Published Date

January 1, 1962

From The Education of Historians in the United States (1962)

By Dexter Perkins

Historians, like most scholars, are not given to analyzing the social import of their subject. Intrigued with the job they are doing, and in most cases subject to little external criticism, they rarely ask themselves precisely what they conceive their service to society to be. Yet the question is one that cannot be avoided. It was with a view to answering it that the American Historical Association appointed a Committee on Graduate Study in History, and that the Carnegie Corporation generously provided the funds for an investigation of current practices, with a view to improvement and progress.

We shall not face up to our problems as historians unless we clearly apprehend that history is a special type of discipline, and that its utility must be measured in other ways than those applied to science, or even to economics or the arts. No other subject, except possibly philosophy, embraces the whole story of man. While, in the nature of the case, the historian must confine his special research to a restricted area, he is at all times under a special compulsion to see life whole. If he is equal to the demands of his high calling, he must, as he studies the past, relate one area of activity to another, for example, the history of foreign policy to the history of ideas, the history of the business cycle to the movements of politics, the story of religion to the cultural media in which it finds expression. If he becomes too narrow a specialist, he misses some of the fundamental values of his profession.

In the second place, it is to be remembered and emphasized that most historians are teachers. This is not to say that training in history does not offer opportunities for employment in other fields. Of course it does. But the statistics of our investigation dramatize the fact that the vast majority of those who undertake graduate work in history are preparing for a teacher’s career, and that many of those who are not teaching would be glad to do so.

Again, we must clearly recognize that in history, more than in most disciplines, the teacher must transcend his materials. The facts of history can be dead as Marley and the doornail until they are put to use. The data of history can be well nigh meaningless until thoughtfully interpreted. The teaching of history will be effective in so far as it communicates, not facts alone, but the wisdom, experience, and insight that lie behind the facts. “The value of history,” wrote one of the greatest of American historians, Carl Becker, “is, indeed, not scientific, but moral; by liberalizing the mind, by deepening the sympathies, by fortifying the will, it enables us to control, not society, but ourselves; it prepares us to live more humanely in the present, and to meet rather than to foretell, the future.”

It is with these general principles in mind that we here examine graduate preparation in history.

We must also, of course, take account of some of the practical problems that confront us today. The place of history in the curriculum is vulnerable in a world which has so many pressing immediate problems. Other disciplines can, as of course they should, appropriate relevant areas of the historic past, drawing away from history some of those who ought to profit from its broader values. In a world of rapid change, attention can too easily be fixed upon the immediate, as against the long-term, factors in the life of man. We have seen a process of decline in classical studies; we have seen such important branches of history as ancient and medieval history threatened; there is danger that interest in history will be further narrowed.

Moreover, graduate education in history—and the point of view of the professional historian—has come under sharp attack. Let me state, as the devil’s advocate, the case against current historical scholarship. How does it run? The critic would say that a great proportion of our research is of limited interest to the great mass of persons who are interested in history. He recognizes that research is indispensable to the advance of knowledge, and that it is the means by which we stimulate and correct each other. But he would also say that much research is simply the accumulation of new data (sometimes data of restricted significance), rather than the search for new insights. He would contend that it amounts to little more than historians communicating with one another, rather than communicating with that greater audience to whom history may be useful and thrilling. He would go on to say that many historians possess very meager literary gifts. We have not, thank Heaven, like some other disciplines, invented a specialized vocabulary that gives to simple thoughts the appearance of profound learning and erects a barrier to understanding, or suggests profundity where there is really superficiality. But even so, the critic says, few historians collect a wide company of readers, and the history that is read, that is lively and entertaining and influential, is not the history that the mass of historians write.

It is not in meticulous research, says the critic, but in the classroom that history takes hold. There it is possible to communicate the larger aspects of history. There it is possible to give scope to wider views, and broader interpretations out of which the deeper values of history may be drawn.

One radical point of view is expressed by such an experienced educator as Earl J. McGrath of Columbia Teachers College. Professor McGrath believes that the present training for the doctorate is ill-adapted to the preparation of effective teachers. To meet the problem he would provide two divergent educations, one for those who propose to enter the classroom and another for those who intend to engage in research.

