We Shall Gladly Teach
By Dexter Perkins
President of the Association, 1956
A paper read at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in St. Louis, Missouri, December 29, 1956. Published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 62, No. 2. (Feb., 1957), pp. 291-309
Books by Dexter Perkins
A large proportion of the members of the American Historical Association are college teachers. Yet in seventy-odd years of the history of this organization no presidential address has directly dealt with the central function of our profession. We have had committees to deal with the question of history in the schools; we have recently shown an acute awareness of the important fact that we have, over the long pull, become increasingly out of touch with secondary education and that something ought to be done about it. In the university world, as we face increasingly complex problems, we are perhaps more aware than we used to be of the significance of classroom activity in stimulating the young people of our land. But still the fact remains that no President of the Association has ever addressed himself directly to the problem of college teaching. I propose tonight to do this.
It is not perhaps strange that things have been as they are. Like most people, we philosophize too little with regard to the profession which we have had the happiness to adopt. We are engaged in highly agreeable work—paid, as Carl Becker used to say, for doing precisely the thing which we most want to do. We occupy positions of some prestige in the societies in which we live. Though many of us carry heavier burdens than we ought to carry, from the standpoint of our intellectual growth, and have less time for meditation and reflection than we ought to have, we enjoy a certain freedom from routine that is immensely satisfying; we live for the most part in an atmosphere free from external constraints; and we are not subjected to the painful necessity, obvious in the case of the administrator or the businessman, of making significant day-to-day decisions on which the fortunes of others may depend. It is no wonder, therefore, that we do not ask ourselves, as often as we might, the central questions as to just what we intend to accomplish by our labors and, more specifically, how we are to view our function as teachers and make that function more effective.
In answering these questions, or in trying to answer them, I intend to take no narrow view of the place of the historian. There are eminent men in our profession whose gifts do not lie in the classroom. There are certainly other ways of serving God than by talking to undergraduates, or even to graduates. There are values to be communicated artlessly as well as by taking thought. It is possible to do a big job in the world without ever asking why, to fire young men and young women by one’s gifts of enthusiasm, of industry, of inquiry, not so much purposefully as by the very force and range of ones mind and character. Yet when all this is said, it still seems to me that we are under some compulsion to inquire whether, in this year of grace 1956, we have thought enough of the problem of teaching, of its social significance, and of the central concepts which ought to play a part in our instruction.
The problem is particularly important at the present time. We know, in the first place, that the colleges are going to grow portentously in the course of the next decade. The Report of the Committee of Fifteen on the Graduate School of Today and Tomorrow, published by the Fund for the Advancement of Education, which I commend to your attention, estimates that the number of college students, now about 2.7 million, will reach 3.2 million by 1960, and 6.4 million by 1970. To serve our present students, we have 190,000 college teachers. If the present teacher-student ratio is to be maintained, we shall need 250,000 college teachers by 1960, and 495,000 by 1970. We have here an urgent problem that we must face and that, even with the best will in the world, we will have great difficulty in solving.
In the second place, we shall have to admit (some of us reluctantly) that the trend in the American academic world is more and more vocational. This is not entirely to be deplored. The American college is one of the great mechanisms by which we maintain social fluidity, and social fluidity is one of the deepest values of American life. The application of the scholarly attitude to problems outside the traditional and older disciplines is also one of the distinctive features—and one of the useful features—of our society. Nonetheless, a subject like history is in a somewhat exposed situation in this kind of educational world. Where its values are practical and immediate, they are likely to be appropriated by other disciplines; where they are more general, they may well be neglected or depreciated. We have seen a process of decline in classical studies; we have seen and are seeing such important branches of history as medieval history threatened; we may see the area of interest further narrowed.
But there is a bigger reason than this why we should occupy ourselves with the problem of teaching. We have tended, as it seems to me, to exalt the written over the spoken word in the practice of our profession. Both carry their special messages, but for most of us the possibility of reaching large audiences through what we write is not great. Our best chance of making some impact on others will come through the influence we can exert in the classroom, through the enthusiasms we kindle, through the interests we arouse, through the wisdom that history teaches and that we can strive to disseminate. Here, as I see it, for all but the greatest and most imaginative scholar, is our greatest chance of usefulness, our largest hope. The young men and women who participate in our instruction are eager and anxious to learn from us; they are capable of benefiting by our multiplied historical experience; they may be warmed by our personalities and fired with a generous view of life and a wider view of knowledge. Are we making the most of our opportunities? These questions I cannot fail to ask, nor can I fail to try to answer them.
