Chancellor’s Professor of History
Professor of European Studies; Director Jewish Studies Program
Michael Bess is a specialist in 20th- and 21st-century Europe, with a particular interest in the social and cultural impacts of technological change. He is the author of four books: Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future (Beacon Press, 2015); Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (Knopf, 2006); The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (U. of Chicago Press, 2003; French Translation, 2011, Champ Vallon), which won the George Perkins Marsh prize (2004) of the American Society for Environmental History and an Honorable Mention (2004) from the Pinkney Prize committee of the Society for French Historical Studies; and Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945-1989. Louise Weiss (France), Leo Szilard (United States), E. P. Thompson (England), Danilo Dolci (Italy) (U. of Chicago Press, 1993).
He is currently working on a book project entitled “What makes us human? From neurons to the Sistine Chapel.” The book will provide a synthesis of contemporary research on human nature and human personhood, integrating the most recent findings of the natural sciences, medicine, and engineering with the state of the art in the humanities and social sciences. It will identify the core features and capabilities of human personhood, showing how those distinctive qualities emerge from the biological and social contexts in which they are embedded.
Bess has received fellowships or grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Institutes of Health / National Human Genome Research Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Fulbright research grants program, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.
Bess has been teaching at Vanderbilt since 1989. He teaches undergraduate courses on World War II, twentieth-century Europe, and Western Civilization, as well as specialized seminars on environmentalism, the boundaries of the human, or utopian thought. His graduate courses include a survey of the historiography on twentieth-century Europe, and a semester-long workshop to train graduate students for teaching history at the college level. Bess has been awarded the Jeffrey Nordhaus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching, and the Vanderbilt Chair of Teaching Excellence.