Reflections: "Where Have All the Flowers Gone . . . When Will They Ever Learn?"
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"Where Have All the Flowers Gone . . . When Will They Ever Learn?"
—Pete Seeger (1961)

It's no news that things were different for assistant professors of history in 1961 than they are now. Just how different, and how I developed from that status to a septuagenarian TIAA-CREF pensioner, affords some reflections. Classroom technology in the 1960s was pretty much chalk-and-blackboard, messy blue mimeograph stencils, and wall maps. Research technology included the manual typewriter, index cards, card catalogs (with no remote online access, of course; you had to go to the library). Microfilm existed, but one was more likely to see the real document. Mail was typed, postage-stamped, and copied by carbon paper. The first personal computers, capacity 64kb, were still two decades away.

After a good liberal-arts education at St. Benedict's College in Atchison, Kansas, and a year at Georgetown to earn an M.A. in modern European history, I arrived at the University of Chicago in 1955 for five years of doctoral work, punctuated by a year of teaching. Three weeks before classes began in September 1957, the head of the history department at Washburn University in Topeka had a crippling stroke. The department needed a warm body right away, and I headed back to Kansas for my first teaching experience—by immersion: the U.S. survey, the Western civilization survey, American frontier, and American diplomatic, plus another section of Western civ in the evening to augment my $4,008 annual salary. I clearly recall my terror as I first walked into class, but I survived and enjoyed teaching. Washburn asked me to stay on, at a "substantial" $256 raise, but I chose to return to Chicago. In later years, when I was at research universities where the usual responsibility was two or even one course per semester, I remembered my Washburn experience and wondered how colleagues in such institutions with four- or five-course "loads" could ever find time to publish anything.

Two very fortunate events happened on my way to the Ph.D. One related to my dissertation topic. With eminent historian of American religion Sidney Mead, I had planned to explore whether there was a Catholic side to the [End Page 205] Progressive movement. But my performance on the orals in his field was lackluster-minus, and we parted ways. O felix culpa! The topic would have been a quagmire, I have since realized. What to do? As it happened, I had been talking with friends from Kansas and Oklahoma about Richard Hofstadter's portrayal of the Populists of the 1890s in his Age of Reform as nativists and anti-Semites. That did not square with our sense of Great Plains history. So, I thought, why not take a close look at the People's Party in Kansas, where it had flourished? The aim was not to prove Hofstadter wrong, but to see if he was right. I took a good look, which confirmed my suspicion that he wasn't. Age of Reform was a captivating essay but woefully sourced. My committee—Doktorvater Walter Johnson and Bernard Weisberger—were delighted with the dissertation.

Meanwhile, my research time at the Kansas State Historical Society led to a job at Kansas State University. There I spent the next two years teaching and converting my dissertation into a book. Johnson paved the way at the University of Chicago Press, and after a rave report from John D. Hicks of Berkeley, then the reigning authority on the Populists, the Press published it in 1963 as The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism. It attracted much attention, launched me into a true research university, prompted an Ivy League offer that I declined, and secured for me early tenure. At that point, the Indiana University history department had a position in American history. The search committee got wind of my book, invited me to campus, and I interviewed successfully. In September 1963 I moved to Bloomington to begin twenty-one years on the Indiana faculty.

My second piece of great good luck was to enter the academic job market when I did. During the 1950s, first-rate new Ph.D.'s were...