Fritz K. Ringer (1934-2006)

Andrew Lees, October 2006

Fritz K. Ringer, professor emeritus of history at the University of Pittsburgh, died in Washington, DC, as a result of pulmonary fibrosis on February 3, 2006.

Born in Germany in 1934, Ringer came to the United States in 1947, graduating from Amherst College in 1956 and receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1961. After teaching there for several years, he taught at Indiana University, Boston University, the University of Pittsburgh, and (after his retirement from Pitt in 2002) at Georgetown University.

Fritz Ringer made major contributions as a scholar in the areas of German and European social and intellectual history. His first book, The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890–1933 (Harvard University Press, 1969) is a massive and penetrating study in the historical sociology of knowledge. Translated into several languages and republished in 1990 by Wesleyan University Press, it has stood out methodologically for over a third of a century as a classic example of how to relate ideas and intellectuals to institutions and events. It has also served as a repeatedly cited touchstone in ongoing debates about flaws in the makeup of the "good" Germany that may have contributed to the triumph, between 1933 and 1945, of the bad one. In this connection, Ringer continued to defend vociferously the validity of the idea of the Sonderweg throughout his career.

Although Fritz Ringer did his first work on the country where he was born, he soon transcended the boundaries of a single nation, extending his vision to encompass the history of education and of knowledge elsewhere in Europe as well. Among the six scholarly books that followed The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890–1933, four dealt at least in part with developments in countries other than Germany. In his Education and Society in Modern Europe (Indiana University Press, 1979), Ringer displayed his strong skills as a mathematician (he was justly proud of having received a prize in math when he was an Amherst freshman!), by carefully assembling and analyzing a vast array of statistics that pertain to educational opportunity in Germany, France, and Britain. In a later study, Fields of Knowledge: French Academic Culture in Comparative Perspective, 1890–1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), he focused on Germany's neighbor and rival across the Rhine, producing a work that paralleled his study of the German professoriate. In later years, his intellectual interests and contributions came full circle, as he returned in his research and writing to the man who had long served as his own model of intellectual excellence: the great sociologist Max Weber. Having referred to him repeatedly in his first book, Ringer went on to produce two volumes that deal specifically (albeit within a broad context) with this giant of modern thought. The first was his Max Weber's Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences (Harvard University Press, 1997); the second, Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2004). He also published, in 1999, Trouble in Academe: A Memoir.

Some further remarks are in order about aspects of Fritz Ringer's career other than his research and writing. He served on the editorial boards of five scholarly journals. He received seven major fellowships, among them awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. Frequently invited to give guest lectures both in the United States and abroad (he was fluent not only in German and English but also in French), he enjoyed an international reputation of a sort that very few academics—even ones who have been consistently productive—can hope to attain. There is also the matter of his teaching. He was a forceful and imposing presence as a lecturer. But more significant from the standpoint of those who knew him best, he was an extraordinarily conscientious mentor of graduate students, reading and rereading drafts of theses and revisions of theses as men and women whom he had inspired sought to follow in his path. Finally, for eight years he held the presidency of the Boston University chapter of the AAUP. Serving at a time when the BU president was running roughshod over faculty rights, Fritz Ringer bravely and vigorously championed the principles of academic freedom. In contrast to some of the professors about whom he wrote in his scholarly work, he was a "political" professor in the best sense of the word.

A strong man with strong views, who loved to argue in ways that showed he took other people's ideas as well as his own seriously, Fritz gave of himself unstintingly to his profession and to numerous individuals, and he will be missed. He is survived by his wife of 48 years, Mary; their daughter Monica (who teaches history at Amherst); their son Max; and two grandchildren.

—Andrew Lees
Rutgers University at Camden