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How Does One’s Professional Lineage Matter?

March 5, 2007

Over the past week or so I’ve thought a number of times about what I’ll call my “academic professional lineage” as an historian. What I specifically mean by this is the genealogical chain of mentor and student from which I’ve emerged. The subject’s recurred because I’ve been reading an older article by John Higham, who served as mentor and advisor to Lewis Erenberg, my own dissertation director.

In a kind of feudal, or better yet biblical “X beget Y beget Z” kind of way, I’ve been wondering how and if the professional chain of scions leading to me really matters to me today. What’s fascinating is that this chain of historians goes back to Frederick Jackson Turner: from me to Erenberg to Higham to Merle Curti to Turner. Counting Turner as first, I’m a fifth generation Turner disciple! Cool. But, uh, so what? It’s not like there’s a special table, or free drinks, for Turner’s disciples at professional history gatherings.

Aside from trivia, what does this mean? Well, obviously biological genetics doesn’t apply. Barring an unknown and profligate past family member, I’m unrelated to any of my predecessors. I did learn, however, that Curti was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1897, and family from my maternal grandfather’s side came to Missouri from Nebraska in the 1920s. But let’s assume there were no tawdry happenings between Nebraska residents in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Since biology’s out, what of intellectual characteristics? Is it possible that, in the time I’ve known and worked with my advisor, I’ve directly picked up some of his and his mentor’s intellectual traits? I hope so! Or for what reason would I have spent all that money at Loyola? Of course I’m still working at picking up some of those traits.

In understanding a number of potential traits more deeply, I’m helped immensely by my own mentor’s reflections on Higham, as published in a 2000 article appearing in Mid-America: An Historical Review (Vol. 82, Nos. 1-2, p. 7-20). That piece came out before Higham died in July 2003, and was an introduction for a collective tribute to him from past students – hence tribute pieces contain some glowing remembrances.

Keeping in mind that any attributes celebrated by an author, Erenberg in this case, have as much to do with their own priorities and sense of purpose, below are some of his points about Higham that resonated with me. By underscoring certain virtues and characteristics, my hope is that a sense of lineage will emerge, no matter whether the intellectual traits mentioned are actually possessed, admired, or just hoped for (by me). Here goes (all italics are mine):

– “For more than fifty years, [Higham] has challenged historical orthodoxies, provided a cool voice of moral criticism, and worked to establish history as a central element of the human enterprise” (p. 7);
– “The book [Strangers in the Land] explained nativism by looking at its roots in class and economic conflict, but it also expressed Higham’s interest in the role of ideas in history. At Hopkins he had come under the powerful influence of what philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy called the ‘history of ideas.’ Higham tried to balance artfully Lovejoy’s approach with social experience” (p. 9);
– “Higham’s overarching interest lies in cultural history. . . . As he interprets it, cultural history bridges the boundaries of intellectual and social history, thought and social structure, to delineate the cultural patterns of a specific era, its moral and social concerns, and its tensions and conflicts. . . . [In Writing American History he] sought to meld ideas and social structure as a means to root the historical enterprise in the cultural life of a particular era” (p. 12);
– “Using the concept of ‘the spirit of the age’ (borrowed from Carl Becker and Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages), Higham maintained that the organic connections among diverse phenomena in a given period would reveal the patterns and beliefs of that age” (p. 12);
– “Higham hoped that his cultural history of the Gilded Age [From Boundlessness to Consolidation (1967)] would yield more than another book. He envisioned the study as a model of cultural history capable of blending both consensus and conflict” (p. 13-14);
– “Whereas earlier he had questioned the complacency in consensus historiography, Hanging Together [2001] urged historians to turn their attention from what divided us as a society to what had held us together, from the ideological to the technological. . . . Higham attempted to show that the pervasiveness of conflict did not signify an absence of underlying unities” (p. 14-15);
– “Higham’s fame and influence as an historian owes a good deal to his magisterial prose style and his penchant for the essay form. . . . He developed a deep commitment to writing very well. . . . Higham took great pleasure in producing sparkling essays” (p. 15-16);
– “Over the course of fifty years as a historian, Higham has remained a moral critic of the highest order: he has engaged himself in the current debates over history, ethnicity, class, race, and nationalism. In so doing, he has called the profession to reach beyond narrow empiricism, and at the same time, detach itself from the blindness of narrow advocacy” (p. 16-17).

As noted above, I will not pretend to possess all of these characteristics. I will not shy away, however, from saying that I pursue, and intend to pursue, many of Higham’s ventures. In this sense, I can confidently say that I share in he and Erenberg’s lineage.

