Thomas Haskell (1939–2017)
Historian of American Thought
Thomas Haskell, the Samuel G. McCann Professor Emeritus of History at Rice University, died on July 12, 2017, at the age of 78. He had taught at the university since 1970, where he was a thought-provoking scholar, inspiring teacher, and a leader in faculty governance.
Tom was born in 1939. He attended Princeton University, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1961. He served in the United States Navy from 1961 to 1965 as executive officer of a minesweeper in Japan and as a naval adviser in the early years of the Vietnam War. He entered graduate school in the history program at Stanford University, where he completed his PhD in 1973. His dissertation, later published as The Emergence of Professional Social Science: The American Social Science Association and the Nineteenth-Century Crisis of Authority, continues to be cited today.
It was as a contributor to the New York Review of Books that Tom made his first mark in scholarship, writing a critique of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross in 1974 and offering his assessment of the debate sparked by the book in 1975. His sharp, critical interventions continued in other arenas. In an article (co-authored with Sanford Levinson) from the 1980s, Tom criticized the reliance on statistics to make a case for a history of discrimination in a landmark class action suit against Sears regarding women’s employment. It was piece that set him at odds with some feminist historians, whom he criticized for putting political goals above historical truth. Tom also took on arguments that viewed the anti-slavery movement as a functional defense of capitalism, suggesting instead that anti-slavery campaigns primarily originated out of a humanitarian ethos that gestated in free-market capitalism.
Underlying all of Tom’s arguments was a commitment to put the search for truth first. This commitment was perhaps best expressed in an essay from 1990, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric Versus Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” which offered a defense of the search for truth, regardless of consequences, and argued that this search, properly understood, need not slight moral concerns. This essay also lent its title to the collection of Tom’s writings published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1998.
Tom was an invaluable citizen of the community of scholars. He was a founding member of the Intellectual History Group, which now publishes the journal Modern Intellectual History. As a member of Rice’s faculty, Tom served as chair of the Department of History, as speaker of the Faculty Council, and as the director of the university’s Center for the Study of Cultures (now Humanities Research Center). In all of these roles, Tom was not afraid to make people uncomfortable by raising difficult questions. For more than a decade, he challenged the place of athletics at Rice, which also involved deeper questions about the university’s admissions practices and its allocation of funds. Tom played a central role in developing the faculty-run process for addressing severe sanctions against Rice faculty, including terminations. These procedures remain in place today. Tom also served on Committee A of the Association of American University Professors from 1993 to 1996, which takes action on that organization’s most basic purpose: the defense of academic freedom.
Tom also channeled his devotion to research into a passion for teaching. His classroom demeanor was intense and demanding—and what serious students wanted. His longtime course American Thought and Society was a campus classic, attracting students from diverse majors. Tom won Rice University’s George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching five times over the course of his career.
His intellectual energy and his dedication to respectful but vigorous intellectual exchange were recognized by the award of visiting appointments at University of California, Irvine; Carleton College; and Tulane University, and by a series of auspicious fellowships at leading residential scholarly institutes, including the National Humanities Institute at Yale, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. Tom also received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and Mellon Foundations.
Tom succumbed to complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy; his children, Alexander Haskell and Susan Khan, and their spouses; and six grandchildren. Rice University, its Department of History, and his former students, colleagues, and friends will miss him greatly.
Peter C. Caldwell and Martin J. Wiener
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