History at Yale In the Dark Ages, 1953-76
Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, BA Yale 1957; PhD 1963. He can be reached at: Utopia1@attglobal.net; 890 West End Avenue, 8b, NY NY 10025.
I was at Yale, in and around the programs in Directed Studies, Scholar of the House, American Studies and History; living in Farnam, Berkeley, Silliman; as undergraduate, graduate student, teaching assistant, and finally instructor, most of the time from 1953 to 1963. I have stayed in touch since. I have been active, in my fashion, in alumni affairs, with the perhaps utopian goal of bringing Yale down: I don’t think the place can be reformed, and I see very little place for it in the vastly expanded system of public higher education that this increasingly backwards country desperately needs. I enjoy visiting Yale and lecturing there now and then (invited by indwelling subversives): I re-visit the sites of my various past crimes, eat bagel with cream cheese and other organic foods in the Berkeley College dining room (after checking the menu on the Web in advance), and I stay in touch with what people at Yale are saying and thinking – in particular, people at History and American Studies, and my friends and allies, the marvelous scholar-activists in the teaching assistants union, Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO: www.geso.org), as well as the members of the nascent chapter of the struggling-to-be-reborn Students for a Democratic Society. So what you are reading is part history and part memoir.
I was at Yale (BA Yale College 1957, PhD 1963), right smack between the two Bushes, who were ’48 and ‘68. (My classmates feel a shock of recognition when they look at W’s transcript and see how many courses they had in common with him. Bushes and Bushies contributed to making Yale a poisonous presence on the national and international scene. This was the period that produced, along with a few virtuous exceptions, many evil-doers, e.g.: Porter Goss ‘60 (CIA Director), John Negroponte ’60 (National Intelligence Director), Richard Posner ‘59 (free market judge), Richard Gilder ‘54 (founder of right-wing Manhattan Institute), my student Benno Schmidt ‘63, privateer of schools, warrior against CUNY as Chair of its Board of Trustees, Joe Lieberman ’64 (Bush’s American poodle), and earlier, McGeorge Bundy ’40 of Vietnam fame, and James Jesus Angleton ’41 (OSS-CIA)
The barbarities of undergraduate culture at the time helped to prepare these people to commit barbaric acts on a world scale later on in adult (?) life. The culture honored heavy drinking and public vomiting and urinating – long before the homeless picked up these virtuous behaviors from Yalies. During this period, W’s fraternity, DKE – he was President -- held an annual “Pig Night.” New Haven girls – “townies,” as they were called -- were invited to the fraternity for a dance. At midnight, the announcement was made: they had been selected for ugliness, “pigs.” Homophobia was rampant, and women were barred from Yale College, Mory’s, Linonian & Brothers Library (like Harvard’s Lamont), and the Elizabethan Club (get that, a club without women named after somebody named “Elizabeth”!). And the Whiffenpoofs, the leading Yale singing group, sang:
“’Twas a cold winter’s evening, the guests were all leaving,
O’Leary was closing the bar,
When he turned and he said to the lady in red,
‘Get out, you can’t stay where you are.’
She shed a sad tear in her bucket of beer as she thought of the cold night ahead,
When a gentleman dapper stepped out of the crapper,
And these are the words that he said:
‘Her mother never told her.
About the ways of college men.
And how they come and go, mostly go,
Now age has taken her beau-who--who-ty.
And sin has left its sad scar;
So remember your mothers and sisters, boys,
And let her sleep under the bar.’”
“Your Daddy is a Yale Man,
We may be married soon
There’s no room for rent,
So we may pitch a tent in the backyard of Mory’s Saloon…
… the home is where the heart is,
So we’re thinkin’ of leasin’ a Quonset on Neeson,
To do daddy while mommy does Yale”
As an undergraduate I was part of a small and embattled social and political group, which clustered, generally dateless, around the John Dewey Society, the Yale chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (which later became, through twists, turns and schisms, Students for a Democratic Society.) We were pretty much what passed for a Left in the hostile atmosphere on campus in those days, although there was also a Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL). A disproportionate number of us from JDS have stuck with it: Founding Father Andre Schiffrin, who went on to head Pantheon Books, published a distinguished list, and was fired and founded New Press; Paul Chevigny, later an Attica lawyer and staff lawyer at the New York Civil Liberties Union, now creative litigator on behalf of New Yorkers’ fundamental right to dance; Joel Kovel, reformed psychiatrist, writer and activist, Green Party candidate for Senator from New York State; Jonny Weiss (’60), later head of Legal Services for the Elderly in New York City; Roy Jackson and Paul Asselin, both now sadly dead; and me, Left historian, writer and activist. We resisted the resounding silence of our generation as well as we could, bringing in Left speakers on such topics as “The Politics of Oil” (Robert Engler).