For instance, Higham’s interest in historiography has definitely infected me. For me in particular historiography is often just an applied form of intellectual history interests, but I nevertheless enjoy exploring how the ideas of my own age, or generation, have infected my view of history. I do admire Higham’s liberal-centrist approach to the field, evident in Erenberg’s observations about Higham’s essay “Beyond Consensus: The Historian as Moral Critic” (1962). Erenberg wrote:

“Higham attempted to come to terms with the growing emphasis on the conservative nature of American experience. . . . While he pointed out the shortcomings of consensus – the flattened terrain of the past, the glorification of capitalist society, the lack of change, the absence of any detached moral stance – he too was in the midst of his own rethinking of the progressive synthesis. What he came to was the historian as a moral critic, detached from special pleading, equally critical of all trends, yet deeply morally engaged. . . . Higham sought to find ways to break out of the apparent paralysis that consensus had wrought” (p. 8-9, 10-11).

Of course in relation to today, I’m not trying to fight against consensus history, at least as it existed in the 1950s. But one can find his or herself today fighting against the present consensus that race, class, and gender are the topics most worth studying. I’m implicated in that movement, so who am I to complain? My dissertation clearly deals with economic class in the history of the great books idea, and I touch on race and gender at various points. One could argue that race and gender are what keeps my dissertation topic relevant. But my hope, like Higham’s, has been- and is and will be – to find middle ground between current questions and polarizing topics.

Another Higham thread of interest included democracy. This has continued in me for sure, and I’ve seen the same in Erenberg’s work. Higham’s views on that topic come through in the above mentioned book, Hanging Together, and other works of his career, such as Strangers in the Land, which discussed culture, tolerance, nationalism, and barriers to democracy.

In moving further back from Higham, what of Curti and Turner? The Wikipedia entries for Curti and Turner mention little in relation to the traits above. Through Google I unsuccessfully tried to find an obituary for Curti. I also couldn’t find the correct terms to locate a Curti obituary through the New York Times‘ historical database.

I do know, however, that Turner had a penchant for writing short pieces. I noted above that Higham enjoyed essay composition as well. I can’t speak for my mentor, but I certainly enjoy writing short essays.

Curti was one of the first write explicitly about American thought. Curti’s The Growth of American Thought (1943) was on my field exam list. My interests in U.S. intellectual history are abundantly clear.

Curti also oversaw “over 80 PhD dissertations,” according to Wikipedia. As Curti enjoyed working with graduate students, so did Higham according to Erenberg. Erenberg observed that, “as a graduate advisor, Higham could be formidable.” But Higham’s “abhorrence of arrogance in others meant that he refused to accept it in himself. . . . He rarely pushed his own point of view, preferring to let students have their say.”

Perhaps Higham’s “greatest talent,” according to Erenberg, was “a superb ability to help focus a study” while also encouraging “students to choose their own path” (p. 16). I can testify that Erenberg, if he didn’t have it already, must have picked this up from Higham: Erenberg helped me a great deal with focus at the start of my dissertation, as well as in maintaining focus throughout. I can only hope that I exhibit this talent if I ever have the opportunity to guide graduate students.

With that hope, I return to the overriding question: does one’s professional lineage matter? I think it’s clear that it does. If a student doesn’t directly follow a mentor in terms of base character and personality, he or she will most likely pick up a mentor’s professional attributes, topics of interest, and approach to the field.

While I don’t possess all the characteristics of my predecessors, I certainly admire the best aspects of them. I could without shame, and without feeling the sycophant, set up a good many of the traits above as goals for myself. I can only hope that every doctoral student feels this way about his or her mentor.

How do you feel about your mentor(s)? Have you given thought to your professional lineage? – TL


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  1. Anonymous permalink

    I would agree that my mentor influenced me in several ways, less to do with particular topics of interest and more with ways of doing history. Although I could give a litany of traits or methods handed down to me, the conversation that I most remember, and which has probably most affected me, was one in which we were discussing modern academia's infatuation with nihilism and skepticism. She said to me that it was “a cowardly position.” The person taking it has the comfort of offending no one and giving equal weight to all arguments. It is a perfect position for the person unwilling to take risks – the person for whom being right is more important than being relevant or making a difference.

    That is a conversation I will never forget, and I hope to never be too afraid of embarrassing myself with a mistake to plunge ahead and try. I hope I will never be afraid to tell someone distinguished that they are wrong.


  2. My students always find it interesting when I tell them they are William A. Williams intellectually great-grandkids. Of course, I usually try to follow that up with the ways I disagree with some of Williams ideas.


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