Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Gentlemen and Scholars: Harvard's History Department and the Path to Professionalism, 1920-1950

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Gentlemen and Scholars: Harvard's History Department and the Path to Professionalism, 1920-1950

Article excerpt

Abstract: Before World War II most history departments were largely gentleman's clubs with few or no Jews, Catholics, women, or African Americans among their faculty. While most leading departments had some serious scholars, in many cases their members were chosen on the basis of their connections or the quality of their company at lunch, rather than their scholarly qualifications. This article explores how Harvard University's history department was among the first to hire Jews and to make its appointments on the basis of scholarly production and promise. Author William Palmer is Professor of History at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and author of the forthcoming From Gentleman's Club to Professional Body: The Rise of the Modern History Department.

The history of the history department is a little-studied subject. Historians have generally been very good about charting die intellectual changes that have occurred across the profession, but few have paid much attention to how history departments have actually developed. This article is an attempt to remedy part of that deficiency by examining several aspects of the history of the Harvard history department from about 1920 to 1950.1

In the 1920s, most history departments at leading universities in the United States were gentlemen's clubs, with very few women, if any, African Americans, Jews, or Catholics admitted. While most departments had serious scholars in their ranks, most faculty members did not have a serious scholarly vocation and were often chosen for their devotion to undergraduate teaching, their agreeable company at lunch, or their connections to the institution or highly placed persons inside it. As early as 1927, Charles McLean Andrews, a distinguished historian at Yale, warned Wallace Notestein, a new faculty member about to join the department, of the need to improve the quality of the Yale history faculty.2 And, in the 1930s, the Princeton medievalist, Lynn White, recalled that the Princeton history faculty was the most intellectually conservative body he had ever encountered, with no interest in novelties like anthropology or geography.3 Several departments, even at Harvard and Yale, had faculty members known as "dollar a year men," referring to men of independent wealth who took only a nominal salary from their university while teaching.

The Harvard history department was perhaps the first to break out of this paradigm. The department began taking decisive steps to improve the quality of its faculty in the 1920s. At the beginning of the decade, the history department already possessed some famous names, including Albert Bushneil Hart, Archibald Cary Coolidge, Edward Charming, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Frederick Jackson Turner. But its critical step was probably me appointment of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., in 1924. Schlesinger 's initial appointment came about when Morison, who was attending Oxford for a year, recommended Schlesinger as his replacement on a temporary basis. Schlesinger made such a good impression during his time at Harvard that he was invited to stay after Morison returned.4

Schlesinger 's appointment was critical because he was perhaps the preeminent social historian of his time and a cutting-edge scholar within the discipline. As a student at Columbia, Schlesinger had been greatly influenced by James Harvey Robinson and "the New History." Uncomfortable with the traditional emphasis on political and diplomatic narrative, Robinson sought a redefinition of history that encompassed all aspects of human behavior and incorporated the social sciences and their methodologies into historical study. His goal, no less than that of me French Annalistes, was the creation of a unified approach that would explore connections between politics, economics, religion, culture, the family, and ideas. Schlesinger was perhaps the scholar in the 1920s who best embodied "the New History."5 His books, Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution (1918), New Viewpoints in American History ( 1 922), and The Rise of the City, 1878-1898, (1933) reflected its influence and marked him as an innovative scholar. …

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