But let us not misunderstand one another. I intend, most certainly, no depreciation of what is called, sometimes a little exaggeratedly, productive scholarship. For the college teacher, instruction and research are both fundamental. They ought not to be separated. There is no real dichotomy between them; they are two faces of the same problem. It should be clear, even to the most enthusiastic teacher, that research is, in some sense of the word, indispensable to the effective practice of his profession. We need to be ever-inquiring if we are to be effective teachers. It is easy to let our instruction degenerate into routine; to give the same lectures year after year, with the same stale jokes in the same context, with the same unexplored generalizations drawn from the same available secondary works, and with the same sometimessoporific effect upon the innocent victims of our instruction. To be worthy of our calling, we must possess, first of all, the instinct to go on learning. When a teacher has ceased to ask questions, when he has ceased, in other words, to cultivate the spirit of research, he has ceased to be effective. Many years ago Professor Robert Matteson Johnston of Harvard put the matter cogently in one of his seminars. He said of the classroom teacher that we learn by example in this world. A good teacher is an example of a man thinking, and somehow or other the example of a man thinking may, by the grace of God, communicate itself to some of those around him. Our subject is a vast one—since it concerns the totality of human experience, the vastest of all themes. Each of its parts, the intellectual life of man, his systems of economic and political organization, his religion, his arts, his science, and all the rest of it, is interrelated. We can never know enough to teach as we would like to teach. We must always be acquiring new insights, asking new questions. Furthermore, we are in grave danger of imprecision. It is, of course, the mark of a poor teacher that he never generalizes, that he confines himself to mere episode, mere narrative. But it is also the mark of a poor teacher if he generalizes wildly, with inadequate data. Research is the means by which we discipline ourselves, by which we make ourselves more careful, more accurate, and more profound.
It is possible to go further. There is an intellectual excitement in the process of research that can be communicated to others. To make it clear that it is fun to learn, fun to explore, fun to “follow knowledge like a sinking star,” is to perform a service. In the complex world of today it has become more than ever necessary to penetrate deeper into the facts. Every practical question, as well as those not practical, is a question of scholarship. It ought to be interesting and challenging so to regard it.
There is, then, no quarrel between the man who emphasizes teaching and the man who emphasizes research. But before we leave the latter subject, we may perhaps for a moment examine the question whether our present attitude toward research has not led us into some pitfalls and created for us some problems. Scholars—such as we profess to be—ought to be imbued with the spirit of humility; and one of the questions that we may ask ourselves with propriety is whether, in our zeal for research, we have not lost, or may lose, or are in some danger of losing, the art of communication with large numbers of people by concentrating our attention on communicating—not always in a very attractive style—with a few people. What we write for each other is useful; it extends the boundaries of knowledge—sometimes—and it helps us to see old problems in a new light, or to discover new problems. We usually praise each other’s works in the historical reviews, and this is undoubtedly good for our collective egos. But is this enough? How able are we, I ask again, to communicate with an important audience? How far in the long run are we able to make our noble subject better understood in a big way? Is it not significant that so many of the Pulitzer prizes in history and so many of the book-of-the-month club books on history are written by nonprofessional historians? Is it not significant that so many of us do not get beyond our doctor’s theses and that these often require—or at least ought to have—extensive revision before publication? To do research supremely well might perhaps be enough satisfaction for any man. But, if we view the matter squarely, we see that there may well be a question whether our social contribution is everything that we would like to have it.
There is another aspect to the question on which we may well reflect. We have often been told that advance in the natural sciences has owed much to plain natural curiosity. Research that has no practical relevance, that is perhaps only remotely related to the existing body of knowledge, that derives purely and simply from a desire to know more about the nature of the universe, may lay the foundation for significant progress of a much more concrete character. An abstract thinker like Einstein may, through his speculation, have an enormous influence upon the application of science to life. No fact about the natural world is so insignificant that it cannot conceivably be related to a broad pattern of profound value. Oftentimes, by analogy, we are told that all historical research is valuable, irrespective of its perceived implications. But is the analogy sound? Is it really true that, in our own field of history, one subject is just as important as another? Do we, in our graduate work, reflect sufficiently on the relationship of this or that particular field of research to the larger pattern of the past? Of course we need not, and should not, in. our explorations, seek immediate utility. To do this would be to constrict and limit our field to an intolerable degree, to turn a universal discipline into a mere handmaiden of other subjects, especially those most immediately concerned with the contemporary world. But is it unreasonable to ask, when we undertake or suggest a piece of research, that it should bear some relationship to a broad pattern, that it should be more than an isolated intellectual adventure (appealing as that can be), that it should be also a contribution to some larger conception of the past? There is another way of saying the same thing. Some of the most fruitful research is often the asking of questions about matters with which we are already familiar (the age of Jackson, for instance, or the age of reform) in an attempt to develop new insights rather than to explore the hitherto unexplored. Such researches may or may not be wholly justified in terms of the interpretation which results. But they are decidedly stimulating. They proceed, as pedestrian research usually does not, from a kind of intellectual audacity very far removed from the exhaustive interpretation of some subject which scarcely ties in with any broad conception of history.
