Presidential address read at the annual dinner of the American Historical Association in Chicago, December 29, 1953. Published in the American Historical Review 59, no. 2 (January 1954): 273-86.

A Professor of History in a Quandary

A professional sense of duty impels me to confess that what I am about to say is to a certain extent unhistorical. It is in fact largely autobiographical. It suffers therefore, for one thing, from the egocentrism and the lapses of memory characteristic of autobiography. Besides, for the sake of clarity, I have knowingly exercised a certain amount of license with some well-remembered but complex episodes.

I shall couch my relatively autobiographical remarks in the third person. For a speaker who is afraid to appear immodest, the third person seems an appropriate, and perhaps pardonable, saving device. Moreover, a too personal document might well fail to have any application to the more general problems of our profession, and I wish, in talking about myself, merely to describe, with as much detachment as I can muster, that member of our Association whose not unrepresentative professional quandary and its resolution are best known to me. Almost every other professor of history in a graduate school has encountered a similar quandary and some of them no doubt have resolved it with equal satisfaction. The very facts that my problem was not unique and that my answer to it arose naturally from the existing pattern of graduate instruction in history have induced me to believe that you might, on this occasion, wish me to expound my problem and my answer to it.

The quandary I am about to expose grew out of long cogitation upon the question of how best to train young men and women to become historians. It arose in the mind of a member of our gild who, like a number of other members, not only was a historian and a professor of history but also became a teacher of historical methodology and of historiography. Had he been a free-lance historian, such a quandary might never have troubled him. He might then, without a moment’s thought about the best way to teach young aspirants how to become historians, perhaps have found the great satisfaction that may come from writing works of history. Once a historian becomes a professor, however, he no longer may be concerned with the problems of history writing alone. He is caught in a maze of educational inquiries, of pedagogical standards and values. If he bothers about nothing else, he still has to judge which of his students is ready for the next step. Hence he has to have criteria of grading, and history is one of the several disciplines in which such criteria involve questions not merely of fact and method but also of style, breadth of interest, and social philosophy. If in addition to teaching history he likewise teaches historical method and historiography, his predicament is rendered still more perplexing. He then has to decide or have someone decide for him what the relative position of his subjects should be in the gradus ad Parnassum.

Although our professor gave more than half his classroom time to what his students would call “straight history,” and his writings were decidedly more than half on indubitably historical figures, nevertheless one of his most vexing doubts arose from the amount of time that he devoted to teaching and writing upon methodology. At a certain stage in his career he was giving so much thought and effort to the problems of methodology–to teaching students how to find evidence and to write history from it–that he could not help feeling disturbed when one of his most respected confreres stated categorically: “Courses on historical methodology are not worth the time that they take up.”1 Was our professor then simply wasting his efforts in that connection?

This uncertainty, as we shall see, had by that time long been a part of the professor’s protracted quandary. But an equally categorical decision was made hard for him by a parallel uncertainty that his own courses on historical events were worth much more. His specialty, you see, was European history in the eighteenth century, and courses on the French Revolution and Napoleon do not have in America the attractiveness that they once had before the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century became “the great revolution.” Contemporary American society, as the professor had finally been forced to realize, was not greatly concerned whether Marat developed as a radical early or late, whether Lafayette found his liberal ideas in the atmosphere of eighteenth-century France or in the American Revolution, or whether Napoleon was executor or executioner of the French Revolution. A society that is fearful of annihilation and tormented by threats to its free institutions probably cares little whether many a problem of that sort–to which the historian of eighteenth-century Europe conscientiously gives hours of lectures and reams of paper–is settled one way or another, or not at all. Lectures and books on such matters, unless they display dramatic verve or stylistic adroitness, simply do not have the general appeal that those on our national origins or on recent events naturally have.

Nevertheless, the professor was loath to believe that history, unless it is presented by gifted literary craftsmen or deals with national or topical affairs, has no social importance. He found it hard to concede, in other words, that the study of history is of interest only to other historians, if to them, unless it contributes to the development of national awareness, satisfies curiosity about recent or local events, or titillates the literary sensibilities. The popular success of rather abstruse works, such as Oswald Spengler’s or Arnold J. Toynbee’s, dealing in very small part with American or recent affairs militated against such a conclusion.