To go further with the case against current methods of training historians, in our investigations we discovered evidences of malaise at the increasing impersonality of graduate study. The aspirant for the degree, it is alleged, is rarely in any close rapport with his mentor. He is often left to himself. If it be true, as James B. Conant has asserted, that where there is a great scholar there is a great teacher behind him, our graduate methods, the critic laments, fall short of adequate preparation either for the classroom or the work of research.

Having raised these various questions, let me now proceed to discuss them in terms of what the committee has learned and in terms of the principles agreed upon. First of all, let me say that the committee emphatically repudiates some of the ideas of Professor McGrath. The aim of the doctoral program is the preparation of the scholar-teacher. None of us believes that the two functions ought to be separated. The practical situation in the college world runs against such doctrine. So, too, does the ideal which, in the field of history especially, should be promoted by graduate training.

Good college teaching is possible only when the teacher is well trained in the methods of research. It is possible only when the teacher constantly seeks to enrich his knowledge of his subject. Without the spirit of scholarship, teaching degenerates into routine. It becomes dead and lifeless or superficial, and even meretricious. It sets a bad example for those whom the teacher teaches. On the other hand, exclusive, or even exaggerated, attention to research for those who are also teachers presents dangers of its own. It makes for indifference to the work of the classroom. It can, and sometimes does, destroy that friendly and stimulating relationship between teacher and student which is at the heart of education. It may reduce history to a mere display of technique rather than illumine it as a great humanistic discipline. It often restricts the researcher to communication with specialists in his own field, to the neglect of the immense values to be derived from history by undergraduates and laymen.

Let us, then, reassert the fundamental fact. We are, to a large degree, preparing teachers. We are preparing teachers, moreover, who will in most cases have to teach, not some narrowly restricted area of their own choosing, but relatively broad courses, dealing with fields in which the knowledge is so wide that they cannot hope to get to the bottom of every problem, in terms of intensive and “definitive” research. We are preparing these people, for the most part, to teach not in the largest universities, but in a host of other institutions where the work of the classroom ranks higher in importance than sustained and minute research.

The problem is to see to it that, in our justified zeal for scholarship, we do not neglect in our training for the doctorate the immense values to be drawn from history for the students who sit in our classes-for the large numbers of these students who are not headed for the career of a professional historian, but who can and will learn from the wisdom of the past in precisely the way Becker described the process in the quotation I have cited.

The chapters that follow demonstrate that the demand for well-trained persons prepared for the teaching of history will grow. It will not grow at the astronomical rate that has sometimes been assumed. But even if we merely maintain the present ratio between Ph.D.s and those without the degree in the history departments of the country, there will be an increasing demand. And if the ratio of Ph.D.s is to be increased, the demand, of course, will be larger still.

How shall we meet this demand? Will it be through larger numbers in the graduate schools of high prestige, or through the adding of doctoral programs? The committee has not attempted to give a categorical answer to this question. There are dangers in the enlargement of the present graduate schools, and especially the danger I have already mentioned, the danger of neglect of the student, the danger of impersonality. The danger increases, with the increasing tendency to draw off the best scholars, and often the best scholar-teachers, into extended research projects. On the other hand, it is extremely unwise for institutions to enter upon doctoral training with inadequate resources. On this subject we speak with definiteness on page 201 of our report.

But first of all, as our report shows, we come back to the question of effective teaching or a more intimate concern for those whom we teach at the undergraduate level. Here, after all, is where the recruiting is done. Here is where enthusiasm for the life of the scholar is engendered. Here is where the fire is kindled, never to be put out. I do not mean to say that there are not many persons who become historians without the personal stimulus of an inspiring teacher. I do mean to say that an inspiring teacher makes a difference, and I can think, as we all can, of teachers who, without ever writing anything very important themselves, have sent many of their students on to graduate school.

There is a great advantage in catching the prospective historian early. If we take an intense personal interest in the brightest of our undergraduates, we shall be able to help them in very practical ways to accelerate their careers toward the doctorate. If we have some contact with them by the time they begin to concentrate, we shall be able to see to it, for example, that they start their language preparation. To take another example, almost any American historian needs some training in economics. If we know about these recruits for our discipline in time, we can see that they receive such training. We can see, too, that they start with some broad conceptions of history, and some wide knowledge, and do not undertake our discipline with the idea that they can operate only in a restricted area in time, space, and spirit.