We should do better, perhaps, if, in the direction of our students, we gave more consideration to the possibility of reinterpretation of fields already covered as compared with digging away at obscure facts, in an obscure area, in an obscure way. Do we really need to know, to borrow from Carl Becker, “whether Charles the Fat was at Ingelheim or Lustnau on July 1, 1887?” It is a fair question whether we do not sometimes kill the very spirit that we wish to foster, the spirit of exciting and excited inquiry into the past, by directing our students’ attention to matters which fail to challenge them and turn what ought to be a highly intellectual adventure into a dreary kind of grubbing. And by the time the victim has completed his study, he may have lost all sense of the grandeur and scope of history, and he may find it difficult to think in bold or even in general terms of the vast pageant of the past.
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, the Reverend Samuel MacChord Crothers delivered an address to the honor students on what he called “The Retrospective Re‑education of Doctors of Philosophy.” I have been unable to recapture this address. But the title itself suggests well enough what he was talking about. He was pleading for the large view, for the broad understanding of a subject, as compared with the intensive cultivation of a small area. He was resting his case on the stock definition of a specialist as a man who knows more and more about less and less.
But let us return to the subject of teaching. We agree that the best teachers must also be scholars, that they must always be asking questions, always expanding, deepening, and broadening their own knowledge. We agree, I hope, that they must always be looking for insights as well as for new facts. But we are only at the beginning of our inquiry. How shall we make certain that they know how to teach, and what values are we to expect them to communicate?
The answer to these questions lies on two levels. It involves, in the first place, a matter of selection and training. It involves, in the second place, the deeper values which give history its dignity and meaning.
Is it not possible to improve our methods of preparation for a teaching career in history? Are we getting the right people? Are we training them in the right way? Are we fixing for them the right standards?
There is certainly no easy answer to the first of these questions. Undoubtedly, part of the problem is financial. We need more fellowships for graduate study in history; we need higher standards of compensation for our profession in general. But there is another facet to the matter. We cannot ourselves treat teaching casually, or as a mere interruption of something more important. The quality of our students will depend in no small degree upon the personal enthusiasm for our subject that we can communicate. The more glow there is in our instruction, the more successfully will we recruit the teachers of the future. If our work is central to us, it will become central to them. We need, too, to be less obsessed than many of us are by grades acquired in the course of an undergraduate career. Some of the very ablest graduate students will turn out to have very unpromising undergraduate records, just as some of the top men in law or medical school will. Young men and young women mature at different speeds. They are not finished at commencement. Furthermore, some of those with the most formidable number of “A’s” may lack entirely the fundamental gift of communication or even a genuine “feel” for our subject. They may be mere prodigies of memory, without originality or that sympathetic attitude toward others which has so much to do with success in the classroom. Once a college student has had his enthusiasm aroused, he may show unexpected power and atone for deficiencies in his undergraduate career. But the dull dog who thinks only in terms of marks and attained them without much else to commend him is very likely beyond redemption. We need to think more of the total personality and less of the score sheet and the aptitude test in selecting and encouraging our graduate students.
After we get our graduate students, what then? Can we not in the first place pay a little more attention to teaching in our training for the doctorate? As matters stand, we often give candidates for the Ph.D. an opportunity to earn a little money on the side by classroom instruction. And then, too often, we forget all about them and leave them completely on their own. They deserve better of us than this. They deserve to be watched, to be improved, to be understood and evaluated.
On the lowest level the problem is a technical one. There are a few things to be learned, no doubt, with regard to method. To speak slowly, and so that you can be heard; to make the big facts stand out from the subordinate ones, in other words, to develop the gift of emphasis; to avoid ponderosity and flippancy alike; to talk, not to read; to present a subject as a related whole—these and similar matters are no doubt worth a little attention. Errors with regard to them can be pointed out effectively, if we take the trouble to visit the classes of our graduate students and see what it is they are doing wrong.
But there is a deeper aspect to teaching. Students must be made to feel that this work is not merely an honorable way of finding the funds for their graduate education, but that it has central significance, that the success they have in it will have something to do with the recommendations we give them and with their professional success. We must genuinely know what they are like and be able to answer with positiveness and, it is to be hoped, with enthusiasm when we are asked about them for jobs. Let us make an end of this miserable matter of recommending for teaching positions young men and young women of whose capacities as teachers we have little exact knowledge and who, whatever their learning, lack the gifts required of them in our noble calling.
