The Hard Years at the Harvard History Department
Mr. Keller is Spector Professor of History at Brandeis. Ms. Keller was Associate Dean of Academic Affairs of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences from the 1970s to the 1990s. They are the authors of the newly updated, Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University (Oxford University Press), from which this article is excerpted.
After 1970 as before, History was the most troubled of Harvard’s social science departments. An Old Guard fought with tenacity for decades to fend off threats to the quality of what (with some reason) it regarded as one of Harvard’s great departments. Historical metaphors come readily to hand: Leonidas and his band at Thermopylae; Bourbons who learned nothing and forgot nothing; perhaps most apt, Canute ordering the tide not to come in.
Recruitment difficulties began to crop up in 1960s. History’s prideful desire to get the best in the world led to recurrent failures, followed by the appointments of sure-to-accept former students. Journalist Theodore White, who chaired the History visiting committee in 1971-72, took on the recruitment problem. History was, he agreed, “famous today as a professional’s department.” But its senior faculty was fear-ridden “that pressure from the outside for expansion, or for symbolic appointments, may dilute the quality of scholarship of which they are so proud.” That attitude increased the risk of a self-destructive “intellectual elitism.” Defensively, some department members viewed White’s comments as a plea for more theatrical teachers such as onceoverlightly “Frisky” Merriman, who had been White’s teacher when he attended the College.
Harvard History had twenty-five tenured professors, compared to thirty-six at Yale and thirty-four at Columbia. But it showed no desire to get larger, and its assistant professors in 1972 were down to fourteen from twenty-seven the year before. One consequence was reduced course offerings, a further disincentive to a student generation not particularly drawn to history. The fact that a number of the senior faculty—Oscar Handlin, Donald Fleming, Robert Wolff, Franklin Ford, Richard Pipes—were prominent critics of student radicalism did not help. The treatment of graduate students, previously criticized by the visiting committee as “the worst kind of Social Darwinism,” improved. But their morale (as elsewhere in the humanities and the social sciences) was as low as their job prospects. The junior faculty, too, had a full plate of grievances. They had little hope of promotion and criticized the senior members for ignoring the intellectual ferment in the discipline: a broadly expanding, politically radical social history, shaped by a race-class-gender triad that had little place in the more pluralist, structural-functional approach of most of Harvard’s senior historians.
The visiting committee thought that Harvard had not responded sufficiently to the new currents stirring the discipline. The department did not agree.
History began to do better with undergraduates: “The bitterness and rancor of 1968-69 seems to have vanished.” But students’ unhappiness persisted over their favorite subject, American history. Columbia had fourteen American history lecture courses in 1971-72; Harvard had three. The number of bracketed (announced but not offered) History courses inspired a student T-shirt emblem: “[History].”
During the 1970s senior Americanists David Donald and Stephan Thernstrom strengthened that wing; fourteen junior appointees leavened the lump (though blacks and women did not yet loom large on the department oscilloscope). But each professor taught what he wanted, with little regard for curricular needs. And graduate students suffered from widespread cutbacks in jobs and fellowship aid. Unfilled senior slots remained the rule: the department continued to find it hard to identify candidates who both met its standards and wanted to come. The chairman glumly reported in 1982-83: “All in all I suppose I am suggesting a kind of tiredness among the senior members.”
Turf concerns helped block the appointment of distinguished Princeton French historian Robert Darnton. And the denial of tenure to popular modern American historian Alan Brinkley in 1986 stirred more than the usual flap. By now the average age of the senior Americanists was sixty-one; no new appointment had been made for more than a decade. A discouraging number of prospects turned down feelers or offers, and the department suffered from a steady trickle of departing seniors very rare in the past: William Bouwsma, David Landes (who moved to Economics), and Harold Hanham in the 1970s, John Brewer in the 1980s, Olwen Hufton and superstar Simon Schama in 1993. One consequence: a graduate student intake of declining quality as well as quantity. With dismaying frequency, top choices (especially in American history) went to other schools, Yale in particular. The yield of admitted graduate students was one of the lowest in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The visiting committee in 1990 saw “a department in crisis.” A rating of History departments in 1995 put Harvard behind Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago, and Michigan.
The recruitment problem remained, decade after decade, larger in History than elsewhere. Why? In part because the shape of the discipline had changed dramatically: from a pyramid, in which a few outstanding scholars and departments by general agreement were at the apex, to a mesa, populated by ever more numerous historical clans, each defined by a subfield, each with its own pecking order. The department’s older members, outstanding products of the pyramidal past, found it hard to adapt to the new order of things.
