by Daniel B. Frye
Any young academic who has lived and traveled in some thirty countries, earned a doctorate in history from Oxford University, and written three influential books before forty is clearly a rising star in his field. Zach Shore, one of the early beneficiaries of the NFB’s expanded scholarship program, has done all this and more. He is an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and a senior fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Clearly he is a very smart, self-aware, and thoughtful young man. We believe that Federationists old enough to remember Zach as a scholarship winner as well as those who have never met him would enjoy getting to know him.
Zach Shore attended his first NFB convention as a national scholarship winner in 1987. Since his first exposure to the philosophy and work of the Federation that year in Phoenix, Arizona, he has been intermittently involved in the NFB for the last twenty-two years. He readily acknowledges that his introduction to the Federation has shaped his identity as a blind person. "I attended some local chapter meetings. I read some of Dr. Jernigan's essays, especially `A Definition of Blindness.' Then I began the process of truly thinking of myself as a blind person."
During the interview for this story Zach recalled, with a tinge of regret in his voice, “At the 1987 convention I came off as flippant and immature, and I made a rather poor impression on Dr. Jernigan by telling the convention at the board of directors meeting that I wanted to be the first blind manager of a major league baseball team…. The convention seemed enthusiastic, but some on the scholarship committee were underwhelmed. I didn't understand, because I was too young, that the NFB is made up of blind people who give all they have to help blind students have chances that they themselves never had. I see now why Dr. Jernigan and others expected me to take things more seriously than I did.”
Despite what appeared to Zach to be an inauspicious introduction to the NFB and his negative assessment of his 1987 scholarship performance, he went on to recall, "But some Federation leaders like Fred Schroeder and Joanne Wilson thought I had something more to offer." Based on facts and not impressions, apparently even Dr. Jernigan saw potential in this young man. During the convention Zach asked Dr. Jernigan if he could sit in on a closed-door meeting that Dr. Jernigan had called for Fred Schroeder, Zach's scholarship mentor that day, and others directing or planning progressive training centers for the blind. He agreed to let Zach observe this private, high-level conversation.
"I was riveted. Dr. Jernigan told us about a time at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, on the coldest, snowiest winter day, when he took his students into the woods and taught them how to chop wood. His message about blind people being able to do all kinds of things really struck me, and it made me think that I should work to attend the LCB [Louisiana Center for the Blind]. It took me almost a year to persuade Pennsylvania that they should send me out of state for rehabilitation training, but I was the first agency consumer to win this concession. Such was the power that Dr. Jernigan had as a speaker and storyteller."
Before discussing his LCB experience, Zach talked a bit about his early years. "I was educated in public schools, which was critical for cultivating socialization skills and making sighted friends, but my instruction in the alternative techniques of blindness was severely lacking. A vision teacher devoted about half a day once a month to teaching me some blindness skills. I was discouraged from learning Braille; I was encouraged to use large print. It was an untenable solution, causing a tiring strain on my eyes. I always had to work harder and longer hours to keep up with homework and school-related stuff. As a consequence I did not always do well, especially in those areas that were highly blackboard-based."
With uveitis, a condition that creates chronic inflammation inside the eye, resulting in gradual vision loss during the teenage years, and his poor introduction to blindness skills, Zach recognized that training under sleepshades at the LCB would be critical to his future. "I'm extremely grateful to the NFB for many things--the NFB blindness training, particularly, changed my life in a tremendously positive way." Zach recalled his first unsuccessful attempt to graduate from the travel component of the LCB. "I had to do my drop route. The goal was to find my way back to the center without asking anyone, using environmental clues. I had been at LCB for six months, but I got frustrated, flummoxed, and utterly lost. Some cops found me wandering down a highway heading out of town. My second attempt was just as hard, but this time I did not let frustration get the better of me. Using what my travel instructors had taught me, I stopped, listened, and puzzled out where I was. This time I found my way back with relative ease. This, and many other experiences at the LCB, taught me that it is okay to fail as long as you try again. It was a very useful lesson. I've come to believe that despite blindness I can always find a way to get done whatever I need to do in life."