I would, as a matter of fact, go further. For every promising graduate student, it seems to me, the preparation of a lecture, or a series of lectures, should be a part of training. I do not mean a highly specialized report such as we get in some of our seminars; I mean a lecture of the kind that he will have to give when he enters the world of teaching. The best of the graduate students ought to have a chance at the undergraduates. If this is not feasible, then there might well be a graduate seminar in which the participants lecture to one another, with subjects of the scope they will present in the classroom. It would do no harm, either, if they learned to conduct a discussion and demonstrated their ability to conduct such a discussion in a stimulating manner, indicating that they had grasped the essentials of a significant problem in a way that showed real insight.
This brings us to the general examination. The idea of the general examination is, in my view, highly meritorious. Here, indeed, is a kind of provision for a wide range of knowledge, as compared with the intensive cultivation of a small field. There are, however, some criticisms to be made of it. One is that it sets an exaggerated value on memory alone, on the ability to memorize large bodies of facts and present them to an admiring audience in a relatively brief space of time. After all, a well-trained person is under no very great difficulty in getting more and more facts as he goes along. Of course the power, the capacity, to absorb and retain is valuable. But let us not rate it too highly. There is plenty of time ahead in which to learn. And there are some students who show up badly in an examination which seems to them crucial, but who have very great merits indeed. At any rate, let us not think that a man ought to be judged on this one test. There are many qualities that go to make a successful teacher besides memory. Enthusiasm, insight, the humane spirit—all these are essential.
If we think of the general examination in terms of teaching, there are perhaps other criticisms that will occur to us. Should the fields chosen not be integrated in some degree with what are the most likely teaching programs for the candidate? Should they not sometimes (and oftener than they do) fall outside the field of history? Is it possible, for example, for a man to teach American history well if he has not had a good grounding in economics? Is it not desirable, in connection with work for the degree, to have every candidate familiarize himself with the philosophy of history? It is not that Brooks Adams in The Law of Civilization and Decay, or Spengler with his demoniac worship of power, or Croce with his inveterate relativism have any of them reached the ultimate in historical speculation. But is it not particularly worth while to bring students into contact with men who have thought in broad terms with regard to the significance of historical materials?
Finally, with regard to our technical problems, should we not revise the work for the master’s degree and make that degree more meaningful in terms of capacity to teach? We shall, in all likelihood, not be able to supply the market with Ph.D.’s of sufficient numbers and high quality. Should we not give some thought to a master’s program directly related to instruction at the college level?
And now we come to the ultimate problem which transcends all questions of method. How is the historical scholar to be both broad and deep? How is he to maintain standards of precision, of exactitude, of faithfulness to the spirit of research, and at the same time spread himself over a large range? What is he to do in a world in which the body of historical literature is continually accumulating at an awesome rate? What is he to do, particularly if he is an American historian in the modern field, in a world in which important political transactions are carried on over the telephone, in which international dealings are frequently on a verbal basis, in which the records of business concerns are portentously voluminous, in which the mass of the data grows and grows? How is he at the same time to be “definitive” and to keep his eye on the large and fertilizing conceptions which make history both interesting and valuable?
The answer to this question, as I see it, is something like this. We cannot teach any broad course to undergraduates and live up to the standard of precise scholarship which we would wish to attain and for which we must strive. But what we can do, and what we should be trying to do, is to set a pattern with regard to the past that has value for young men and young women. It is for us a cardinal responsibility to find that pattern; it will be one thing for one teacher and something else for another—but some Weltanschauung, some fundamental intellectual and moral attitude, that we must have. For history is in the last analysis a point of view; and the undergraduates who listen to us, long after they have forgotten the facts we communicated to them, will remember the point of view.
I venture, therefore, in what follows, to illustrate this general theme. I do so not in the spirit of one who lays down the law but in the spirit of one who makes some suggestions that may be of use to others. And my illustrations will, of course, be chiefly drawn from that American history which I know best.
Now the first thing to be stressed, it seems to me, is that we shall do less than justice to our subject if we think of it in the narrow terms of its practical usefulness in solving the problems of the present. History is useful in this sense, and we have certainly no reason to be ashamed of this fact. There is scarcely another discipline, even the sciences, that is not enriched and deepened and better adapted to the handling of a contemporary issue by some study of the past. There is more recognition of this fact than there used to be. The best political scientists are steeped in the historical study of American institutions. The best economists know full well that they cannot grapple with the problem of deflation or reflation, or of wages and prices, without some thorough grounding in the years that are gone. The best students of international relations—at least so I hope—realize that you cannot understand American foreign policy if you understand only the last ten minutes of it or fail to pay regard to the complex of ideas and habits and institutions that have helped to form the international mores of the American people. If our subject has been captured by others, and more and more used by others, this is occasion for rejoicing rather than jealousy.