But even a change of personnel could not assure the alteration of what had become a well-established departmental culture. A third of the senior faculty was due to retire during the first half of the 1990s: potential for large change. Fourteen searches were under way in the fall of 1990. Promotions from below in borderlands areas—Vietnamese history, African history, Turkish history—came readily enough. But European historian and Women’s Studies chair Olwen Hufton departed in 1993 after only six years in residence, which for the moment left both American and western European history without a female professor.
A younger generation struggled to escape the mortmain of the past. Search committees scoured the historical landscape; a forum in 1996 reported on who was doing what in American history. But turndowns continued to be frequent, and the repeatedly announced intention of promoting from below continued to be honored mostly in the breach. The unresolved tension between a departmental culture in which a few senior people exercised a veto power and the growing competitive strength of other schools gave special poignancy to the definition of History as a discipline whose subject matter is change.
Copyright Morton & Phyllis Keller
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Jeff Vanke - 9/4/2007
I'd be interested to see more discussion of the last 10-15 years, including of individuals, especially in American history, the field of greatest faculty volatility the past decades.
Note that there was a sharp Americanist-otherist divide, 30-40 years ago, and maybe more recently. By my understanding, David Landes took his chair from History to Economics in protest of the department's Americanists voting to use Warren Center funds to pay themselves summer salary supplements. Not that that was the only point of friction between the Americanists and others.
I'll add a legendary story circulating in my Harvard History grad schools days in the 1990s. It goes like this: Some department chair tallied votes on a subject, got many ayes, against one no, from Handlin, and announced, "The noes have it."
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/3/2007
David Donald is a craftsman of the first order, and praise from Caesar is praise indeed.
HAVH Mayer - 9/3/2007
I was an undergraduate in History at Harvard in the '60s, and I can't disagree with the Kellers, but I do want to add three comments (from the point of view of an Americanist.
First, it seems to me that the hiring problems began in the '50s with internal divisions, and were exacerbated not only by those divisions but by the rising number of very good departments nationally.
Second, Harvard's difficulty in negotiating that earlier (postwar) generational step was in large part a matter of personalities. Its "young stars" had been Schlesinger Jr. and Handlin, who did not fulfill the academic roles for which they had seemed destined. (J.H. Hexter remarked that Handlin was the one American historian of his generation with the intellectual and oerganizational abilities to create a "school.")
Third -- the Kellers allude to this, but I'll put it starkly -- History at Harvard in the '60s and into the '70s was a social science (Prof. Hughes's dissent noted), both on paper and in the minds of the historians; but by the '80s History had become quite definitively a Humanity. Those working in the tradition of what the senior Schlesinger called "social and intellectual history" were seen as having "missed the turn" -- and that included much of the Harvard department. Today, even historiographers apparently do not know what social history and intellectual history were before about 1976. I recently read an article that positioned Bernard Bailyn as a "constitutional historian" -- in contrast to Jack P. Greene!
Louisa Burnham - 9/3/2007
I still have that t-shirt!
James W Loewen - 9/3/2007
Yes, when I went to Harvard in 1964 (in sociology, not history), a senior Harvard historian actually said to the cohort of entering grad. students in history that famous cliche, "Look to the left of you, look to the right of you. Only one of you is going to be here next year."
It's a poor form of Social Darwinism, because instead of culling the least able, it decreases the performance of all. Students do not study together, they do not learn from each other, they have low morale, they do not take chances intellectually....
In short, it creates a poor learning environment. Having not kept up with HU's reputation in history, I'm glad to learn it slumped in the 1970s, because it deserved to.
Christopher Leslie Thompson - 9/3/2007
May I simply point out that the anecdote about King canute is wrong. Canute's courtiers had attempted to persuade him that the waves themselves would obey him. He did not believe them and showed them that they were wrong ! Harvard's History Department's may not have matched up to his standards.
Christopher Leslie Thompson - 9/3/2007
May I begin by pointing out that the story about King Canute is a common but often repeated fallacy. Canute did not believe his courtiers who told him that the waves would obey his commands and demonstrated that he, not they, were right.
Let me add that the troubles faced by Harvard's History Department were by no means unique. The desire to maintain academic standards and to sustain long-established scholars is perfectly comprehensible. Universities do exist to promote such standards in teaching and research. the processes of change and adjustment were, however, much better managed elsewhere in the United States: in France and in the United Kingdom - e.g. at Oxford and Cambridge Universities - issues of succession and the transmission of the highest standards to the next generation of historians and students were handled far more successfully.