Outside of the somewhat stolid and Fabian confines of JDS, some of us ridiculed Yale traditions in every way that we could:
- I brought women into the Elizabethan Club at times when they were not permitted, and wrote to the Yale Daily News in favor of admission of women to Yale.
- We inaugurated a new “tradition” with a marble contest on the steps of Sterling Memorial Library– which brought a hostile response from Calvin Trillin in the Yale Daily News: “Who Put Marbles in Schiffrin’s Head?”
- We hassled the secret societies, toting down from Weir Hall into Skull and Bones’s backyard live chickens labeled with the names of Bones members, and on Tap Day Schiffrin, so admirably, refused them all from inside a Berkeley toilet stall. I was hurled to the ground by a dark-suited Bonesman while observing the Tap Day procession of prominentoes and “Patriarchs” into Bones – and I learned a lesson in law enforcement and power when the campus cop who saw this urged me to “Go along, Sonny.”
- We named one of the frat boys in our entry in Berkeley “What’s-the-Score?” in imitation of his continual cry, and Paul Asselin was regularly beaten by these upstairs jock/frat neighbors.
- We did obscene pre-political things, ridiculing the “shoe” culture of the day, in my case dressing up very Fenn –Feinstein, but then revealing myself, to Whiffenpoof-like groups and in the Elizabethan Club, to be Nelson Algren’s character, Raincoat the Perfect Lover.
- We were a little beat: Roy Jackson was the first person I knew who could recite Ginsberg’s “Howl.” And we were early fans of Elvis, who we thought was named “Aldous.” Paul Chevigny and I spent the summer of 1957 literally on the road, hitch-hiking across the country and ending up in North Beach just as Kerouac’s book was coming out.
- We had a few faculty friends and allies: Charles Blitzer of Political Science, Paul Weiss of Philosophy. Bob Herbert of History of Art, Bob Bone of American Studies. Later, William Sloane Coffin became chaplain, preached “set our hearts on fire” to an aghast audience at the 1963 Commencement on the Old Campus, and took me to jail with him, his wife, Richard Sewall of the English department, and 200 clergymen including the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in a July 4, 1963 civil rights protest at Gwyn Oaks amusement park outside Baltimore, in the jurisdiction of Spiro Agnew.
I’ve never told publicly the story about how I came to leave Yale prematurely. It was January of 1963, and Norman Pollack was delivering the last lecture of the first semester in the US History Survey in Sterling-Sheffield-Strathcona, perhaps Yale’s largest lecture hall. Concluding the semester neatly and on time, Norman stood on the stage and said, “and then one April night in 1865, with the cares of office heavy on his shoulders, Lincoln went to Ford’s Theatre, when suddenly….” This was my cue: I rose up in the balcony, fired off my Ruger starter pistol, and cried out – you know what’s coming -- “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” Six hundred Yalies’ heads jerked back, forming a wave that swept through the auditorium -- as if it were Yale Bowl now, in the time of waves. Norman squashed the ketchup pellet under his jacket, and fell to the floor. It was the end of the semester; it was the beginning of the Sixties in New Haven.
