History's Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 - 1940

History's Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880 - 1940

by Robert B. Townsend

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From the late nineteenth century until World War II, competing spheres of professional identity and practice redrew the field of history, establishing fundamental differences between the roles of university historians, archivists, staff at historical societies, history teachers, and others.   In History’s Babel, Robert B. Townsend takes us from the beginning of this professional shift—when the work of history included not just original research, but also teaching and the gathering of historical materials—to a state of microprofessionalization that continues to define the field today. Drawing on extensive research among the records of the American Historical Association and a multitude of other sources, Townsend traces the slow fragmentation of the field from 1880 to the divisions of the 1940s manifest today in the diverse professions of academia, teaching, and public history. By revealing how the founders of the contemporary historical enterprise envisioned the future of the discipline, he offers insight into our own historical moment and the way the discipline has adapted and changed over time. Townsend’s work will be of interest not only to historians but to all who care about how the professions of history emerged, how they might go forward, and the public role they still can play.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226923949
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/04/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Robert B. Townsend is the deputy director of the American Historical Association, where he has worked for more than twenty years.

Read an Excerpt

History's Babel

Scholarship, Professionalization, and the Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880–1940


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92393-2

Chapter One

Establishing a Framework for "Scientific" History Scholarship

Shortly after the American Historical Association was established, the organization's first secretary, Herbert Baxter Adams, exulted that it marked "a new historical movement." As he described it, the movement's novelty consisted of the new forms of training and employment taking hold in American research universities, the development of "modern" and "scientific" research practices, and the establishment of new disciplinary networks for publishing and association. The first glimmerings of a history profession began in his efforts to use the AHA as a platform to develop and promote these efforts—abstracting from the work of a few young scholars to try to promote a new set of standards for historical research and writing.

When he was first appointed to a position in history at the new Johns Hopkins University in 1876, Adams joined less than a dozen other historians employed in academia. But with a convert's enthusiasm for German training methods, and Hopkins's basic research orientation supporting his efforts, he advanced this new form of history with a missionary zeal. At a superficial level, the historical work Adams promoted seems quite familiar. He advocated the authorship of "original work" based on research in the sources, training based on the seminar method, and the PhD as the highest form of certification. But this description obscures a number of fundamental differences from the standards of the present. For instance, the original sources used in the scholarship of the day generally came out of printed collections, the seminar method and PhD were only just being adapted from a German model, and the work of gentlemen historians remained the high point of history writing in the minds of many.

Establishing an Academic Identity for History

Over the next twenty-five years, the discipline developed four basic elements of a professional identity for history scholarship—an idealized site for employment in academia, an ideology centered on the "scientific" study of history, a system of training and certification, and an institutional apparatus for disseminating the fruits of the new scholarship. The establishment of the AHA is often viewed as the fifth element of professionalization in the discipline, but its role remained rather ambiguous in this period. Even though the association was established to serve the particular interests of research scholarship in the discipline, the leaders of the organization quickly sought a loose accommodation with more traditional practices of historical research and writing while also extending its corporate interests to include other areas of the historical enterprise.

The number of historians employed in academia increased by about 10 percent per year between 1880 and 1910, though the often blurry lines between disciplines make a precise count difficult. From the beginning, the key departments conferring history PhDs were explicitly aligned with political science. At Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities, the departments were both constituted as history and political science and remained so for decades. Similarly, the history program at Harvard University was integrated into a Department of History and Government, and by 1910, included overlapping courses and faculty members in economics, politics, and sociology. In all three programs, historical studies and staff were subdivided into two principal categories of American and European studies.

The disciplinary ambiguity at the departmental level was often reflected at the individual level as well. Early studies on history teaching at the college level (and the membership rolls of the AHA) included a number of faculty members who subsequently identified themselves with other disciplines, such as Francis Walker and Richard Ely (usually counted among the founders of economics) and John Burgess (usually considered one of the founders of political science). For his part, Adams saw history as encompassing all these other disciplines, and his doctoral students went on to serve as important figures in their development (including Woodrow Wilson in political science and Albion Small in sociology). As late as 1911, almost a quarter of the membership of the AHA still listed at least partial affiliation with another discipline, reflecting considerable ambiguity at the disciplinary boundaries that we now see as fairly solid.

Even with that as a caveat, however, the available evidence indicates significant growth in the number of academics who identified with history as a discipline in this period. From barely two dozen history faculty in 1886, the number of historians in academia grew to almost six hundred scattered across the country by 1910. This growth was not isolated to the history discipline, as higher education in general expanded both geographically and intellectually. By one estimate, between 1900 and 1910 alone, the number of teaching faculty in American colleges and universities increased by more than a third (from 26,500 to 39,500).

