Publication Date

February 11, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Dick Brown passed away on January 16. Known to those not acquainted with him personally as Richard H. Brown, Dick was once a historian of what in the mid-20th century was known as Jacksonian democracy. He won a prize for his dissertation on Martin Van Buren. After an initial stint on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he moved to Northern Illinois University, where he earned tenure. Had he stayed, this 20th-century social historian probably would never have heard of him. The Hero and the People: The Meaning of Jacksonian Democracy (1964) might well have been on a reading list for my graduate school qualifying exam; if so, it was one of those that I chose to ignore.

Dick didn’t stay long at Northern Illinois. Perhaps DeKalb was less than comfortable for a gay man in the early 1960s. But he also had something else in mind: while at UMass, he had become interested in how students learn history. During a two-year leave from Northern Illinois and for five years after that, he directed what was commonly called the Amherst Project, formally the Committee on the Study of History. Reading the project’s final report nearly a half century later, I am not surprised that former AHA vice president William Weber called the initiative “unprecedented” in its collaborative culture, approach to student learning, and reconsideration of the relationship between coverage, narrative, and primary sources in high school history education. Apparently unnoticed, including by Weber, the report even mentioned the importance of assessment, a term that would remain taboo for a few decades and still raises eyebrows among our colleagues.

Placing “inquiry” and students at the center of history education was, at the time, revolutionary.

The Amherst crew was hardly the first to identify the problem: the failures of high school history education had formed the focus of a series of AHA reports dating back to 1892. In his famous elevation of “everyman” to the role of historian in 1931, Carl Becker had pointed to the potential of primary sources and historical inquiry to democratize historical work, but as with the reports, there was little thought to translating rhetoric into pedagogy. Dick and his colleagues did have ideas, which he articulated in 1966: “If the goal of formal education is to equip one to educate himself through life—and who would dispute that that is its goal?—it makes infinitely more sense to train the student to be a sophisticated and careful inquirer than it does to fill him full of facts.”

Placing “inquiry” and students at the center of history education was, at the time, revolutionary. Bob Bain, a keynote speaker at dozens of conferences devoted to these ideas, observes that the Amherst Project “changed ways of thinking of what was possible. [Brown] influenced me long before I met him.” Sam Wineburg, author of the prize-winning Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), and probably the leading figure in what has come to be called the scholarship of history teaching and learning, describes the Amherst Project as “not only ahead of its time. It was visionary. . . . I consider my own work to be an extended footnote on what Dick Brown saw long before the rest of us.”

Dick walked away from tenure in 1966. He chose to remain at the Newberry Library, where he had brought the Amherst Project two years earlier, having been given office space and a telephone by another visionary, Lawrence W. (Bill) Towner, the library’s director. In today’s parlance, Dick had opted for a career path beyond the professoriate. He told a colleague at the time that he was by nature “a gambler.” Later he would annually introduce himself to the Newberry’s Fellows Seminar as “a hustler.”

The Amherst Project closed in 1971. Towner knew better than to let Dick walk away, and by 1973 his portfolio included research programs for undergraduates and Chicago-area high school students, supervision of research centers, a pair of major publications, and subsequently oversight of fellowships. In the words of my former Newberry colleague Fred Hoxie, “Bill Towner used to say that when he arrived, the staff would open the doors of the library every morning and no one came in. . . . Working at Bill Towner’s side, Dick invented the modern Newberry.” They envisioned what Dick often referred to as a “research library on the street”: a vastly expanded fellowship program, new research centers, exhibitions, adult seminars, and “public events from concerts by the Newberry Consort to public lectures. . . . He helped break down barriers separating academic scholars and public researchers. . . . The humanities belonged to everyone.”

I met Dick in 1989, probably initially in my job interview to direct one of those research centers at the Newberry. He gave me a chance—perhaps because he was a gambler—and taught me how to work beyond the professoriate; we were both taking a risk. I’m not sure I became a hustler, but I learned things I hadn’t learned in graduate school, much of it now embodied in the work of the AHA.

The first thing Dick taught me was how to write grant proposals. The primary requirement for a good proposal is not facility with formats and formulas, but rather a good idea. I co-authored successive drafts of my first proposal, a collaboration with a scholar outside the Newberry whom we had recruited because he knew more about our good idea than we did, and Dick patiently scribbled in the margins. When our program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) returned a draft with comments that our lead scholar and I thought were off the mark, Dick reminded us who had sat in on scores of proposal reviews and who hadn’t. So “iconography” became “stories.”

The primary requirement for a good grant proposal is not facility with formats and formulas, but rather a good idea.

I also learned what it meant to be part of a community of scholars. Newberry academic staff were expected to remain active scholars, but to a considerable extent we were responsible for supporting and enhancing the work of our colleagues. It didn’t matter whose idea a project might have been initially; the final product would look completely different and might have someone else’s name at the top, if that person turned out to be the most qualified scholar to play that role. And when someone else had a good idea, we could help move that idea toward a project that could be articulated and implemented—at the Newberry or elsewhere within our far-flung community. When William Ferris, founder of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Southern Culture (and later chairman of the NEH) credits Dick as “the wellspring of our Center,” he is referring to Dick’s untiring support in its conceptualization and planning—and of course helping to write the grant proposal.

This generosity was not limited to people with whom Dick agreed. Our role was to support first-rate scholarship, regardless of interpretive perspective. Advisory committees for projects always included people likely to disagree with one another on significant issues. Invitation to serve on peer-review panels for fellowship competitions required no particular perspective, other than respect for primary sources and the value of a research library; what mattered was readiness to appreciate work with which one disagreed, and to be appropriately critical of work with which one agreed. Dick taught me to tilt toward applicants whose proposals indicated intent to use the Newberry’s collections in order to learn and rethink, rather than to provide evidence for what they already knew.

In September’s column, I noted that I was fortunate enough to have mentors, “all of them generous, patient, and wise.” Dick Brown was all of this and more.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. This essay draws on published sources, personal recollection, and recent communications from Bob Bain, William Ferris, Fred Hoxie, David Spadafora, and Sam Wineburg.

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