This question of early recruiting is discussed in more detail in the recommendations that conclude this report. I emphasize the matter here because it seems to me vital. We need to feel warmly toward those in our classes, to put forth our best efforts to inspire them, to help them, to guide them. I heard a distinguished professor a year ago express a thinly veiled scorn for undergraduates. Nothing could be more shortsighted. These undergraduates are the people from whom we must do our recruiting; they are essential to us; in the last analysis we cannot live without them, even from the narrow professional point of view. And in a broader sense, most of us exist in order to educate these undergraduates.

But let us again turn from this matter to the actual training for the doctorate. Have we not fallen into a routine which we accept without analysis? Have we seriously considered whether our procedures really meet the needs of the situation? Do we really think that there is nothing to be done to improve them?

Our report has a good deal to say on this subject. We find that a very frequently expressed desire is for broader training. This desire is legitimate. Indeed, it is fundamental. In our graduate training, if it is to fulfill its purpose, we must maintain standards of exactitude, of precision, of faithfulness to the spirit of research on the one hand, and respect for and interest in the larger view of history on the other. The problem is not simple. The materials in which the historian works are growing at an awesome rate, making more and more difficult—especially for the historian of relatively recent times—that “definitive” interpretation for which we all strive. The man does not exist who can give a general course in American history, basing it on an examination of all the materials in the monumental and highly useful Harvard Guide to Historical Literature. What then are we to do in preparing young men and women to teach such a course, as many of them will be expected to do? We shall want them to set an exacting standard for themselves in accumulating knowledge of this subject. But we must also encourage them to see their subject in the large, to look, not only for data, but for insights; to seek for suggestive generalizations-bold, but not too bold; to infuse not only learning but enthusiasm into their lectures; to approach their subject with some fundamental intellectual and moral attitude of their own. For history is in the last analysis an “interpretation”; and the undergraduates whom most doctors of philosophy will teach will remember not the facts, but the interpretation. In particular they will hope to see in the teacher broad interest, wide tolerance, sensitiveness to beauty and goodness, a vivid appreciation of men and events, and an enthusiasm for communication as well as for knowledge.

In theory, the training for the doctorate has never neglected this breadth of training in history itself. The general examination, or the qualifying examination as it is sometimes called, if properly organized, should meet this need. It should, and does normally, cover a substantial variety of fields. It is probably true, as our report suggests, that these fields are not always carefully chosen, and that more guidance of candidates is necessary. It may be that the fields are not always chosen with regard to the realities of employment in our profession, that is, in some proper relationship to the subjects which are most in demand, and which the candidate for the doctorate is most likely to teach. But there is no reason why they cannot be. Nor is there any reason why the examination itself should test the examinee’s zest for minutiae and not his ability to grasp the essentials in a fairly wide area of knowledge.

But this, it may be, is not enough. We are suggesting various expedients for giving the student breadth. I attach substantial importance to our recommendation that the aspirant for the degree be familiarized with the classics of historical writing. It will be found, almost invariably, that these classics illustrate the primary values of historical study, that they deal with large subjects, not small ones, that they are remarkable for their insights, not merely for the accumulation of the data, that they bear the stamp of the author’s personality, and have color and form. It will also be found that they have literary quality.

I believe, and I think this is implicitly included in the recommendations of the committee, that it would be helpful if every student had a course, or possibly a half course, in the philosophy of history. There is, of course, no philosophy of history that has eternal validity or that commands universal assent. The value of the study of this field lies in the invitation it offers to audacity, a virtue not much practiced in our profession. We need to play with large ideas from time to time, not because such diversion is a means to absolute truth, but because it is invigorating and stimulating. In seeking the definitive, we often overlook the value of the unproven thesis, the incompletely substantiated theory, in exciting thought and spurring to research. Many of Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas on the frontier have come under heavy attack. But few men have done more to give to younger scholars new fields for speculation, or have promoted the progress of history more effectively by their own writing.

But breadth of training is not in itself enough to prepare the doctoral aspirant for the classroom. The truth is that the conventional Ph.D. program does not really adequately prepare the student for the thing that he will be doing most of his life—that is, it does not teach him how to teach.

I know that there are those who will say that teachers are born, not made. There is, of course, some truth in this view. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But if we are careful in our selection of our graduate students, there ought not to be many sows’ ears among them. They will have the aptitude to learn something about teaching if we provide them with the opportunity.