At the time, higher education was expanding to encompass a wide range of institutional types (land-grant colleges, teachers colleges, women's colleges), but the history discipline found its first real home in the research universities, which allowed for greater specialization with their discipline-based department structures and larger faculty sizes. Faculty at these universities provided the intellectual force for history in this period, writing most of the prescriptive studies on the discipline and conducting much of the research and writing that was highly prized in academia. But the experiences of university faculty were hardly the norm. Faculty at a wide range of other institutions were teaching history at colleges and universities, even if they were not truly specialists in the subject or conducting research. By 1910, a significant portion of the AHA's academic members were employed at colleges and universities with teaching missions and little or no support for research. Many others in the lists were employed at community and teachers colleges. This suggests a significant gap between the historical evidence that remains about the development of history in higher education—which focuses on the expectations and ideals of historians in research universities—and the realities of what it meant to teach in the more obscure colleges of the country.

Even at the research universities of the time, the PhD was not necessarily the essential pass into academic employment that it is today. Many of the academics at the founding of the association in 1884 lacked any substantive training, and instead entered college teaching through positions in the schools or even careers in politics and business (though often a substantial published work aided their promotion into the academic ranks). As late as 1905, graduate students from Harvard reported back that they felt no particular pressure to finish their doctoral studies, as they were already well set up in a college teaching position. It is only in 1919 that one student observed that this tendency was fading, and he reported an obligation to hurry back to finish the degree.

Regardless of where they were employed, historians who self-consciously viewed themselves as practicing history in the "new" way were acutely conscious of the fact that they represented a very small minority of those actually writing and teaching history. And the discussions among this new breed of historian reflect considerable ambiguity about where to draw the lines separating them from their predecessors. In their references to a "profession" of history, their definition of the term seemed more akin to the act of public speaking than to a particular occupation. When they used the term, it often encompassed gentlemen or amateur historians, such as Francis Parkman and the businessman-turned-historian James Ford Rhodes.

Likewise, the syllabi of texts used in the classroom by Herbert Baxter Adams and other academic historians at the time indicate the struggles of the younger generation as they tried to separate themselves from their "literary" predecessors. At their direction, students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries read collections of original sources and short essays by other academics, as well as works by the gentlemen historians for background or context. The older works were more synthetic and wider in scope, and they continued to shape thinking about the past at the time—even in graduate history seminars.

And the older historians still loomed large in the public consciousness of the discipline as well, so maintaining a connection provided substantial credibility for all forms of history work among the general public. Adams worked to assure that George Bancroft was selected as the third president of the AHA for precisely this purpose, and he was not alone in this perspective. In an article summarizing the best historical writing at the turn of the century, H. Morse Stephens (a professor at Cornell University) did not include a single academic on his list. He lamented, "The absorption of the work of teaching, the absence of leisure, and the lack of advantages for traveling to study material and of means to provide for paying for copies of material preserved in distant archives combine to prevent the undertaking of large tasks."

Fashioning an Ideology of Modern History

In making a case for why their brand of history should be recognized as a separate discipline in academia, the younger historians tried to harness the public respectability of the older historians to the scientific ideals of the new class of research universities. As part of his effort to encourage other scholars to promote the discipline, Adams emphasized, "It must be made clear that the claim of history to rank among the sciences is founded in fact—the fact that it has a scientific method." This notion of history as science tended to be vaguely defined and loosely used, but it generally included elements of the scientific method of fact gathering and inductive reasoning, treating primary documents as the foundational elements of such work, and avoiding the introduction of opinions or other literary flourishes when presenting the results of research. In an early book review in the American Historical Review, Maurice Bloomfield observed that the new methods set them apart from their predecessors, because "the professional scholar alone is capable of measuring and presenting the measurements of the difficulties and uncertainties that attach to any line of facts."

Early on, historians connected their claim to scientific status to Charles Darwin's effort to trace change over time, and many cited Darwin directly as providing the basic framework for their efforts. Charles Francis Adams (president of the Massachusetts Historical Society), for instance, cited "what we of the new school regard as the dividing line between us and the historians of the old school, the first day of October, 1859, the date of the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of the Species.'" In practice, Darwin's methods tended to be mediated through the work of the social scientist Herbert Spencer, who more clearly demonstrated how the scientific method could be applied to large-scale temporal studies of human populations.