But we cannot conceive of history in these narrowly empirical terms. To do so not only would leave no important place for the medievalist, or the classicist, or the student of the age of rationalism, to choose just a few examples, but would be—and this is far more important—a gross perversion of the very heart of our calling. We—and we alone with the philosophers—still place our faith in, and rest our profession on, the ancient Latin maxim, “humani nihil a me alienum puto.” We alone, and the philosophers, must assert in an age of increasing specialization the majestic doctrine that it is man’s duty to know and inquire with regard to everything that concerns him. We alone, with the philosophers, have an opportunity to communicate to our students that sense of excitement which comes from the very broadest view of human activity.
It is difficult, to be sure, to reconcile this view with the tendency toward segmentation that exhibits itself in academic programs, so far as departments of history are concerned. But the opportunity is there. Take, for example, the field of diplomatic history. This field has been largely concerned with the documents, in the narrow sense of the term. But surely more can be made of it. In the last fifty years the study of the past has been much enriched by the changing fashions of our times. Economic history has followed on political history, social history on economic history, intellectual history on social history. Surely it is time for the historians of foreign policy—and there should certainly be such—to refresh and invigorate and enlarge their narrative by giving it a broader focus. How can we talk of the events of the 1930’s without giving more emphasis than we have given to the great depression, and how can we talk of the diplomacy of the 1950’s without relating it to the economic changes of the last two decades? How can we discuss the isolationism of the nineteenth century without relating it to the field of ideas? How can we discuss intelligently the diplomatic relations of the United States with Great Britain unless we understand the cultural complexes that have tended to unite—or divide—the two nations? How can we deal intelligently with the questions of the Orient unless we try to get some insight into the Oriental way of thought? The opportunity lies ready for the next generation to rewrite the diplomatic history of the United States in broader and more meaningful terms than ever before. And what could be said of diplomatic history can most certainly be said of political history, which, I venture to hope, will receive increasing attention in a fresher and broader context.
There is, conceivably, another aspect to this question of breadth. All approaches to history are interesting to someone. But do we, in our course offerings, put enough weight on the history of specific periods, treating these periods from a broad and varied point of view, with emphasis on their numerous aspects? And, if we were to do this, should we not see to it that the aspects of a specific period which have the deepest significance should receive the major attention? I once knew a teacher who gave a course in the Renaissance and devoted his major attention to the political rivalries of the Italian city-states. He might, it seems to me, have better placed the emphasis on the extraordinary artistic efflorescence of the period and tried to give to his students a deeper sense of the beautiful. In medieval history is not the central problem to make vivid the development of that majestic church of which Macaulay said: “She may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of Saint Paul’s.” Might we not, in general, make more of an effort than we generally do to seize the spirit of an epoch and come to grips with the hypotheses and assumptions by which it lived?
One of the major problems of successful teaching, I suspect, lies in the power with which the teacher is able to portray human personality. It may well be that there have been writers and academics who have inordinately stressed the personal. We can hardly be subscribers, like Carlyle, to the great man theory of history. Even the largest figures have to be understood in a context which far transcends their individual aspirations, ambitions, and capacities. But if we must not exaggerate the role of the individual, so we must not minimize it or forget that the decisions made by presidents and prime ministers and generals may actually alter the historical trend—as very likely did President Truman’s decision to go into Korea in 1950. On the whole, as it seems to me, the trend of our modern historical research runs in the direction of depersonalizing history and reducing the role of the central figures. Social history represented—and represents—an immense broadening of our knowledge, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the men who pioneered in the field. But there is always the danger that, in thinking in terms of social forces, the role of the individual will become blurred and that for living, breathing human beings we shall substitute a list of names of the relatively obscure. The peril is equally great in intellectual history. The discovery of a new idea is always worth while, but it is necessary to ask just how much the new idea really mattered. We do not want to spend too much time on the trivial, merely because it happens to be novel. And we do not want the actors on the great stage of the world to be submerged by forces and ideas. The average man is intensely personal; therefore let us be sure that there are people in history. Let us make them live; let us share their triumphs and frustrations; let us know them. History is a kind of introduction to more interesting people than we can possibly meet in our restricted lives; let us not neglect the opportunity. Let us get to know Abraham Lincoln or Descartes or Julius Caesar at least as well as we know some of our day-to-day acquaintances.
But there is more to the matter than that. It is not wise to moralize too long or too often in the classroom. There is a sound instinct in undergraduates to react against moral attitudinizing. But is it necessary on that account to ignore the majestic example set by some of the great figures of our history, or all history? Shall we not properly dramatize and honor the burly German who stood before the emperor at the Diet of Worms and, when pressed as to his beliefs, declared: “Here stand I; I cannot otherwise”? Can we properly describe Washington without laying some of the emphasis on the unshakable sense of duty, on the undaunted tenacity with which he faced his problems? Is it not worth while (and encouraging, too) to note of him, as Jefferson said, that, if his mental qualities were decidedly not of the first order, he yet attained enormous wisdom, that he was perhaps, as Lecky said of him, “of all the great men in history the most invariably judicious” because he had the gift of consultation, of weighing and harmonizing conflicting opinions? Is it not possible that some of our students may learn something from his example and that they will order their lives better if they truly catch the feeling of his wisdom? Is it possible to live with Lincoln, as we American historians must live, without underlining and gaining some inspiration from his immense humility? “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” run the words of the second inaugural. “I do not allow myself to suppose that either the convention or the League [the National Union] have concluded to decide that I am either the greatest or best man in America, but rather they have concluded that it is not best to swap horses while crossing the river.” May we not learn from such expressions as these that humility is not weakness and that pride is not strength? Is it not possible to communicate this feeling to some of those we teach, to their own advantage and to their own growth?