Although this imaginative pedagogy happened before the Kennedy Assassination, which re-introduced assassination as a somber part of the culture, the History Department was not happy with it. Ed Morgan called me in. Before this, I had begun, albeit in a still primitive and stupid way, to understand that I might be rubbing the Department the wrong way. I had urged Ed to tell me if he heard any bad talk about me. Now, he had indeed heard such talk. “Alright, what happened?” I knew I was in trouble, but couldn’t tell the story without laughing. It emerged that George Wilson Pierson, chair of the History Department -- and owner of a blue tuxedo which he wore at Yale “Smokers” (now they are called receptions) at annual meetings of the American Historical Association -- had found this to be conduct unbecoming a member of the Yale faculty. I had offended against the genteel code, and it was even worse that I had done this together with Norman Pollack, who, as we will see, our senior colleagues had begun to detest. Shortly thereafter, I found my name scribbled in by some mysterious force on a list posted on a Hall of Graduate Studies bulletin board for a specific time slot for what turned out to be a nice job interview with the wonderful Carl Schorske, who was then at Berkeley, looking for a Colonial Historian focused in the seventeenth century. But I was squarely in the Revolutionary period. So fate would prevent me from showing up for the Free Speech Movement. Instead, on Secret Society Tap Day I got the call that would start me on my way to the University of Chicago -- passed off via the Mafia-like patronage system, in perhaps the same way that Hotchkiss ejectees were immediately admitted to Choate -- to right-wing hysteric Daniel Boorstin, and thus I was set up for my next more overtly political firing three years later. Talk about frying pans and fires! But that’s a story for another time.
The “assassination” was a comical event, and I have neither regrets nor bad feeling about it, although it did mean that I left Yale and therefore became separated from my nude posture photos. It was a pre-political beatnik-like preview of what would come to be called “guerilla theatre,” or the kind of thing that would get you a Great Teacher Award later in the sixties (“Man, he really brings the text to life!”) But, comical as it was, it was to be the beginning of an exit parade of radical historians, a kind of New Haven death march, which lacked only some New Orleans-style trumpeter and a couple of bobbing blue parasols.
In those Cold War years, Yale cooperated with the FBI, giving on-campus space to the agency. That courageous liberal, Yale President Charles Seymour, stood up to the Red Scare, saying “There will be no witch hunts at Yale,” since “There will be no witches at Yale. We do not intend to hire Communists!” Huh? This is courage? Similarly, Harvard’s President James Conant said that so far as he knew, there were no Communists there, but if there were, “I hope the Government will ferret them out and prosecute them” (Lemisch, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession , p. 50). At the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins said, “The faculty number 1000; none of its members is engaged in subversive activities” (ibid.). An often uttered A. Whitney Griswold era homily, “men of good will may disagree and yet remain friends” encouraged me until I later discovered the invisible corollary: if you really disagreed, you were not a man of good will, and they would smash you.
It was a dreadful time, the Dark Ages, a time when the institution endorsed bigotry of every kind: anti-semitism, anti-Catholicism, racism, nativism, homophobia, sexism, class contempt. As Geoffrey Kabaservice has shown in The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment (2004), A. Whitney Griswold’s oft-stated ideal of Yalies as “well-rounded men” was in fact a motto of exclusion, in each of its three words. Some of us who were not, by Yale’s definition, well-rounded; nor, for that matter, men (like my wife, Naomi Weisstein, then at Bronx High School of Science, and on her way to Wellesley), sensed this exclusive underside at the time, and it has been forcefully underlined by fine scholarship by Geoffrey Kabaservice, Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admissions at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (2005), and Dan Oren,Joining the Club (1986, 2001). We see in George W. Bush the reductio ad absurdum of the era’s well-rounded man: Andover, DKE, Skull and Bones, football, baseball, basketball and rugby, and a classic gentleman’s C.
I majored in American Studies as an undergraduate and got my doctorate in it in 1963. American Studies at Yale had been founded with clear ideological purposes. The American literature canon as then defined was watched over by an actual CIA man, Norman Holmes Pearson. The syllabus for Pearson’s American Studies 59a literature course, which W. took in the fall of 1966, oozed love of male authority, sexual mystique, etc. Pearson was to be one of a number of CIA-connected faculty who taught me. Yale Historian Robin Winks has described the ties between Yale faculty and the CIA in his Cloak and Gown: Soldiers in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (1987). (Some of you may have had the recent misfortune of sitting through two hours and thirty-seven leaden minutes of the 2006 film, “The Good Shepherd,” which attempts (without filming in New Haven) to show the connections among Skull and Bones, OSS and CIA. In this version, the full corps of Whiffenpoofs are always singing in the Tomb, amidst the naked mud wrestling and male consciousness-lowering.).
