On British Historians

Walter Pintner and J.R. Pole, November 1989

Editor's note: Many letters were received in response to Professor Randolph Trumbach's letter to the editor in the September 1989 issue of Perspectives. In the case of controversial subjects in which many letters are received by the editor, Perspectives will select for publication letters that demonstrate the collective viewpoint.

I was saddened to see the narrow-minded nationalism expressed by Professor Trumbach in his letter in the September Perspectives. A department filling a vacancy has the obligation to find the best available scholar-teacher without regard to national origin or place of training. It is an obligation to our students and to our discipline. To favor "our graduates" as opposed to "outsiders" would be a disgrace to the profession and a great disservice to our students both undergraduate and graduate.

Search committees and departments can make mistakes, but I doubt very much if fashion or "chic" has anything to do with the appointment of British scholars to positions in the United States. The difficult situation in British academic life has simply meant that recently more British scholars have sought positions elsewhere than in the past. The misfortune of their universities enriches ours.

Walter Pintner
Professor of History
Cornell University

Industrial protectionism reappeared around the time of the last presidential election, but it is disappointing to see the argument spreading to the academic world. Professor Randolph Trumbach of Baruch College in the September Perspectives complains that American university history departments are now threatened by the intake of British scholars who, he says, have held privileged posts in Britain. (Some of them have, some have not.) He also says that they claim to have a breadth of learning not found in Americans. This is not the sort of thing that the British are supposed to say, and I am surprised and sorry to hear if they do. But I do not see where Professor Trumbach finds cause for irony in the fact that these scholars, coming from "privileged" positions, will be expected to train future graduates. They seem to have done it quite successfully at home.

Whether or not Margaret Thatcher deserves to be considered a "dictator" is a question I will not argue here. A case can be made that she is the most authoritarian head of a British government since Walpole, and there can be no serious doubt that the British universities have taken an unprecedented battering from her government. What I say to American friends when they condole me on all this is, "Don't worry. We have been around for seven or eight hundred years. We will outlive these people and we will write their history."

Yet, in spite of these troubles, there is a much more important reverse aspect, of which Professor Trumbach seems wholly unaware. The Anglo-American world of scholarship and science is, to put it at the lowest estimate, a two-way street. Ever since the end of the Second World War—probably for longer—a glittering array of American scholars and scientists has added luster to the achievements of Britain's universities. At this moment, chairs of English in both Oxford and Cambridge are held by Americans—and, incidentally, American women, for those who are interested; the chair of jurisprudence in Oxford is held by another American, Ronald Dworkin; many other Americans hold academic positions at various levels in our universities, as do scholars and scientists from a very wide variety of other countries.

Speaking from a more personal perspective, I would guess that nearly half of my graduate students over the years have been Americans, and several of them have made their careers in Britain. Others return to the United States. I can think of two of my British graduate students who now seem likely to settle down in the United States—teaching American history. Two British universities, University College in London and the University of Sussex, have recently appointed Americans to permanent positions in American history in competition with strong British candidates. At the moment of this writing (September 12, 1989), we do not know who will next occupy the chairs in American history at Oxford and Cambridge, but one thing can be said with confidence: these appointments will be made on the grounds of intellectual distinction, not of national origin.

I understand Professor Trumbach's feelings; there are moments when I am tempted to share them in reverse. But we are all members of the Republic of Letters, and should not have recourse to the arguments of infant industries.

J.R. Pole
Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions
St. Catherine's College, Oxford