is agreement that one reason journalists adopted objectivity was that it offered them a method for managing the complexity of the modern world.

Historians’ efforts to manage complexity are less informed by an adherence to a method than by cultivating an ability to see the world through the eyes of different types of and differently situated historical actors, a skill that allows historians to resist the impulse to engage in “presentism” by invoking contemporary values either to condemn or to praise these actors’ choices.  The result of this effort to develop a sensitivity to historical context and difference is textured accounts of the past that address complexity rather than arguing or assuming it away.

Read the Lippmann columns and letters listed below and then answer the questions that follow.

Columns and Letters

“Have Faith in the People,” January 1, 1932
Letter to Lincoln Steffens, May 18, 1910
Letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., November 18, 1919
Letter to John M. Avent, May 18, 1922
Letter to Gerald W. Johnson, May 18, 1928


  • How does Lippmann’s critique of the “mechanical” brand of journalism he claims in his May 18, 1910, letter to Lincoln Steffens was practiced at the Boston Common coincide or fail to coincide with contemporary critiques of journalistic objectivity as it is practiced by “old” or “traditional” media?
  • Compare Lippmann’s January 1, 1932, column, “Have Faith in the People,” with David Brooks’ New York Times column “Goodness and Power.” How do the two columnists defend their positions? Are their approaches to grappling with the complexity of leadership in a democracy more historical or more social scientific?
  • Lippmann notes in his November 18, 1919, letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. that “the press, propaganda, and censorship… block the road to truth.” An argument can be made that, if anything, these obstacles are more formidable today than they were in 1919.  Is there still a place for objectivity in modern journalism as a bulwark against state and corporate efforts to manipulate public opinion?  If so, how might objectivity be refurbished to thrive in the modern information environment?  Can the historians’ approach to managing complexity contribute to this refurbishment?

Secondary Sources

Steven Maras, Objectivity in Journalism (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013).

David T. Z. Mindich, Just the Facts: How “Objectivity” Came to Define American Journalism (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

Michael Schudson, Discovering the News:  A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978).