In my years at Yale, when we needed to know the forms of citation, we turned to Sherman Kent, Writing History (1941); it was, as the CIA describes it, “a ‘bible’ for a generation of undergraduates charged with completing a competent term paper.” It was only years later that I learned that Kent had worked for the Research and Analysis Branch of the World War II Office of Strategic Services and from 1950-67 full time for CIA. The CIA’s official biography of Kent says that Writing History was “meant for college students but contains many of the themes that he would later develop for [intelligence] analysts”; it’s my understanding that the book we used for term papers was also used by CIA analysts.
The History Department was overseen by George Wilson Pierson – he of the blue tuxedo – anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, nativist. As Thorstein Veblen gazed down quizzically from the picture frame on the wall in the Hall of Graduate Studies -- now there’s also a portrait of C. Vann Woodward, wearing a severely moiré-patterned jacket -- Pierson conducted the once-a-year full-Department ceremonial “meeting,” even including humble TA’s such as myself. The anti-Catholicism that was deep in Protestant Yale (at least as deep as anti-semitism) came out when he reported uncomfortably that the Cuban Revolution had caught the Department with its pants down, without a historian in that area, and so they had been forced to turn – here there was a palpable grimace – “to a Catholic college in Bridgeport” (Fairfield University?) for a temporary fill-in. What could be worse, both Catholic and from lower-class Bridgeport? On another occasion, as Peter Novick tells us in That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988), Pierson expressed doubt that the children of immigrants (and of optometrists, like myself?) could understand American history. And when I left Yale for a masters year at Columbia (1957-58), Leonard W. Labaree, History Professor and Editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, wrote on my behalf to Columbia Colonial Historian Richard B. Morris, who Labaree described to me as “an energetic little man, of your same religious background.”
Funding for the Franklin project and the other papers of American leaders had been justified by the American Historical Association as a weapon in the Cold War, as stated forthrightly by AHA Executive Director Boyd C. Shafer, who saw such papers as missiles in the War (Lemisch, “The American Revolution Bicentennial and the Papers of Great White Men: A Preliminary Critique of Current Documentary Publication Programs and Some Alternative Proposals,” American Historical Association Newsletter, IX (November 1971). “In those dark ages,” I later wrote, “academic thought contained much bigotry haughtily presented as political neutrality: contempt for the lower classes, racism, antiradicalism, fancy reactionary theories, and a worship of strong men” (In Search of Early America [Williamsburg, Va. 1993], 137). The curriculum and scholarly output in those years was loaded, heavily ideological, corrupted by Cold War and anti-democratic values. The notion of class was under attack, with Charles Beard as a stand-in for Marx, particularly in the writing and teaching of my mentor, Edmund Morgan, who participated in the wave of conservative Beard debunkings of those years. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913, 1935) was not in tune with the Great American Celebration of the time. America was and always had been classless – we were all middle class -- and was marked by consensus. (Morgan handed me a reprint of a Commentary article to this effect by his pal Daniel Boorstin.) Historians (as well as publishers) were gulled by Robert E. Brown’s wretched tracts on the Constitution and on “Middle-Class Democracy” as if they were scholarship. In Morgan’s view of the Revolutionary period, drunken mobs of sailors rioted without reason, manipulated by their betters.
Radicals in all periods were denigrated as pointless or insane, going up against an otherwise happy consensus: true believers, guilt-driven Abolitionists. The survey course presented such deeply political messages as a -- shall we say -- fair and balanced account of slavery by Yale holy David Potter offering equal time to testimony by slaves who looked back on slavery days as happy times -- Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1943) was missing from the graduate curriculum – or sometimes mentioned, accompanied by hysterical warnings against the Dangers of Communism -- and white supremacist Ulrich Phillips’s presence was still strong at Yale. The pendulum between management and labor in contemporary America was alleged to have shifted to the point where labor was too powerful, and thus what Harvey Swados would correctly label “The Myth of the Happy Worker” (The Nation, August 17, 1957) dominated. There was what I called in 1975 “a tremendous condescension in attitudes toward popular judgment and democracy” (Lemisch, On Active Service in War and Peace, 135). Nobody in New Haven had yet heard of the work of the British Marxists (as late as 1965 the senior British Historian at the University of Chicago responded to my mention by saying “Edward Who?”) and the field in general remained defended for many years against such alien stuff. The American people could not be trusted in the area of foreign policy (Yale’s Gabriel Almond, The Anerican People and Foreign Policy), and a strong presidency was necessary; according to Sam “Wave-the-Flag” Bemis, the only thing Jefferson ever got right was the Louisiana Purchase. McCarthyism was seen as the latest outburst from below of anti-intellectual populism. And John Blum wrote, in the midst of the war in Vietnam, that his The Promise of America (1967) reflected his"endeavor to rejoice, to describe those patterns that disclose – even for the impatient, perhaps especially for them – the nobility and the power, the mission and the magnificence of the United States."
