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  • From Gentleman's Club to Professional Body:The Evolution of the History Department in the United States
  • William G. Palmer (bio)

The history of the history department is a little-studied subject. Historians have generally been very good about charting the intellectual changes that have occurred across the profession, but few have paid much attention to other kinds of changes that occurred within American history departments during the 20th century.

In the 1920s most history departments at leading universities in the United States were gentleman's clubs, with few women, African Americans, Jews, or Catholics in their ranks. While most departments had serious scholars, the majority of faculty members did not engage in scholarly research and were often chosen for their devotion to undergraduate teaching, their agreeable company at lunch, or their connections to the institution. As early as 1927 Charles McLean Andrews warned Wallace Notestein of the need to improve the quality of the Yale history faculty. And in the 1930s the Princeton medievalist Lynn White believed the Princeton history faculty to be the most intellectually conservative body he had ever encountered. Several departments had faculty members known as "dollar-a-year men," independently wealthy gentlemen scholars who received only nominal salaries.

Before 1940 the Yale history department was a classic gentleman's club. While the department had several distinguished members, such as Ulrich B. Phillips, Charles McLean Andrews, Wallace Notestein, and Hajo Holborn, all the members were male, most of them held Yale degrees, and while there were several dollar-a-year men, there were no blacks, women, or Jews. The department was highly Anglocentric, with its greatest concentration of faculty in English history. And virtually all of the courses taught involved Western civilization in some significant way.

Dramatic changes occurred during the next forty years. In 1940 the Yale history department had about twenty faculty members; in 1982 there were seventy-one, and these included Jews, African Americans, and more than a dozen women. They held degrees from universities around the world, including Oxford, UCLA, Sao Paulo, SUNY Albany, and the University of Kentucky. Fewer than half of its members held Yale Ph.D.s. There were no longer any dollar-a-year-men. While the Yale department retained some degree of Anglophilia, the percentage of historians of England had been dramatically reduced, and there were now six historians teaching Asian history and six specializing in Africa and African-American history.

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University of Chicago, 1907. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-95571].

Thus, the Yale history department had become a body of serious professionals. No longer could anyone enter its ranks on the basis of social position. And no longer could anyone receive a permanent place in it without surviving the most rigorous scrutiny. In most cases, junior faculty could not expect to advance without the publication of two favorably reviewed major books. How did this dramatic transformation come about?

The first seismic jolt to the traditional history department came immediately after World War II, when Harvard University's President James B. Conant chose to build Harvard's reputation by making publication and scholarly achievement the most desirable qualities for faculty members in all departments. Given Harvard's considerable influence on other institutions of higher learning, Conant's new standards were gradually adopted elsewhere.

The Yale history department was among the first to follow Harvard's lead. In the early 1950s George Pierson, chair of history at Yale, decided that it was time to upgrade the department's quality along the lines of the Harvard model. Pierson was an unlikely reformer. The descendant of one of Yale's founders and the holder of three Yale degrees, he seemed to epitomize the gentleman's club tradition. But the appointments of Edmund Morgan in 1955, John Morton Blum in 1957, and C. Vann Woodward in 1961, made under Pierson's influence, were prime examples of hires based upon scholarly achievement. Morgan and Blum were both fine undergraduate teachers, and all three were good company at lunch, but they were hired mainly for the excellence of their scholarship and the luster it would bring to the department.



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pp. 36-38
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