U.S. Intellectual History Blog

To Understand and to Judge: Kloppenberg on Haskell

As I have noted earlier, it was my great delight this past March to attend a symposium at Rice University paying tribute to the career and legacy of Thomas L. Haskell.  The speakers represented a gathering of truly extraordinary scholars, all united in expressing their admiration and gratitude for — and, more importantly, to — their colleague, mentor and friend.

For most of the speakers there, Haskell had served in all three roles at one time or another — sometimes, I gathered, serving in all three roles at once.  This seemed to me to be the case especially for those speakers who had been Haskell’s fellow PhD students at Stanford.   Rosalind Rosenberg of Barnard College, James Mohr of the University of Oregon, George Forgie of the University of Texas at Austin, Michael Johnson of Johns Hopkins University, and James Kloppenberg of Harvard University — these scholars were PhD students at Stanford from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.  Some of them preceded Haskell through the PhD program and some followed him.  But all were there to thank him for how much they had learned from him beginning from their days in graduate school and continuing throughout their careers.

I am pleased to share with our readers some of the remarks that James Kloppenberg made in his talk, titled “History as Moral Inquiry.”  These excerpts are not taken from a manuscript of his talk, because there wasn’t one — Kloppenberg spoke from notes sometimes, and sometimes simply by heart. He certainly spoke from the heart, as did his colleagues.   And while they were speaking, for the whole conference, I was sitting in the back row, writing everything down as fast as I could.  So before writing this post, I sent Prof. Kloppenberg my notes to make sure that I had heard him correctly.   So, with his kind permission, below is a very condensed version of some of the main points Kloppenberg made in his tribute to Tom Haskell.

For Kloppenberg, Haskell modeled an ethos that should serve as an example for the historical profession.  “Historians ought to be engaged in moral inquiry both as scholars and as teachers,” Kloppenberg said.  He then discussed the concerns and complications that lead some to disavow any notion of the past as knowable at all.

“The fact that all knowledge is mediated doesn’t mean that the past is entirely constructed.”  To assert otherwise is to drift too far into nihilism.  “If interpretation is inescapable,” Kloppenberg said, “history is not only interpretation — there is a world of documentary evidence with which we have to cope.”

Historians also have to cope with their own moral agency in shaping the narratives they write.  Kloppenberg got a bracing reminder of this problem early in his PhD work at Stanford.  He had written a paper celebrating the rise of the post-Dunning school; his paper seconded the savage criticisms of the late 19th-century South that were emerging in this historiographic turn accompanying the Civil Rights movement.  It was a strong and strongly argued paper, and he looked forward to Carl Degler’s response to his work.

Degler returned the paper to Kloppenberg with a single sentence written across the top:  “Are you interested in understanding the past or judging it?”

At this point in Kloppenberg’s talk, the room erupted in laughter, and one of his fellow alums of the Stanford history program said, “Yep, that sounds just like Carl.”

“Well,” Kloppenberg said after our laughter died down, “I am equally interested in both — but they are not the same thing.  As historians we need to make clear how we see the world, but we should not project our own wishes or values onto those we study. We need also to see the world from their point of view.”

“There is a boundary between the passions that drive our scholarship and our obligation as historians to respect the record, to respect the values of the people we study….Reticence is a quality of scholarly practice that our profession desperately needs and finds in short supply.”

What the profession needs, Kloppenberg (and others) were there to testify, is more historians like Thomas Haskell.  Indeed, in working with his own grad students, Kloppenberg offers Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science as one model for how they might approach writing their dissertation.  Kloppenberg was still in graduate school when he read it, and he was struck by “how beautifully and shrewdly it was organized.”  Though he did not follow Haskell’s structural model in his own dissertation work, Kloppenberg thinks that graduate students would do well indeed to emulate Haskell’s approach in constructing their own dissertation.

But what emerged most clearly from Kloppenberg’s remarks was the sense that grad students would do well simply to emulate Thomas Haskell — to emulate his workmanship and his ethos, his collegiality, his commitment to the highest standards of professionalism, his humility before the historical record and his truthfulness to it, his understanding of history as an act of moral inquiry, and his generous encouragement of those scholars who would follow after him.

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