As the professor over the years had pondered this problem, the more convinced he had become that the social importance of history, whether or not related to the national development or to recent events, lies more in the way historians think on persistent problems than on either their subject matter or their style. On a priori grounds, he reasoned, the world can be assumed to need the lessons of its experience, whenever and wherever those lessons are to be found. And where can those lessons be found if not in the historical facts concerning men and mankind? And by whom can such facts be found if not by the methodical historian? And who can better discern and present the lessons they teach than a historian of a critical and philosophical bent? Even an age of anxiety dares not be indifferent to the way historians–and all historians, not those of national or topical affairs alone–try to give to the lasting puzzles of life new meaningfulness (which is something more than mere meaning). Doesn’t it follow then that what the world wants most of the historian is the ability to think about history as only a historian at his best is prepared to do? Prolonged thought increased the professor’s confidence that what American society expects of him and other professors of history in the graduate schools is to teach the way peculiar to historians of thinking about the world’s problems. This way of thinking is sometimes called historical-mindedness.

But what constitutes historical-mindedness? The professor was aware that writers, historians among them, commonly disagree regarding what historical-mindedness is or ought to be. Some postulate that it is nothing more or less than the ability to understand the past in its own setting, to appreciate history for its own sake. Others insist that it comprises the ability to understand the past in order to throw light upon the present. The professor persuaded himself, however, that the difference between these apparently opposite schools of thought was a nuance of emphasis rather than a genuine antithesis. Those historians who believe in understanding the past for the sake of the past (those whom the French call historiens historisants)2 must willy-nilly think in the present about the past and cannot rid themselves of their present frame of reference; and those who believe that all understanding of the past is possible only by thinking about it in the present and has merit only because of its meaning for the present (the so-called “presentists”) must make the best effort they can to transcend their present frames of reference if they genuinely wish to understand the past. Thus, where the purpose of both schools is historical verisimilitude rather than victory in an argument, they come close to agreement. While the presentist says: “We can intelligently study the past only by recognizing that it cannot be understood except in terms of the present,” the historisant says: “In studying the past we must identify ourselves with it as much as our conditioning in the present will permit.” The difference, as far as sincere study of the past is concerned, need not lead to a guerre à outrance.

That the difference in emphasis is very important, however, the professor soon came to appreciate when he speculated on the problem of inevitability in history. As he saw it, a threat of war, revolution, or other historical crisis in which human responsibility is a significant factor may, before it ends, take any one of several different courses, and perhaps the best the historian can do by way of prediction is, through his knowledge of similar combinations of circumstances in the past, to anticipate the various probable outcomes. But once the same event has passed into history and the outcome is known, the historian, if he feels obliged to explain why and how it came about, has to consider all its relevant antecedents and concomitants, and cannot easily escape the conclusion that, in view of the now apparently sufficient or, in any case, satisfying explanation, nothing else could have happened. Obviously then, the question whether a historical outcome should be considered contingent upon human decisions or wholly inevitable depends largely upon whether one looks at it before it has come about or after. Hence, the historien historisant, studying an event in its own setting, may reasonably argue that before it happened, some accident or some hypothetical decision other than the ones actually recorded might have changed its course; and the presentist, looking backward from outcome to antecedents, may reasonably argue that the outcome had to be the one that actually came, and no other. The professor was thus led to infer that whether one attributed historical consequences to changeable human decisions or to an inevitable course of events is chiefly a problem of time perspective, as the very words foresight and hindsight imply. But he was also confident that both perspectives were desirable for good understanding of the historical process, and hence that historiens historisants and presentists are not opponents but allies in the war for historical-mindedness.

Conviction on that score was reinforced when the professor reflected on the problem of moral judgments in history. Obviously, only those who feel that human decisions are important historical determinants will be interested in moral judgments. As the professor reasoned, the historien historisant is not only the more likely to posit the evitability of historical events but is also required by his philosophical principles to understand the most criminal or stupid behavior in its own setting. Hence he is in the predicament of being obliged to understand, to have empathy with, decisions that he is likely to condemn as having made inevitable some misfortune that otherwise might have been avoided. But how does he know that an outcome was of the sort that ought to have been served or that ought to have been avoided unless he makes a moral judgment? And how can he approve or condemn except sub specie aeternitatis, weighing not only contemporary causes but also subsequent effects and hence looking upon the outcome not only in its setting but also from his own vantage point? In fact, the professor failed to understand how any historian who deals with human responsibility at all (and not even the most deterministic Marxist historian appears able to avoid dealing with it) can help judging his characters and, as he judges, raising the question of their moral justification both in their own setting and in his own setting. Thus, the professor decided, a well-rounded historian can hardly escape being both historisant and presentist at the same time. The historian who does not look at the events he is studying both fore and aft is likely to be the poorer thereby.