The adoption of ideas from Darwin and Spencer included more than just notions about the scientific method; it also extended to the application of evolution as a concept. A number of the projects taken up by the advanced scholars training new history PhDs (most notably in the leading graduate programs at Harvard, Hopkins, and Columbia) involved gathering their students to work on a common project, demonstrating how a particular institution "evolved" into its present form. Typical of this, Adams promoted the Teutonic "germ theory"—the notion that the antecedents of many local government institutions in the United States could trace their origins to Germany. The editor of an early series of academic monographs, Albert Bushnell Hart (of Harvard University) likewise concluded that each of the authors "consciously or unconsciously learned from Charles Darwin, who is the great historical master of our age in that he has taught us how, in the world of the mind as in the material universe, there is a steady progression from one condition to another; for human institutions also follow a law of natural selection." This modeling after Darwinian methods extended even to a number of religious historians of the period.

As part of their identification with scientific methods, the emerging cohort of historians also singled out a new form of evidence—the primary document—that set them apart from their predecessors. The earlier "literary" historians were viewed with suspicion, because they relied heavily on secondary sources and used primary sources uncritically when they did. As James Harvey Robinson later recalled:

We enjoyed a certain sense of superiority in our emulations, and looked down with some condescension upon our predecessors. We had made a very essential discovery, the distinction between the primary and secondary sources of historical knowledge. We inhaled the delicious odor of firsthand accounts, of the "original document," of the "official report." We had at last got to the bottom of things. Earlier writers had of course used primary sources, but in a reckless and irreverent manner as it seemed to our heightened sense of criticism.

Part of the shift in the use of primary sources was a matter of circumstance. Given the near absence of public archival institutions at the national, state, or local level, much of the early historians' research in the sources could only be haphazard at best. Quite often they needed to spend their own resources to acquire manuscripts and their own libraries for research—making personal wealth a prerequisite for acquiring their sources as well as the leisure time needed for writing. But as private and state institutions in the United States and abroad began collecting (and in many cases publishing) primary source materials in significant numbers, the expectations about using and citing such sources rose accordingly.

The development of the scientific view of history research also promoted a social notion of the historian's work—adopting the idea that researchers should be able to replicate and build upon the work of others just like scientists. This ideal set the work of the newer generation apart from the "private" activities of its predecessors, whose work was written in isolation and often for partisan purposes. The newer historians envisioned themselves as participating in a larger community, mediated by their students at the local level and by other scholars at a more general level. This larger social framework provided part of the rationale (at least overtly) for eschewing partisanship and remaining objective in their classrooms and in their scholarship. It also set certain expectations about how to present one's work, ensuring that other scholars could follow the same trails. Hart expressed a common critique of an older historian, who "does not see fit to append those foot-notes which are a restraint upon a writer, an opportunity to examine his ground, and a useful equipment for later investigators."

But the social notion of the construction of knowledge also opened the door for some exceptionally dull prose. Constrained by potential criticism from their peers, and generally urged to bring new evidence to light, the scientific scholars accepted that there was a price to be paid for their methods in a loss of synthetic ideas and engaging prose. As Jameson conceded, in contrast to "picturesque historians" such as Francis Parkman,

If there is not produced among us any work of a supereminent genius, there will surely be a large amount of good second-class work done ... in respect to purely literary qualities. Now it is the spread of thoroughly good second-class work ... that our science most needs at present; for it sorely needs that improvement in technical process, that superior finish of workmanship, which a large number of works of talent can do more to foster than a few works of literary genius.

Others criticized this perspective as failing by another traditional measure—making the past widely accessible to the public. Benjamin Andrews of Brown University lamented the narrow factualism of many scholars: "In most directions one finds a stronger zeal for the knowledge of history than for the understanding of history. We are so busy at gathering facts that no time is left us to reflect upon their deeper meanings." And the editors of the Nation (some of whom were members of the AHA at the time) regularly lamented this problem, complaining in one editorial about the "hundreds of ill-digested books in which the historian has rashly claimed the scientist's immunity from the requirements of form." The difficulties inherent in writing history in a technical mode for academic peers quickly set up a recurring point of tension between the scientific pretensions of the younger historians and their aspirations to supersede their literary predecessors.


Excerpted from History's Babel by ROBERT B. TOWNSEND Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures

Part I. Building the Historical Enterprise, 1880 to 1910
Chapter 1. Establishing a Framework for “Scientific” History Scholarship
Chapter 2. Developing the Tools and Materials of History Research
Chapter 3. Defining a Profession of History Teaching
Part II. Cracks Appear in the Edifice of History, 1911 to 1925
Chapter 4. Seeking Refuge in Professionalized Scholarship
Chapter 5. Placing the Tools and Materials of Research in “Other Hands”
Chapter 6. History Teaching Finds Its Own Voice
Part III. Scattering the Historical Enterprise, 1926 to 1940
Chapter 7. The Crisis of the “Research Men”
Chapter 8. Handing Tools and Materials Over to Others
Chapter 9. Teaching Goes Its Own Way, 1925–1940

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