As student and then as researcher and teacher, I tried to present alternatives to this abysmal swamp, and my efforts were rewarded with disapproval from senior colleagues, laying the groundwork for my eviction from Yale after the Lincoln caper. I began to study the American Revolution from the bottom up in an atmosphere that was indifferent and sometimes hostile to my approach. I went searching for Jack Tar in the scholarly darkness in those years before the sixties became The Sixties. Looking in particular at seamen’s role in the Stamp Act Riots and in opposition to impressment, I came to see a certain rationality in the Revolutionary crowd, just as George Rude, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsabawm were finding in their work. Nobody in New Haven had yet heard that a “mob” might in fact be simply a “crowd,” and thus there was not yet sophisticated discussion about how a mob might in fact be a mob, despite Marxist contempt (Lemisch, “Communication: The ‘Mob’ versus the ‘Crowd’: The British Marxists and Early American History…” William and Mary Quarterly, January 1999). Edmund and Helen Morgan's The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1953) incited what was to be my dissertation with remarks like “Merchants, lawyers, and plantation owners directed the show from behind the scenes" (181) and "How… did the Sons of Liberty rouse these people to fury and, more important, how did they control that fury once they had aroused it?" (187) This encapsulates an entire theory of radicalism which has no notion of agency from the bottom up: weak in evidentiary base, it’s anti-radical theology.
Having had a fine scholarship job on The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, I worked my way through the enormous amount of documentation there. I looked at Franklin’s social attitudes in a critical way that produced horror in the Franklin Factory. “I didn’t know you had such a scunner on Franklin,” said Editor Leonard Labaree, using a Scottish term I had never heard. My critical book-length Scholar of the House paper is still banned on the second floor of Sterling Memorial Library. (Later I criticized the American celebrationist avoidance of social history and the preference for the history of “Great White Men”; Lemisch, “The American Revolution Bicentennial and the Papers of Great White Men,” AHA Newsletter, 1971). To counter the propagandistic notions of happy workers and pendulums swinging in the direction of too much labor power, I borrowed from CBS a copy of Edward R. Murrow’s “Harvest of Shame” for showing to my sections of the survey course. In the purple ditto of the day, I provided my classes with narratives from other than the happy slaves who populated the course reader. This precipitated the anger of historian (and later Acting Yale President) Howard Lamar – who headed the course -- and it was seen as a kind of lese-majeste towards David Potter, who had put together the course readings. This conflict set the stage for my premature exit after the Lincoln assassination.
When I shot Lincoln, I was a TA – or as Yale, with its talent for obfuscation and disdain for the realities of course staffing, called us, an “assistant-in-instruction.” Within four years, the Yale History Department was to divest itself of three Left Americanists.
(A fuller account of the narrow limits of dissent at Yale at that time would include a gay firing in History of Art [Martin Duberman, Cures: A Gay Man’s Odyssey (1991), 43; conversation with author, December 2006], and the 1961 buying out of the tenure of Buckleyite Political Science Professor Wilmoore Kendall. Anyone trying to make sense of the latter will run into stories of drinking, “sexual indiscretions,” etc., but there remain questions as to just what was cause and what was pretext. Perhaps this broadens our discussion by suggesting that Yale punishes deviance from the political mainstream, though it does so more frequently when the deviance is to the left.)
