Speaker: Zach Shore

This is Not Who We Are: Shining a Light Amidst Deep Moral Conflicts

*** Please note the special day for this event -- the call falls on Sunday, instead of our usual Saturday time. 

When Zachary Shore was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, he called his parents to tell them he was dropping out. Legally blind by age 16, his vision had continued to deteriorate, and he found himself socially isolated, fearful, and debilitated by eye strain. After an encounter on campus with a fellow blind student who had just returned from a solo excursion with seeming ease, Zach had a moment of awakening: “My problem wasn’t my blindness. It was my lack of skills and confidence.” He would indeed come to find a remarkable set of skills and confidence — eventually earning a doctorate from Oxford University, becoming a distinguished scholar of international conflict and an author of six books, and traveling to more than 30 countries, many of them as solo journeys.

Zach credits his strong sense of self to the nurturance of his parents. But his ability to move freely about the world came through a rigorous and demanding training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) — where he made his way after his moment of awakening in college — whose requirements for graduation would challenge even the best of sighted students. Shop, prepare, and cook a meal for 40 people, all by yourself, and don’t forget the entire cleanup. Accomplish a “drop route”; that is, find your way back to the LCB after being dropped in an unfamiliar location, without asking anyone, using only environmental clues like the direction of the sun. And take a solo trip to a city you’ve never visited before, with an assigned checklist of to-dos.

Armed with solid skills and having confronted many of his fears, Zach returned to finish his studies at U. Penn. He went on to receive a master's in history, a doctorate in modern European history, a postdoctoral research fellowship at Harvard, and a Fulbright Award, among other distinctions. His books, which have hard-hitting names like What Hitler Knew, A Sense of the Enemy, and Breeding Bin Ladens, examine themes like morality in war and “strategic empathy,” focusing on understanding the enemy. As a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Northern California, he is “doing his best to give back to the community by helping military leaders and others think more deeply about the choices they make and the causes of war.”

Zach’s hard-hitting academic interests belie his gentle and modest demeanor. He has been described as “a historian of great humanity and insight” with analyses that are “penetrating yet sensitive.” He often shares stories of his personal failures and lessons learned, that “it is okay to fail as long as I try again.” Most recently, he has “tried again” and brought forth another book, This is Not Who We Are: America's Struggle Between Vengeance and Virtue. According to the esteemed historian Adam Hochschild, Zach spotlights the moral quandaries that plagued Americans as their wartime thirst for vengeance wrestled with their loftier ideals.”

As to whether his blindness sparked his broader interest in human judgment, Zach reflects, “I don’t think so… but being unable to read body language or facial expressions has certainly led me to think about how we read other people. I’m also obsessed with the general question of why people shoot themselves in the foot.”

For more than three decades, he has been an advocate of improving opportunities for the blind. He has also written on why smart people make bad decisions and how to succeed in graduate school. Through his company UpWords, he serves as a writing coach for authors, professionals, and students.

Please join Adam Hochschild and Rahul Brown in conversation with this insightful historian and courageous citizen of the world.

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha

May 16, 2020

Gandhi's Biographer on Social and Environmental Movements

Jacob Needleman

Jacob Needleman

May 30, 2015

Money and the Meaning of Life

Charles Halpern

Charles Halpern

Jan 28, 2017

Cultivating Wisdom for Justice and Social Transformation