The Evolution of the History Department in the United States, 1940-1980





Mr. Palmer, Professor of History, Marshall University, is the author of From Gentleman's Club to Professional Body: The Evolution of the History Department in the United States, 1940-1980 (BookSurge Publishing, 2008).

So perfect was the order as the Yale history department sat down for lunch in the Branford College dining hall in the fall of 1940 that it resembled an academic great chain of being.  The Branford dining hall itself embodied Yale in all its Gothic glory, with stained glass windows, elegant wood paneling, and a great Burgundian fireplace transported to New Haven from its original European castle.  Sherry was served in the hour before lunch, and seating was assigned.  At the center of a long table sat the department chair, flanked to his immediate right and left by the senior full professors, who were, in turn, flanked by the associate professors.  At the ends of the table and sometimes at a separate table, depending on the size of the turnout, were the junior faculty, who, in accordance with tradition, did not address the senior faculty by their first names.

    While the department had several distinguished members, such as Samuel Flagg Bemis, Wallace Notestein, and Hajo Holborn, it was also a gentleman’s club, very waspish, and very much an extension of Yale itself as it stood in 1940.  All the department members were male, most of them held Yale degrees, and there were no blacks or Jews.  There were also several faculty, known as “dollar a year men,” who took only a nominal salary from the university while supporting themselves and their families primarily from their trust funds.  The department was also highly Anglo-centric, with its greatest concentration of faculty in English history, amounting to over a third of the department.  Most of its members were extremely conservative.  Sam Bemis and Wallace Notestein thought Franklin Roosevelt was the devil incarnate. Most of the teaching followed the lecture format, providing a narrative history of the critical political events and processes of the rise of western civilization from the Greeks to World War I, a narrative very relevant to the lives of the young gentleman of wealth and privilege seated in Yale’s classrooms.

    By the 1980s the shape of the department had been dramatically altered.  In 1940 the Yale history department had about twenty faculty; in 1982 it had seventy-one.  By 1982 the department’s faculty included Jews, Africans, more than a dozen women, and they held degrees from universities around the world, including Oxford, U.C.L.A., Sao Paulo, SUNY Albany, and the University of Kentucky.  Fewer than half its members held Yale Ph.D.s.  There were no longer any “dollar a year men.”  While the Yale department retained an anglophile quality, the percentage of English historians had been reduced from over thirty to less than ten, and there were now six historians teaching Asian history, six specializing in Africa and African American history, and even a specialist in the Hispanic peoples of the United States. 

    Thus, Yale's history department had ceased in large measure to be a gentleman’s club; like history departments at many other universities, it had become a body of serious professionals.  No longer could anyone enter its ranks on the basis of social position.  And no longer could anyone receive a permanent place in it without surviving the most rigorous scrutiny.  In most cases, junior faculty could not expect to advance without the publication of two major books, favorably reviewed.  And there was no respite for the weary.  Those who had been granted admission into the temple of the tenured found that the expectations in terms of scholarly production rose even higher.

    The social milieu of the department had also changed. While the department continued to have regular lunches, its hierarchical traditions were fading.  Seating was no longer ordered to reflect the power structure.  Indeed, younger faculty mingled with senior members, and sometimes appeared in the most casual attire.  When Richard Fox arrived at Yale as a new faculty member in 1976, he left the great Vann Woodward speechless by appearing at the pre-lunch, “sherry hour,” in long hair, no socks, and sandals.

    My book is a study of how the change from gentleman’s club to modern department evolved at Yale, and at six other leading history departments in the United States, including Harvard, Princeton, the University of California at Berkeley, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Columbia.  It is, then, a study in academic modernization, a process by no means completed, and, in any case, not easily undertaken in the first place.

    While chairs and deans at the universities under consideration here were the primary instigators of change, much depended upon circumstance.  The times were probably never better for higher education than during the period between 1950 and 1970.  Population boomed. The American economy expanded rapidly.  Students entered colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers.  Money flowed freely to universities, providing the resources necessary to hire new faculty members and expand curricula.

    Building a better history department in the fifties, whether it was at Yale or the six other departments under consideration, usually referred to three main developments.  It meant hiring faculty based more upon scholarly production or potential, rather than connections or charm at lunch, the hiring of qualified Jews, and the expansion of the curriculum beyond the United States and Western Europe.  By the sixties, it meant the appointment of qualified women and African Americans.

    By 1970, many important steps had been taken, though the process was by no means complete.  But in the early seventies, the process came to a sudden halt.  The economy slowed down, and the money that had flowed freely to higher education diminished.  But the impact of what had happened in history departments and in higher education in the fifties and sixties would extend for decades.   


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