So far, so good. But in assuring himself that to be historical-minded the historian must seek to be both historisant and presentist at the same time, the professor had cleared away only part of his perplexity. Perhaps fuller clarity might be reached if he delved still farther into the precise nature of historical-mindedness. What modes of thought, he now inquired, did society expect from historians that it could not expect with equal right from other kinds of savants? Certainly the historian’s first obligation–elementary history, so to speak–is to study the past of mankind in order to preserve “the memory of things said and done.” But whose “memory of things said and done”? The memories of the contemporaries of those things at the time they were said or done? But obviously the librarian, the archivist, and sometimes the amateur collector are at least as well qualified as the historian to preserve the records of what man has said and done. So are a host of experts in certain aspects of literary study and in philology, archaeology, paleography, and other disciplines that our profession egocentrically thinks of as “sciences auxiliary to history.” Systematic preservation, even sparkling reconstruction of the past, are not the preserve of the historian alone. Society must expect of the historian that he do something more or, at least, different. In the professor’s logic that extra “something” had to be a distinctive kind of reflection upon the witnesses’ “memory of things said and done.” In that case, the function that society expects of the historian is that he be man’s rememberer of man’s whole experience, that he serve all mankind as the individual’s memory serves the individual (Mr. Everyman, if you will) but serve it better, because the historian is practiced in an ancient discipline that forewarns him of the faults of human recollection and so forearms him against them.

Now the individual’s memory is not merely a storehouse of things that he has said and done or that have been said and done to him, a storehouse from which he can draw anecdotes and episodes to recount as occasion presents. It is also a place where he stores up comparisons and contrasts between experiences, lessons that he has learned from his experiences, generalizations that he may be able to apply to his own future conduct. Obviously, if the lessons and generalizations are to have validity, they must be based upon as accurate a remembrance as possible and as careful contrasts and comparisons as possible. The inference, therefore, seems inescapable that society demands from the historian not only (1) that he keep the records of man’s past, and (2) that he constantly check, correct, and keep as precise as humanly possible the remembrance by past generations of their present and past, but also (3) that he constantly check, correct, and keep as precise as humanly possible the remembrance by the present generation of its past, (4) that he attempt contrasts and comparisons of historical episodes, situations, and institutions in order to build stringent categories of man’s recurrent experiences, and (5) that he propose generalizations that may have validity for some of the categories of past experiences.

These demands alone, the professor readily granted, require a historian with no mean intellectual talents and training. And yet they imply still another demand. Does not society also expect the historian to apply to his study of documents and events some roughly acceptable ready-made or hypothetical generalizations about human behavior that have universal validity and, in applying, test, refine, and modify them, and mayhap discover new ones? But if he works with such generalizations, the historian, though by older methods, is exploring in a domain now widely staked out by specialists in the social sciences.

No doubt the historian has some of the offices of the social scientist as well as of the humanist. Indeed, much of his usefulness lies in that very overlap. But what special province then does he have that distinguishes him from other scholars and that gives his discipline a substantive existence? One characteristic function that sets the historian off from most other scholars is that he thinks about history as a genetic process–as the study of how man got to be what man once was and now is. But since the anthropologist also employs the genetic viewpoint in his study of mankind, the professor had to define the historian’s province still more specifically. The historian, he concluded (as many had concluded before), is distinguished from other scholars most markedly by the emphasis he places upon the role of individual motives, actions, accomplishments, failures, and contingencies in historical continuity and change.

Historical-mindedness then has several facets. One facet–the basic one–is the mental training that enables the historian to extract credible testimony about past happenings from surviving records (preserved mostly by others) and to give plausible descriptions of them in their own setting. Another facet is the learning that permits him discriminately to compare and contrast such descriptions, each in its own setting, in order to distinguish those happenings that are more or less unique from those that are more or less comparable. Still another is the intellectual capacity that qualifies him to test others’ generalizations and to make reasonably acceptable generalizations himself about those happenings that may logically be placed in a single category–a qualification that doubtless must often lead to error or truism on the one hand or to vacillation or suspension of judgment on the other, and may lead only rarely to an original success. But the most brilliant facet is the skill, in part at least derived from all the others, that enables him to reflect on the genetic forces, individual as well as group and social, in human development. That skill permits him to speculate upon the why, the how, and the with-what-consequences of individual and social behavior in the past, as well as the who, where, what, and when of the original testimony and evidence; and upon the what’s-it-to-me of a historical event as well as its meaning in its own setting. If the professor’s reasoning was right, the purpose of society in supporting departments of history even at the modest level to which they are resigned must be to develop not only historians who have an orderly command of historical data and the methods by which they can correct old data and extract new data from old records but also historians who can compare, contrast, imaginatively and critically generalize, and reflect in special ways upon such historical data.