There are certain elements of good teaching that can, indeed, be easily stated. It is elementary to speak so that you can be heard—though I have seen distinguished scholars who have not absorbed this simple fact. It is elementary that one does not read a lecture, that there is, in fact, no more certain way of draining a theme of interest than to divorce oneself from one’s audience and cling devotedly to a manuscript, with head lowered except for an occasional peering over one’s glasses at the victims—though I have seen real savants who have not learned this. It is elementary to give emphasis to the important by the tone of the voice, and perhaps by repetition. Young men need to be told these things, and if they are told them, they are likely to remember them.

But it is clear where this leads. It leads to the principle that those who are to be prepared for teaching should have some chance to practice teaching under observation. As matters stand today, such instruction as graduate students perform is often thought of as a potboiler. I visited one distinguished university a few years ago at which it was freely confessed to me by the older members of the teaching staff that they never troubled to visit the section meetings of the young assistants in their classes, or even to inquire from the undergraduates how things were going. To ignore this duty not only is unfair to the individual but tends to denigrate the teaching function itself. It leads the student to believe that what is really important is his research, and that it does not matter much what goes on in the classroom.

But there is more to the matter than this. The technique of the classroom is not the same technique as that required for writing a thesis in a narrow field. Classroom teaching means scholarship in action. A lecture is not a report in a seminar. It demands that one take a fairly large subject, organize the material with due regard to emphasis, draw the appropriate stimulating generalizations from the materials, and present the human story with a zest that commands attention and arouses enthusiasm. Similarly, conducting a discussion session is not the same thing as the presentation of elaborate data in writing. It demands skill in answering questions, in controlling and directing debate, in bringing out the most relevant and important conclusions. Do those of us who teach graduate students really know whether or not these prospective teachers can do these things? If we don’t, shouldn’t we? Have we not a clear obligation to give them some training from this point of view? After all, all of them will teach, not all of them will write, and many of those who do write will not write much.

Our report, while laying stress on this matter, goes far beyond this. The graduate schools will place more emphasis on teaching when there is a clearer demand for good teachers from the colleges, the junior colleges, and, yes, the universities also. And not only where there is a clearer demand, but where there is a substantial and intimate interest. We suggest, therefore, not only that appointing authorities ask specific questions about the teaching capacity of a prospective appointee, but that they make every effort to see him teach. If it is thought that it is too much of an ordeal for the candidate to ask him to teach before a class, there is always the possibility of inviting him to talk more informally to some student group—a history club, for example. Furthermore, after he has been appointed, he should be helped. The administrative officers ought to know whether he is fulfilling his function or not. Too often, says one of my friends in the profession, in recommendations for promotion good teaching is taken for granted. Praise on this point is pro forma, not usually based on knowledge. Our report contains many interesting suggestions on this matter. In my own view, the key question is supervision and visitation. There exists, among both novices and experienced teachers, much prejudice with regard to this question, and indeed it is easily understandable that young instructors should resent carping criticism and that older men should not wish to seem officious in their interest in their younger colleagues. The question is one of spirit. Given the right attitude, the visiting of a first-year teacher ought to be easy. Where the relationship between the older and the younger members of a history department is warm and friendly, a little coaching will seem the most natural thing in the world.

But there is more to the matter than that. Of fundamental consequence is the importance, not the lip service, given to effective teaching by administrators, in our colleges as well as in the graduate schools. Do they think chiefly of publication, and of publication on a quantitative basis? Do they assess publication in terms of the significance of what is published, or without regard to this criterion? Is a badly written article on a minute subject given the minor importance it deserves, or does it count just about as much as the published development of a new theme with insight and skill? I ask these questions; I do not answer them. I would, however, plead for a fuller recognition of the truly distinguished teacher, even if his literary output is small. There are men who go on learning all their lives but who never get down to putting their knowledge on paper. There are scholars—I use the word advisedly—whose range of interests is so broad that they cannot bring themselves to the kind of investigation that is so much esteemed in the academic world. There are scholars—again I use the word advisedly—who diffuse wisdom in their classes, wisdom that is the fruit of reflection and experience, but who have a meager output in terms of highly specialized scholarship. In my long teaching career I have lectured in something like seventy American colleges. I have gone away from many of them convinced that we think too little of the values of history in terms of the classroom, too little of the men who make the classroom a place of joy, as distinguished from the productive scholars who care little for communication in any form.