As a matter of fact, our training and, too often, our intellectual habit lead us to analyze away the qualities that have made some of the great figures of the past leaders in their own time. We dissect and criticize—we, the little ones—but too rarely do we strive, in our interpretation of the past, to catch the authentic quality in the lives of the dominating figures of a by-gone era that warmed men’s hearts and fired their minds. Let us look for a moment at Woodrow Wilson. He was often obstinate; he was sometimes intoxicated with his own verbosity; his sense of righteousness often became self-righteousness; his moral intensity became cloying; and there is an immense tragedy in the close of his political career. All these things can and must be said. But none of them explains the impact that Woodrow Wilson had on his own generation; none of them helps us to see why it was that so many men followed him, none of them helps us to measure his influence. Only those who lived as adults through the war of 1917–18 can realize just what his leadership meant; and if, in the days ahead, the American people come to take a wider view of their world responsibility than they did in 1919 and 1920,part of the honor and the glory, it can be demonstrated, is due to the Wilsonian example.
I press this point further. It is not only in the assumption of a wider role for America in international affairs that Wilson belongs to the wave of the future. He framed for himself a conception of the presidency that has an abiding vitality and even more relevance today than it had forty years ago; he spoke for the rising nationalities of the world and for a mitigation of the imperial impulse; he set his stamp on the practice of open diplomacy which, whether we like it or not, has become the necessary apparatus of the democratic state; in his views on the tariff and the currency he was one who looked toward our own age. Despite his crotchets, he deserves more admiration than he has usually received and more remembrance than he sometimes commands.
But it is not only through the vivid influence and example of personality that we cart make our students see history as an attitude toward life that ought to be fruitful and helpful. Take another matter, the dangerous proneness of the man in the street to form shallow and partisan judgments on current matters on the basis of assumptions that cannot be either proved or wholly disproved. We have suffered in the past from such judgments: “World War I was a great mistake,” “we lost China,” “we fought the Second World War only to get into a greater mess than ever,” and so on. This is the kind of opinion we ought never to permit ourselves to utter, and for reasons closely connected with the very marrow of our subject. It is to be freely admitted that the revisionist school of diplomatic historians can perform, and have performed, a not inconsiderable service. By challenging conventional assumptions, by demanding new light on the facts, even by highly subjective interpretations of the facts, they stimulate discussion and quicken the sense of scholarly responsibility in the rest of us. But it does not seem unfair to say that in another sense they sometimes perform a fundamental disservice to their profession and to those whom they teach. The disservice is this. Human events are immensely complicated; the lines of cause and effect are in many cases very difficult to trace; and in matters into which so many elements enter, as in foreign policy, we should beware of that kind of dogmatism which writes history in terms of hypothesis and which assumes a kind of prescience with regard to what would have happened if some other course had been followed than that which was followed. We should, as the Second World War recedes into the distance, try—more conscientiously than we have done—to understand the motives and assumptions of those who described themselves as isolationists as well as the motives and assumptions of those who took a contrary view; but we should be careful to make it clear that no finality can possibly attach to the thesis that we would have been better off outside the struggle than in. Things were as they were; they were because the mass of the American people came to believe (not unreasonably) that Hitler and Tojo posed a definite threat to the future security of the United States, and of its place in the world; and in this, as in other matters, it is wise to remember that there is some truth in the saying that “die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht.” It is more important to understand the reasons why we acted as we did than it is to speculate on what might have been if we had acted differently. What a boon it would be if, taking heed from this principle and instructed by our knowledge, the ordinary man paid less attention than he sometimes does to the self-interested interpretations of the past used to promote the fortunes of a party or an individual!
