- Reflections:On Mentoring Apprentice Historians and Appreciating Mentors—Gleaned from the Memories of Others
"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."The Education of Henry Adams
In 1947 a rising American historian, well beyond his apprenticeship but not yet at mid-career, thanked a more senior colleague for passing along a compliment from Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and his wife. Carl Bridenbaugh remarked that his Harvard dissertation adviser "never praises a student to his face; it is only through repeated [passed along] statements that we hear we are approved of."1
Despite decades of festschriften for graduate mentors, the question of appreciation for the preceding phase of history education is also conspicuously interesting. We little note how often historians declare that their undergraduate mentors made all the difference, and in many cases are remembered with greater enthusiasm than their graduate school committee. I find this repeatedly in autobiographical books and essays. We recall how intensely Carl Becker felt about his initial debt to Frederick Jackson Turner.2
Less familiar is the case of Robert Athearn, a lively historian of the West who attended a small college in north-central Montana where Eugene Kleinpell found merit and encouraged Athearn to pursue Clio's path as a career. John Hope Franklin insisted that he owed his greatest debt to Theodore Currier at Fisk.3 Linda Gordon offers warm praise for Laurence Lafore4 and Paul Beik at Swarthmore, just as John Demos has recalled with similar enthusiasm the encouragement and lessons in close reading that he received from William R. Taylor at Harvard College.5 For Michael Zuckerman the highlight of his education seems to have been the stimulation he received from Murray Murphy at Penn.
Murray beckoned to me as he beckoned to others, without even seeming to try. He had a gift great teachers have, of simultaneously intimating the imminence of marvelous revelations and projecting his own inability to attain such revelations [End Page 339] unaided. . . . Some of us took up his monumental intellectual project. We would help him accomplish the end he put so palpably before us, of unriddling the mysteries of the American character.
I can recall Ph.D. dissertations that became first books dedicated to Warren Susman of Rutgers, who inspired so many of the undergraduates he taught there to seek careers in academe. Aspiration came from warm stimulation.6
During the 1950s and '60s, committed mentoring for women undergraduates in history was especially important because male faculty were less likely to give praise accompanied by professional encouragement for graduate study. When women did go to graduate school, they were less likely to be taken seriously by professors who wondered whether the investment of their time would be worthwhile. After all, they reasoned, the women were so likely to get married, raise a family, and hence not become "productive scholars." A prime example of the stellar mentor for undergraduate women was Annette Baxter in American history at Barnard College.7
If we ask what constitutes successful early mentoring, the answers are manifold. There may be almost as many responses as there are respondents. But several strike me as being highly representative for undergraduates. In the case of Carl Becker, he had many appreciative things to say about Turner, but here is the essence: "Serious indeed the man was, you never doubted that, but not solemn, above all not old, not professionally finished; just beginning rather, zestfully and buoyantly beginning, out for adventure, up to something, in the most casual friendly way inviting you to join in" (p. 193). Athearn's Europeanist "sold his goods with impact and conviction" (p. 127). More recently Linda Gordon remembers her Russian history professor as someone who stirred up "intellectual imaginations," and as "someone who took his students very seriously and . . . took big ideas very seriously" (p. 74).8
Role models do matter. Gilbert Fite, the agricultural historian, grew up on a farm in South Dakota. He recalled that "initially I got interested because of a good teacher rather than because of the subject itself." A young man named Clifford Roloff taught U.S. history at the secondary school and junior college that Fite attended...