This persuasion was the product of more than three decades of deliberation on the social responsibility of the historian. It had grown upon the professor largely as the result of his pedagogical gropings. Having, in the quest for a theoretical optimum in the training of historians, raised the question: “What good is historical training to society?” and having finally reached a tenable answer, he was now better prepared to deal with the original question regarding the education of the graduate student of history. His experience as a professor joined with his cogitation as a historian to help him evolve a tenable answer to that question too.

Early in his career, the professor had become dissatisfied with those of his own courses that were devoted primarily to the exposition of circumscribed areas of man’s past. No matter how accurate and comprehensive such a course might be, it could meet well only one of the several obligations he already had come to consider incumbent upon the teacher interested in training historians; it was designed primarily to present some historical data arranged in some orderly fashion. If it also enhanced the students’ desire and ability to undertake independent investigation and to give greater precision to the exposition the professor presented, or if it sometimes gave them critical analyses of conflicting views of the same area, his satisfaction was mitigated by the awareness that such results were largely incidental. And if in such courses the professor occasionally compared and contrasted the episodes under consideration with similar ones, or if he sometimes ventured a generalization or an evaluation of their place in the memory of living man, he did so likewise only incidentally. In time, he began to wonder whether it would not be wiser to organize his courses in a fashion that would break away from descriptive or narrative accounts of recognized periods of history circumscribed in geography and limited by fairly close terminal dates.

That wonder led to some cautious experimentation. The objective of this experimentation was to persuade students to reflect upon what the professor said and what they read rather than to learn by rote. He sought pedagogical devices which would oblige them to exercise their own judgment–to discard untenable interpretations, to seek compatibility among those that were tenable but different, or to suspend judgment among them when they seemed equally tenable but incompatible–rather than to accept the professor’s judgment. In one of his courses he tried regularly to raise for oral discussion some general questions suggested by the particular historical events under consideration, announcing far in advance a set of both historical headings and general questions. But the professor could not hide from himself that class discussions of general questions frequently are hollow, lacking the conviction that neatly memorized answers to hackneyed historical quizzes carry. He also tried to word his written-examination questions so as to require not memorization but a critical appraisal of the professor’s presentation of a designated subject–appraisal on the basis of the students’ other sources, specified and cited from notes which they were free to bring into the examination room. The results were always a little baffling. By necessity the professor was not only the historian whose class presentation was the common core of knowledge that the students were required to appraise but also the sole judge of the merit of their appraisals. Allowance had therefore to be made for some students’ quite intelligible tendency to mollify the judge by tempering their critical spirit. Yet these methods of discussion and examination did a little, he felt, to lift the objective of the courses from a mere presentation of data that the student might be expected to repeat memoriter to a training of the ability to compare and to evaluate the different versions of the same subject matter. In still another endeavor to break away from time-worn periodized courses, the professor in occasional offerings attempted to cover the history of a single persistent problem over an extended period of man’s existence.

But alas! These devices proved more attractive to the professor than to students. Students, having to meet examination requirements in traditional geographical-chronological fields of history (ancient, medieval, modern, American, English, etc.), looked askance at his experimental courses unless he disguised them under the venerated names. Only by a kind of subterfuge, therefore, could he continue to do new business at the old stand.

The professor also had learned early in his professional career that some students mean to become good historians as well as to pass examinations. When the better students, he discovered, are not held down by injunctions to find newer and ever newer data on the seminar professor’s specialty, or when they are set more or less free to write their own dissertations, they sometimes (though usually as incidentally as the professor in his period courses) compare, contrast, generalize, evaluate, and attempt causal and genetic explanations. And so he was pleased when the opportunity came to him, after the withdrawal of a distinguished colleague, to give a course on the writing of history, or historical methodology. Now at last, he thought, he would have the opportunity to teach formally the several things in addition to historical data that are needed to make young historians historical-minded.