What I have just said with regard to the Second World War raises a larger question. Are we, as teachers, to affirm or to question? Is our function to arouse doubt, to foster the critical attitude; or is it to set some positive standard of thought and action? If one puts the matter in more philosophic terms, is it true that the world suffers more from those who believe too little than from those who believe too much and believe what cannot be proved? Is skepticism corrosive and faith sustaining? Or is skepticism the necessary prelude to clarified thought and action, and is faith sometimes a blinding influence on conduct? The answer to these questions will be given by each individual according to his temperament. But perhaps we can make some little headway in dealing with it. Young people feel the need for affirmation, and yet they should be made to re-examine their own postulates. Can we not, in our teaching, distinguish between the things that can be safely affirmed and the things that ought not to be affirmed? We can take positive stands on some matters that admit of prudent generalization. We can say, for example, that the Eighteenth Amendment was a failure, and a ghastly failure at that; we can indicate that much of the New Deal has been right in the sense that it has attained widespread popular acceptance, has been assimilated into the American way of life, and has been accepted—and in some respects even extended—by American conservatives. We can say, to choose an example more remote in time, that the Specie Circular had some very unfortunate consequences. But we cannot make dogmatic judgments on questions which are highly complex and which involve assumptions insusceptible of proof. We cannot, for example, assert that the country would have been ruined if William Jennings Bryan had been elected in 1896, or that the history of the world would have been changed had we entered the League, or that it was a mistake to intervene in Korea. We should illustrate in our teaching the difference between certainty and uncertainty, and the need of both for the well-balanced mind. Let us not shrink from affirmation where affirmation is possible, but let us recognize the limits of affirmation as well.
Closely connected with what I have been trying to say is the matter of seeing many sides. One must remember, however, that there are two sides to the question of seeing many sides. Much of the effective work of the world is done by men of strong feeling who move toward their goals without too much analysis of the pros and cons of conduct. Much is accomplished by men of power who reckon little of the social consequences of their action. But it is, it seems to me, more consistent with the spirit of our profession—indeed fundamental—that we should maintain a kind of intellectual and moral balance in our instruction. The function of the mind is to temper, to direct, to moderate, and to elevate the natural instincts and passions of mankind. If we believe at all in the rule of intelligence, then we must seek to understand divergent points of view and to chasten selfishness and unregulated feeling with reason and some objective criterion of the public good. The spirit of learning was never better described than by Woodrow Wilson in an address delivered to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in 1909. It consists, to paraphrase him, in a preference for the non-partisan point of view, in the ability to look at the essentials rather than stick to the letter of the reasoning, in the kind of detachment that eliminates from the account personal considerations of mood or class and relates itself to carefully thought-out and disinterested ends. In arriving at some such attitude, it is by no means to be supposed that we come to nothing but a pallid neutrality. It is an error, and a gross one, to imagine that what scholarship demands of us is no opinion at all. As one of the greatest of our past presidents insisted, to come to no conclusion is to come to a very dangerous and antisocial conclusion, to a kind of historical nihilism. Our students do not want this. What they want, and what they will profit by, is to see us turn a question about in our minds, going over its complexities and varied points of view, and then to see us come to a decision informed by knowledge and based on considerations that can be recognized as rational. They want, too, to see us approach a great public question in a spirit of what we deem to be disinterested consideration for the public good. And, if we do this with regard to the problems of the past, we will help them to do the same with regard to the problems of the present.
This kind of intellectual and moral balance can be illustrated in many ways, and with regard to many matters. Take, for example, the operation of our business system. In the course of the last two or three historical generations, workers in the field of American history have been, on the whole, highly critical of the business classes. The fact is understandable. The selfishness and ruthlessness of the business struggle as it unfolded itself in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the resistance of large elements of the business classes to the most necessary reforms, their invocation of legal process to arrest or delay these reforms, the failure of many of the leaders of the business world to understand even the most elementary principles of the economy under which they were operating, and, above all, the dramatic collapse of 1929, all contributed to a very unfavorable view among scholars of the role of the capitalist in American society. But, in reviewing these and other facts of the same kind, our historians have often underrated the essential, the fundamental contribution of the capitalist. The actual management of our vast industrial machine is a task that calls for very high qualities, and they are not the qualities usually associated with the academic mind. The ability to make decisions, the ability to organize a hierarchy of administrative talent, the ability to harness the energies of others in the most productive way, the willingness to takes chances, the quality of confidence and faith in the future, these are some of the things that are necessary to the operation of our system; and they are most surely to be found in the higher ranks of business. So long as we have the kind of social and economic order that we have, and so long as we can justly say that this order has played its part in producing the most prosperous society that the world has ever known, we shall do well not to denigrate in generalized terms our business leaders. And there is more than this to be said. In this, as in other matters, we are often the victims of the past which we study. Is it not true that the newer generation in the business field approaches the problems of society with a more enlightened and a broader view than that which prevailed three decades ago? The great depression was a profound educational experience. Its lessons were assimilated, at least in part, not only by academicians but by those who play a more active role in the management of the economy.