Zach attributes his general strong sense of self-esteem to the positive guidance that his parents offered, but he says that the NFB was crucial for putting the icing on the cake in providing the framework for understanding and managing his blindness. An example of his emerging self-confidence can be seen in a story he tells about his first adventure with international travel. "Paul Laurenson was one of my teachers at the LCB. One day he told me that he was going on vacation to Mexico. I asked whom he was going with, and he said that he was going alone. I was shocked. I realized that, if he could do this, maybe I could too. A few years later I found a $500 ticket to Australia and planned to backpack up the east coast for a month. I knew nobody, and I had no agenda. When the day came to leave, I was petrified. At the Seattle airport I knew I had to back out. My friend Jim had driven me to the airport, and, while waiting in line, I told him I couldn't go through with this. I had never traveled abroad alone before and had no one to help me. Without missing a beat, Jim calmly replied, `Okay, Zach, I'll give you a million dollars in cash right now if you agree never to leave the country for the rest of your life.' It was exactly what I needed to hear. I stared straight ahead and told him to clear out of my way. With my sleeping bag, backpack, and cane in hand, I got on that plane and never looked back." Today Zach has visited at least thirty countries and has lived in different parts of Europe for more than six years.
Equipped with solid blindness skills and a positive philosophy, Zach has had a meteoric rise in his professional life. He earned his bachelor's degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and a master's in history from the University of Virginia. Between his undergraduate and graduate studies, Zach moved to Seattle on whim and intuition for a gap year. "On my first day in Seattle I walked into the Seattle Times and asked for a job writing for their paper. The human resources person asked me if I had any experience, and I told them that I'd written a few articles for my college paper at the University of Pennsylvania. Amused, they suggested I consider customer service. This was definitely a job that I could not have done without having learned Braille at the LCB. Unfortunately, I got so good at calming down irate callers—the ones who had not received their papers on time--that my supervisors often transferred the angriest ones to me." Zach worked at the paper for a year before returning to Philadelphia, where he served as a research assistant for a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.
Zach earned his doctorate in modern European history from St. Antony's College, Oxford. His academic honors include winning Harvard's Derek Bok Teaching Award; Oxford's St. Antony's Book Prize; a Dupont Fellowship; an Idea Prize from Germany's Kœrber Foundation; and research grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, Earhart Foundation, Daimler-Chrysler Foundation, and the Royal Historical Society of Great Britain. He has appeared multiple times on National Public Radio, CSPAN’s Book TV, Martha Stewart Radio, and other media outlets. Zach's articles and editorials on foreign policy have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, and Newsday, among other publications. His most recent book was profiled in both Newsweek and O, the Oprah magazine.
By the age of thirty-nine Zach had already authored three major books. In 2003 he published What Hitler Knew, an offshoot of his Oxford dissertation. According to Zach, this book examines the question of why Hitler made the mistakes he did. Three years later he published Breeding Bin Ladens, a book that asks why Americans and Europeans have been pursuing policies that alienate the very people they most want to attract, moderate religious Muslims.
Zach’s most recent book, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions, is a series of individual case studies in which he examines the anatomy of the decisions various leaders have made throughout history. He identifies seven “cognition traps,” as defined ways of thinking or errors in judgment, that people have regularly made throughout time. Zach says, “The problem is not that we’re ignorant; it is that we’re too rigid in our thinking. Each chapter identifies a different rigid mindset.” Blunder has been written in compelling language that appeals to academics and laymen alike. Because of its popularity Blunder has recently been released on Audible.com, and Zach reads the introduction to the book. It is forthcoming in Chinese, Korean, Romanian, and Turkish, and this month the paperback edition was released. Those interested in learning more about Blunder or any other of his scholarly works may visit his Website at <http://www.zacharyshore.com>.
In view of the diverse subjects of Zach’s scholarly work, people might reasonably ask just what kind of historian he is. “I am a historian of judgment,” Zach explains. “I want to understand how historical contexts shape the choices we make, and I’m obsessed with the general question of why people shoot themselves in the foot.”
When I asked Zach to reflect on his contributions to society, he said that he is doing his best to give back to the community by being a scholar devoted to helping military leaders and others think more deeply about the choices they make and the causes of war. He suspects that his lack of conventional involvement in the Federation may have attracted criticism from some. He says, however, “It’s narrow thinking to suggest that not attending a monthly chapter meeting means that a person isn’t invested in the broader objectives of the organized blind movement. I think one can help improve societal perceptions of the blind in many ways. Active participation in the Federation is a great way, but it’s not the only way.”
Federationists can be proud of what Zach has achieved for himself and our community, animated by the NFB’s philosophy of blindness and life. In conclusion, Zach offers Kenneth Jernigan’s definition of courage and a quotation about fear from Ralph Waldo Emerson as effective kernels of wisdom for living. Zach recalled that Kenneth Jernigan often said that courage is fear faced with resolution, and he recalled Emerson’s statement, “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.” Clearly Zach has lived his life motivated by these principles.