Alas, again, and (this time) also alack! Courses in historical methodology are apt to pull in two not always concurrent directions. The instructor has to teach not only the techniques of historical research but also the elements of historical composition. The professor’s dilemma regarding this course has already been mentioned. Today, after twenty years of teaching the writing of history, he has to confess that his best work in connection with it may be described as that of an editor. This kind of work certainly has a place somewhere in the training of historians, but it was not calculated to diminish the professor’s pedagogical quandary. He found that he had to spend so much of his time stressing such things as the choice of a suitable subject, proper usage in footnotes and bibliographies, and the composing of a concise, readable, and logical historical argument that he had little time left for such things as contrast, comparison, evaluation, generalization, and genetic approach. He went to great pains, to be sure, to talk about the need for imagination in the historian who wishes to fill the gaps between his evidence and the must-have-beens, between the bone-dry confirmable testimony and the probable causal explanation, between the who-doing-what-where-and-when of the narrative and the of-what-significance of the evaluation. Practical considerations, however, such as the desirability of limiting the scope and size of student reports, quickly offset the possible effectiveness of his exhortations to be imaginative and meaningful. Holding that students can master in a single course the careful analysis of testimony and the compact presentation of the results of that analysis only if the subjects they investigate are simple ones of no world-shaking import, the professor insisted upon their approaching complexities, if at all, with the greatest caution. In consequence, he was often constrained to wonder whether he had not discouraged some potentially imaginative historians, whether the compiling of well-documented answers to pin-point questions had not robbed some potentially bold spirits of the courage to make petty mistakes in the quest for grand answers.

More recently, it fell to the professor’s lot to give a course in historiography that had acquired a well-deserved reputation under his predecessor. Here at last, he hoped, would be the opportunity to cultivate the historical mind. He would lecture on the great historians and philosophers of history that he knew or knew about, show how they had handled the problems of research in historical records, of contrast, comparison, and generalization of historical data, and of genesis, continuity, and change in historical developments; and meanwhile, each student, by independently studying one good recent historian, might acquire an intimate acquaintance with the workings of the historical mind.

The results this time called for neither an alas nor an alack. As the professor tripped–both in the figurative and the literal sense of that word–from Thucydides through Augustine, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx down to Toynbee in sixteen easy lectures or eight hard ones, each student had a chance to become acquainted with the mind of some historian who had lived in the twentieth century and to write a paper about him. The course was not, to be sure, the ideal answer to the professor’s quandary. Unless one did not object to duplicating effort by assigning the same historian to two or more students or running the risk of second-hand papers on historians of whom first-rate studies were already available in print, the number of historians suitable for such historiographical reports was limited. On the theory that some shop-worn subjects are more worth study than some that are new because they are so unimportant as to have escaped attention, the professor was willing to run the risk of duplication and of second-hand work. Nevertheless, on occasion a first-rate student was obliged to settle for a second-rate historian. And, it must be admitted, from time to time an excellent and quite alive historian ended up in the historiography seminar with a pretty dull obituary, through no fault of his own.

And yet the professor’s expectations have been met to his greater satisfaction by this course on historians than by his courses on historical periods or on the writing of history. Doubtless the fact that the students in this course are more advanced provides part of the explanation of their more satisfying performance. But it does not provide the whole explanation. Students in this course, as they trace the growth of a mature historian’s mind, acquire by direct and deliberate intent some sense of the qualities that constitute historical-mindedness in addition to those needed in the analysis of testimony and the composition of historical writings–some sense of the need to suspend judgment when a satisfactory explanation is lacking, and of the provisional tenability of more than one qualified interpretation of the same historical data; some sense of the imaginative faculty that goes into answering the questions of why, how, and to-what-good; some sense of an episode’s meaningfulness in the student’s own setting as well as its meaning in its own setting.

At length the professor was able to formulate a practicable answer to his pedagogical query, an answer that was neither strange nor new, for it was already implicit in the graduate-school curriculum of his and other universities. For the training of the kind of historian the professor wanted, the proper study of “historiankind” is the historian; and to that study the data of period and regional history, and practice in the writing of history bear somewhat the same relationship as arithmetic and geometry to the study of higher mathematics. Echoing his mentor Carl Becker, the professor has come to believe: “Now that I am old the most intriguing aspect of history turns out to be neither the study of history [i.e., the mechanics of research] nor history itself [i.e., the significance of events], . . . but rather the study of the history of historical study.”3