Let me make another point. No trained historian can possibly put himself in the position of a thick-and-thin exponent of the static. If there is one thing clearer than another, it is that change is the law of life, one of the deepest and most inevitable of all human phenomena. We shall all of us live more happily if we accept its inevitability. And we ought to help our students to do so, to think of social change not in terms of apprehension or of indignation but coolly and constructively, applying intellectual and not emotional criteria to the problems of social adjustment, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of this or that measure, but recognizing at the same time that it is rarely possible to cling devotedly to the status quo. We have our choice, as all history teaches, between the gradual reconciliation of the old and the new and those more violent processes which destroy much that is good along with much that is evil.
Just as we accept the inevitability of change, so we ought to seek to understand the values of a society that is past. In an increasingly secular age one of the major values of medieval history must lie in a clearer understanding of the great church that flourished in the days of Anselm and Aquinas and still exercises its mighty and pervasive influence over the lives of men. The comfort of faith, the hope of happiness in the world to come, the emphasis on moral rather than on material values, these are all things we should seek to appreciate. For they live on in a world in which preoccupation with social improvement and economic progress often crowds out some of the deepest sources of strength for the individual.
Nor need we uncritically identify change with progress. Take, for instance, a more current problem, the problem of imperialism. In the world of today, the tide runs strongly against the domination of one society by another. Abstractly speaking, this is easy to understand. Does not our own Declaration of Independence declare that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”? But the question may be looked at differently. Is self-government inevitably—in all cases and in all lands—in the interest, objectively conceived, of the peoples concerned? Are all peoples capable of self-rule; or, on the other hand, does independence, in many parts of the world, mean the domination of the societies concerned by a narrow and selfish oligarchy, less occupied with the welfare of the masses than an external regime might be? Is it not the case that imperialism, now a term of reproach, has provided the basis of order and stability which permitted the importation of foreign capital, put technical abilities at the service of the populations concerned, and provided internal improvement and growth which laid the basis for a more widely diffused prosperity? Was not our forty-odd years’ occupation of the Philippines an illustration of this principle? Did not the British rule in India lay the basis for more successful self-government than would have arisen spontaneously in that vast subcontinent? And is it necessarily a gain today if the less mature nations of the world sweat material progress out of the labor of the masses, throw off tutelage, deal harshly with the foreign capital that has made or would make development possible, and insist upon proceeding on their own? We shall have to wait a long time before we know surely whether this is progress or retrogression.
In judging any age, whether of centuries ago or our own, we need to strike—as scholars—a proper balance between liberalism and conservatism. The essence of the former point of view, as I see it, lies in a humane desire to see the improvement of the social order, in a generous view of the capacities of human nature, in a critical attitude toward authority and dogma, in a wise, though restrained, hope in the possibility of making the world a little better place, in a belief in the dignity of human effort. The essence of conservatism, as it appears to me, lies in the spirit which insists upon a careful and critical examination of any proposal of change, takes account of the intransigence and capacity for evil of the human species, recognizes the difficult tactical problems involved in any project of reform, and understands that there are values to be preserved in any healthy society, as well as new values to be gained. Whatever history we teach, we can give due weight to both these points of view. And, if we do so, we shall produce neither cynics nor visionaries but well-balanced citizens.
And now let me go back to recapitulate what I have been trying to say this evening. I believe that the greatest challenge confronting historians today is the challenge of the classroom. To meet it we shall have to give to teaching a higher place in our scale of values than we do today. We shall have to select our students more definitely with this end in view; we shall have to give them an opportunity to exercise their capacities in this regard; we shall have to reward them adequately for their performance. And—it goes without saying—we shall ourselves have to be the best teachers that we know how to be, the most humane, the most sympathetic, the most dedicated.
And what we teach will be more than knowledge. Knowledge we must have, and have in growing measure—the fruit of an ever-exploring mind, the product of a restlessly inquiring spirit. But, in addition, we shall be influential in proportion as we think about the values that we wish to communicate as well as about the facts that we wish to communicate. We must make the past more vivid and the quality of man’s adventure more deeply understood; we must interpret the past broadly, in the spirit of a man to whom nothing human is alien; we need not be afraid to speak of moral values, to be sensitive and compassionate, or to exalt wisdom and goodness; we must set the example of a sound intellectual and moral balance, of a broad view of human values; we must make the processes of the mind in seeking truth so fair, so understanding of various opinions, and yet so clear that they will command respect and deserve imitation. And, if we do these things, the classroom will be more than a lecture place, more than a preparation for examinations, and more than the medium for communicating facts that will soon be forgotten; it will be an abiding influence in the life of the great nation to which we belong and a source of light to the generations that sit at our feet. It will be a vital part of life itself.
Dexter Perkins was author of History of
the Monroe Doctrine (rev. ed., 1955), The United States and the
Caribbean (1947), and Charles Evans Hughes and American
Democratic Statesmanship (1956). He was a professor of history at
Cornell University at the time of his presidency.
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