My co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination was Norman Pollack. In highly crafted landmark articles, he offered data that revealed the inaccuracy and bias of anti-Populist historians Oscar Handlin (Harvard) and Richard Hofstadter (Columbia) and pioneered in rehabilitating the Populists, taking them out of H & H’s hostile grip. Pollack’s Populist Response to Industrial America (1961) deserves to be thought of as the first work of New Left history. (Many of its central themes were later supported by Michael Paul Rogin’s magnificent The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (1967). With Pollack’s arrival at Yale in 1962, a new breeze blew, redolent of Harvard Square in the time of Joan Baez, from whence he came wearing a blue work shirt – at the time a serious lifestyle deviation for a member of the Yale faculty, where today they wear fine French Blue shirts, like workers in the Metro. With Pollack came the soft Marx of the 1844 Philosophical Manuscripts. Yale’s tolerance for Norman’s critiques of Hofstadter and Handlin was limited, and soon, he, too, was toast, on his way out. He had gotten into public tangles at professional meetings, and it is hard not to see elements of anti-semitism in the perception of his argumentative manner both face-to-face and at the podium as another violation of the gentlemanly code. And Norman had further tainted himself by introducing a Yale talk by Communist Herbert Aptheker.
A year after I left Yale, I provided what turned out to be a kind of understated orientation to Staughton Lynd, who was about to fill the slot for Yale radical activist Colonial Historian. We didn’t know what horrors and hypocrisy lay ahead. By the time Staughton was denied tenure, because of his anti-Viet Nam war activism, including a trip to Hanoi with Tom Hayden and Herbert Aptheker, it was totally clear that there was a pattern of hostility to Leftists in the Yale History Department.
This pattern continued in 1975-76 with Vann Woodward’s incredible vendetta – to the embarrassment of some of his colleagues -- his campaign to keep Communist historian Herbert Aptheker from teaching a one semester course on his friend and co-worker W.E.B. DuBois (Aptheker was DuBois’s literary executor) in a student-initiated Davenport College seminar program (Davenport had been George Bush’s college a few years earlier) which was so unofficial as to include a course by Howard Cosell – the Yale equivalent of what Lenny Bruce used to call non-scheduled airlines. In the same program, Howard Cosell taught “Big Time Sports and Contemporary America.” (Lemisch, “If Howard Cosell Can Teach at Yale, Why Can’t Herbert Aptheker?” Newsletter of the Radical Historians Caucus, May 1976). In his rage, Woodward treated this one-semester once-a-week-train-from-New-York gig as if it were a tenured appointment to the Yale College faculty, and fought against the appointment although it originated in Political Science. The appointment worked its way through the process and reached the pro forma stage of the Board of Permanent Officers, where, according to the chair of the Political Science Department, there was a “massive attack on a minor appointment.” In an unprecedented move, Woodward brought with him to the BPO ten members of the History Department. The result was the first College seminar appointment ever rejected at this level. To justify his stand, Woodward wrote a letter to the Yale Daily News (February 2, 1976) which is a classic of snotty expression by this supposed gentleman scholar, written on the arrogant assumption that Aptheker was merely a humble applicant for a job:
… [Aptheker’s] writings did not measure up… A great many negative decisions are made every term. Hundreds of people apply to teach at Yale and only a handful are appointed. Neither the time nor the taste for debate with the candidates over their scholarly qualifications, such as Mr. Aptheker proposes, really exists. Neither the applications nor the reasons for the decisions regarding them are normally made public. It is to be hoped that this unfortunate exception to the rule will not become a precedent. It might discourage people from applying. The more applications from teachers and students we get the better we like it. We like to think that many more want to come here than we accept. It gives us a greater range of choice… [For] applicants… there are other good colleges available, even some good community colleges.
As I commented in 1976, one of the risks involved in achieving the power and deference which have come to Woodward is that no one will tell you when you have done something awful. (Nonetheless, several of Woodward’s colleagues voiced to me their otherwise silent embarrassment over Woodward’s behavior in regard to Aptheker.)
Woodward, like Hofstadter, was a liberal who moved rightwards in reaction to the sixties. I worked to have the Organization of American Historians investigate Yale, and the membership found Yale’s conduct so blatant that they voted to investigate. Yale stonewalled, but the pattern of hostility to leftists had been revealed in, among other places, the front page of the New York Times.
