REMINISCENCES OF THE COLUMBIA HISTORY DEPARTMENT
ne of the silliest things done today in the world of higher education is to publish an annual ranking of the leading universities. The weeklies that conduct such surveys pretend that the public wants to know which are best: it knows this about teams in professional sports, why not about colleges? The answer that is given is about departments, not institutions, so it is no guide to choosing a college. And the ranking is done by asking the members of departments to judge their colleagues elsewhere, so it yields very shaky estimates. They are based on the kind and amount of scholarly publication, so that added to the unconscious bias of personal connections there is that of agreement on doctrine and overvaluation of work done on the topic in fashion. In a word, the ranking procedure is the very negation of scholarly method. It tells the public nothing about college education.
To know the quality of a department, college, or university calls for residence within it in some working capacity, together with academic experience and the judicial mind. And even then, the most that can be ascertained is whether, on the whole, the performance is outstanding, competent, or substandard. When the testimony is detailed and abundant, as it was in the late eighteenth century about the universities of Scotland, one may conclude that as a group they attained excellence, and wisdom adds that some were better than others.
This preamble is to make clear the character of what follows, namely, how the Columbia history department appeared in the second and third quarters of this century, first to a student, next to a young colleague, then to a senior member, and finally to an academic administrator. These four witnesses are myself.
In 1923, when I entered Columbia College, it was in the fifth year of its influential innovation, the required course called Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West. It had replaced History 1, which had also been required. Contemporary Civilization ("C.C.") was an amalgam of the political, economic, and intellectual history of Europe and America from a.d. 1200 to the 1920s. It was taught in small sections by instructors drawn from the departments indicated by the list of the subjects combined. To many observers it seemed strange at the time that instructors should be teaching matters "outside their field"; but if the student mind was capable of grasping the expanded offering, it was reasonable to suppose that the teacher's could stretch to a like extent.
This departure and the argument about it arose from a fact of history itself. In the preceding two decades, leading thinkers in every Western country had redefined the scope of the social sciences and of history in particular. A generation before them, the English historian E.A. Freeman had said: "History is past politics," and it was understood that to be complete a book-length piece of research could cover no more than a few years. The revolt at the turn of the century was against this narrow conception. When Karl Lamprecht came from Germany to the International Congress that met in St. Louis in 1904 to celebrate (a little tardily) the Louisiana Purchase, he declared that history must now make use of findings in the new sociology and psychology. A little later at Columbia, James Harvey Robinson gave the program of a "new history" that must take into account the life and force of ideas. In France, Henri Berr, responding to the worldwide spirit of Populism, called on scholars to replace the history of statesmen and warriors with that of "the people," which meant a sociological concern with the past. Simultaneously, interpreters of Karl Marx wanted to show economic facts as the engine of history. Dilthey in Germany saw on the contrary that cultural forms and styles made up a Zeitgeist that the historian ignored at his peril. Meanwhile in England, Lord Acton, who had just completed his editorship of the largely political Cambridge Modern History in twelve volumes, urged the young to "study a problem, not a period."
This wind of doctrine blowing from all quarters was what swept History 1 out of the Columbia College curriculum in 1919 and put "Contemporary Civilization" in its place. The declared purpose of the course was to equip the student with a sum of knowledge enabling him to understand what had led Europe to the war of 1914-18 and to the present civilization transformed by that worldwide event.
Indeed, by the mid-1920s at Columbia, the atmosphere of the University, and not alone that of the College, was permeated by ideas and feelings born of the war. Three members of the history department, James T. Shotwell, Carlton J.H. Hayes '09GSAS '29HON, and Parker T. Moon had been involved in official work related in one way or another to treaty-making at Versailles; several of the younger members had been in the armed services; and the undergraduate body itself included an influential group of "veterans," who were completing their interrupted education or beginning it after postponement. Their presence lent a touch of maturity to classwork in history: they had been to Europe and had seen the war. Continued. . .
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