These questions relate to one other aspect of our training for the doctorate. The training is too long, takes too many years out of the scholar-teacher’s life. Because it is long, it is too often not completed in regular consecutive sessions of university work. The result is that the young teacher finds himself suffering from schizophrenia. He wants to teach and teach well. He also wants to get his degree. He ends, all too often, by teaching none too well. It would have been better had he not been subjected to this divided loyalty.

Professor Snell has shown that the average time taken to achieve the doctorate in history is more than seven years. Some of the obstacles to a briefer training may be beyond our reach. Early marriage, large families (possibly too large families while training is going on), and the necessity to earn a living often prolong doctoral training. But one of the principal sources of the difficulty lies in the Ph.D. dissertation, in the selection, very often, of a subject so massive that it requires years of preparation, that it necessitates extensive travel, that it becomes not a trial run, but a finished piece of scholarship on a level that only a few can attain. In historical study, unlike the sciences, men mature slowly in their discipline. We would, I think, be better advised if we thought of the thesis as a demonstration of capacity for intensive research, rather than as an ambitious attempt to cover a wide field. Were the thesis so regarded, it might be a more joyous experience than it often is. The choice of a really lively topic, capable of being explored, say, in a year’s time, might emphasize to the student the fact that he is being trained, not chained to a task that often becomes increasingly distasteful and destroys the zeal for research itself. This more modest requirement would excite to further learning, not exhaust interest in it. It would establish a healthier sense of proportion as to research itself. It would make it possible for the prospective Ph.D. to complete his job in a reasonable time, and free him for those first exacting years when his first duty—and it is to be hoped his deep pleasure—is to learn to master the job of the classroom.

From time to time I am told that interest in teaching, as distinguished from research, is on the decline and will continue to decline. I doubt it. My doubt is now confirmed by our report. Our graduate students often complain that they are not prepared for their vocation. Young men and young women undergraduates thrill as they have always thrilled to the man who makes the past live, who brings to the business of communication the same enthusiasm that he brings to the enlargement of his own knowledge and the pursuit of deeper scholarship.

We ought never to surrender the desire to know more, and to know more deeply. But we must take care, in our developing scholarship, that we do not become mere bloodless technicians, examining the trivial for our own delectation, sacrificing the deeper values of history for the lesser ones.

Let me seize the opportunity here afforded to say a word more about what some of these deeper values are. The mass of mankind and the great majority of our students are interested most of all in human personality. The tendency of contemporary historical study, a useful tendency if not carried too far, is to put the accent on ideas and systems and concepts of social movements. In doing this let us not forget the man. We learn much from the great figures of the past, from their virtues, from their accomplishments, yes, from their mistakes. If history is philosophy teaching by example, it is by the example of the individual that it communicates some of its most precious lessons. Let us never forget this.

The second point I would emphasize is the value of history as a means of understanding another age or another society: of entering with sympathy into that age or that society. It is possible to become so enthralled with the data that the larger view is lost. But there is no more useful intellectual exercise than to seek to enter fully into the life of the past, to interpret it sympathetically, with its presuppositions and prejudices clearly held in view. Nor is there anything more valuable than really to understand another country and its outlook, not merely to talk about it, but to seize its Geist, its spirit.

The third point I would emphasize is that the very essence of history lies in the establishment of perspective. The historian here contributes not only to his own profession, but to every intelligent human being; he liberates the individual from the preoccupations of the moment and teaches us all to place ourselves and our age in relation to other persons and other times. “History is never more valuable,” wrote William Edward Hartpole Lecky almost a hundred years ago, “than when it enables us, standing as on a height, to look beyond the smoke and turmoil of our petty quarrels, and to detect in the slow developments of the past the great permanent forces that are steadily bearing nations onwards to improvement or decay.”

The list of the values to be found in history might be further extended. There is humor in history; that we must never lose sight of. There is chance in history, which ought to reconcile us to the fortuitousness of success and failure, and which serves to illumine the human story. There is drama in history, and we ought to look for the drama. But to go further would be unduly to embroider the theme. The essence of the matter is simple. Let us, in the search for deeper knowledge, never neglect the challenge to achieve new insights, and wider horizons than those which spring from highly specialized research. Let us inspire our graduate students to do the same. Let administrators and department heads encourage boldness and audacity. Let those who teach, and those who select teachers, assure themselves that the pageant of the past will never lose its color, that learning will be followed by insight, that a noble profession will never give up to a few what was meant for the many.

Next section: Do We Need More College Teachers?