Yet, although the significance of historical events and the mechanics of historical research may well be less intriguing than the study of the history of historical study, they are nevertheless indispensable to it. Tentatively at least, the professor seems to be satisfied with a three-level program of graduate training for historians that is not a radical departure from the general trend. Although he grants that all three levels may well be worked at the same time and even, with varying emphasis, in the same courses, nevertheless he looks upon them as elementary, secondary, and advanced. At the first level prospective historians would learn about events and the differing interpretations of events in the so-called “straight history” courses. Such courses perhaps should have much less part than they now usually do have in our graduate schools, unless they deviate from place-time limitations to trace single problems or lines of development through history wherever they occur. At the second level, students would learn about the mechanics of research (perhaps both in general courses labeled “methodology” and in specialized courses labeled “seminar”). A few such courses should be available in a graduate school, but their number should be restricted, since supervision of dissertations will provide personal instruction at this level. Increasing (and ultimately major) stress in graduate schools should go to the study of historians–their persistent problems, their tentative answers, their methods and workmanship, their reflections, their generalizations, their philosophies of continuity and change, their comparisons and analogies, their judgments of men and manners and institutions, their triumphs and failures as persons and as scholars, and even their prophecies.

Such historiography courses may vary. They may deal, for example, with the several historians of a given subject, or with great historians regardless of subject, or with selected philosophies of history, or with a single historian regarded as worthy of special attention. The accumulation of data regarding historians, however, must not become the principal objective of such courses. For historiography is not in itself the goal of the formal training of historians but rather, together with history and historical method, it is the stuff necessary for thinking about the past with the insight peculiar to the historian.

A society inquisitive about its past makes room for all kinds of historians. It generally shows a decent respect for the kind that is content to be no more than a scrupulous practitioner of a descriptive science; and it sometimes grants substantial rewards to the talented teller of authenticated tales. But the anxieties of our day persistently suggest that historians, young and old, while striving to grasp the ever accumulating knowledge of our ever accumulating past, shall also reach for some tiny fragment of the wisdom so sorely needed to make of “all our yesterdays” something more luminous than a befooling light along “the dusty way to death.” Historians have the right to answer to the anxious demands for guidance: “What you ask is hard to give, and we can not give it well.” But who dares say: “Because good guidance is hard for historians to give, let them not learn how to give it”? Rest assured that just as every man is his own historian, every man, in and out of our graduate schools, for better or for worse also is his own philosopher of history. All the professor recommends is that, in a somewhat more systematic way than has been customary hitherto, graduate departments of history try to teach those who are prepared and whom they can reach how at least some of the better historians put their minds to work upon the continuing problems of human existence.

The opinion of Alfred North Whitehead seems to be in order here:

Your learning is useless to you till you have lost your textbooks, burnt your lecture notes, and forgotten the minutiae which you learnt by heart for the examination. What, in the way of detail, you continually require will stick in your memory as obvious facts like the sun and moon; and what you casually require can be looked up in any work of reference. . . . It should be the chief aim of a university professor to exhibit himself in his own true character–that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small store of knowledge.4

The minutiae learned by heart even in a historiography course will doubtless quickly be forgotten. And doubtless too some professors of historiography will fail to exhibit themselves in their “own true character” as ignorant men thinking. But because some good historians will be, so to speak, understudying the professors and exhibiting themselves in their own true character, the aspirant professor of history perhaps will learn how he too, despite his ignorance, may take thought, and “thinking, actively utilize his small store of knowledge.”

Over 2,300 years ago Thucydides laid upon the historian the obligation to present “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future.”5 No matter how many new disciplines have arisen or may arise to study human behavior, that obligation has not yet ended. What newcomer has a better set of precedents and protagonists to justify a license to chart humanity’s frustrations and achievements or to pilot the course of humanity’s perpetual aspirations after the good, the true, and the beautiful? And so, let the historian preserve all due regard for the minutiae of the past in their own setting, but let him not be overwhelmed by them. And let him also pray for the courage combined with the humility necessary to employ his historical training and insight as well as he can for the guidance of an unmoored society seeking firmer anchorage.

Louis Gottschalk was professor of history at the University of Chicago.



  1. Samuel Eliot Morison, “Faith of a Historian,” American Historical Review, LVI (January, 1951), 263. []
  2. I was tempted to call this “pastist” school of historians historicists, but the word historicism is a Kampfbegriff, with many confusing definitions (see the forthcoming article in this Review by Dwight E. Lee and Robert N. Beck entitled “The Meanings of ‘Historicism'”), and I have refrained from adding to the confusion. []
  3. “What Is Historiography?” American Historical Review, XLIV (October, 1938), 20. []
  4. The Aim of Education, and Other Essays (New York, 1929), pp. 42 and 58. []
  5. The Peloponnesian War (New York, Modern Library, 1934), p. 14. []