And what of Yale today? Admissions policies have changed radically, although it should be noted that that took place in the context of the enormous social changes brought about by the movements of the sixties. I said that Yale could not be reformed. Has the institution changed? Are Yale’s Dark Ages over? I don’t think so. As we have noted, Yale is a major polluter of the national and international scene. At home, the institution (and its chief investment officer David Swensen) do their best to bust GESO, and then History Department Chair Jon Butler spoke against GESO at the last Washington business meeting of the American Historical Association. In some ways, the fifties are back at Yale: Political Scientist Ted Marmor urges surrender to the right on healthcare issues by parading again that hoary fifties Yale homily, “politics is the art of the possible” – as if there had never been the Sixties, when even Yale academics stopped saying it for a while.
One Yale classmate treated me at a recent AHA meeting to an alcohol-fueled rant on why his son hadn’t been admitted to Yale: he said, with hostility to me, that Yale has been taken over by Jews and leftists. A leading class liberal, another Americanist, tried to get me to stop posting critical views of Yale on the class listserv on grounds that I could be more effective if I followed the advice of another classmate who remained anonymous and was characterized as “not of the old guard… thinks of himself as firmly on the left.” This anonymous guy felt that my critical tone about Bush would make people angry.
The Yale Alumni Magazine grows lyrical about Yale’s role in developing aerial warfare – another great Yale contribution to civilization: “Flight to Glory,” September-October 2003. This was written in a Snoopy-vs.- the-Red-Baron tone, as if there had not later been Dresden, Hiroshima, London, Hanoi, Baghdad, and so on.
In a shameful recent episode, Maya Lin was called in to head off the candidacy for the Yale Corporation of a black pro-union New Haven minister and graduate of the Divinity School. In a seeming abandonment of professional ethics, Archives and Manuscripts colludes with the History Department to grant Department member Gaddis Smith privileged access to archival material concerning Staughton Lynd’s firing while barring historian Carl Mirra. A new cabal, a kind of Woodward-Morgan-Blum redivivus, occupies the History Department, consisting of Paul Kennedy, John Lewis Gaddis, and Donald Kagan. In a notorious recent instance, they rejected an appointment of Juan Cole. The non-hiring of the University of Michigan Middle East expert was partly the result of opposition within the History Department by Kagan and Gaddis, which killed the appointment at a higher level (Senior Appointment Committee), as had been done with the Aptheker appointment. (Real Clear Politics, August 3, 2006: www.realclearpolitics.com)
What is Yale for? It doesn’t boast anymore that it graduates, as Kingman Brewster put it in 1967, “1,000 male leaders.” Its aim now is to produce male, female, multi-racial, LGBT and other leaders. But consider the kind of leaders that Yale has produced, endless cohorts of people who struggle to maintain a slightly bandaged version of the status quo and to preserve the power of dominant elites in a broad spectrum of human activities, including scholarship, business, the arts, and government. Yale’s existence and values obstruct the development of the expanded and egalitarian system of public higher education that we need. Perhaps, like the equally anachronistic prep schools (Lemisch, “Hotchkiss in the Fifties: Myths and Realities,” History News Network, November 29, 2004), units like a miniaturized Yale may have a role as places of experimentation, free of both government and corporate control, as yardsticks by which to measure public and corporate-free higher education. Meantime, who does this country owe more to, Yale or CCNY?
Copyright Jesse Lemisch 2006
comments powered by Disqus
Nicholas Clifford - 1/10/2007
Indeed it was a fun article. Particularly so, because in an age of confessional memoirs (how I fouled up my life and the lives of others) it is refreshing to read a piece by someone who apparently has always been on the side of the angels, and is entirely untroubled by any doubts or second thoughts whatsoever.
James Stanley Kabala - 1/9/2007
While his credentials to teach at an Ivy League University were certainly thin, I would like to put in a good word for Howard Cosell, who did quite a bit for civil rights without, as far as I know, supporting Stalin and the invasion of Hungary or allegedly molesting anyone along the way.
James W Loewen - 1/8/2007
Gosh, this was a good read. I bet we could all have a good time recounting the foibles of grad school, with or without the ideological analysis. Thanks for this!
Alonzo Hamby - 1/7/2007
An article that conclusively demonstrates Richard Hofstadter's famous remark in Newsweek about the sensibility of the 1960s--"the age of rubbish."
Of course, we all know that he and C. Vann Woodward and John Blum and etc., etc., were notorious reactionaries.