Woe unto You Writers of History: Undergraduate Teaching Policy, 1935

RCB’s carbon copy of the last page of the letter.

How strong in this country, in this culture, is the ideal of freedom of investigation, how widely supported is the tradition of objectivity in the analysis of concrete social problems? I do not know and it worries me.

In 1935, the Alumnae Historical Association of Flora Stone Mather College set out to establish a fund in honor of Henry E. Bourne, Binkley’s predecessor as chair of the History Department. The association included prominent women in Cleveland society, who were generous and reliable donors to the College. In asking them to dig a little deeper in their pockets, it was evidently thought expedient to solicit from Binkley a statement of his vision for the department, to help draw the alumnae into a deeper engagement with their alma mater.

So it came about that Binkley wrote this letter to Annie Cutter, the head of the Association. Cutter was a librarian at Cleveland Public Library, responsible for the school libraries of the city; she was also on the faculty of the library school at Western Reserve University. Moreover she was a member of an old and prosperous Cleveland family. A month earlier, at Cutter’s invitation, Binkley had addressed the Ladies Advisory Council on his plans for the department: “We want the Ladies of the Advisory Council to know you better – to know your plans for the development of the History dept. – what that department has always meant in Mather College – what it may mean – etc. etc.” 1

This letter is the most extended discussion by Binkley that I’ve found of the application of his ideas on historical scholarship to the practice of undergraduate teaching. It comes a few months after “New Tools for Men of Letters” (Binkley enclosed a copy of the Yale Review article with this letter), and a year before “History for a Democracy”, and shares material with both of them. The themes of intellectual freedom, the value of amateur scholarship, and the shifting of emphasis from national history upwards to trans-national institutions (as in Binkley’s writings on federative polity) and downwards to local history, are featured in all three. Binkley’s intention to use these means to reduce the role of nationalism in historiography and in international relations generally is explicit.

He draws his theme from a presidential address to the American Historical Association by H. Morse Stephens during the First World War: “Woe unto you writers of history and teachers of history if you do not see written in blood the results of your writing and teaching.” He uses the same quotation (with slight variations) in “History for a Democracy”, where the point is made a little clearer by the use of “cannot” instead of “do not”: the crime of historians is the promotion of nationalism, and woe to them if they do not understand their consequent role in the calamities of this generation. He evidently quoted the passage from memory, for the full text (as printed in the American Historical Review) is somewhat different:

The historian is influenced by the prevailing spirit of his age, and he feeds the spirit of national intolerance to-day as his predecessors fed the flames of religious intolerance in days gone by. Woe unto us! professional historians, professional historical students, professional teachers of history, if we cannot see, written in blood, in the dying civilization of Europe, the dreadful result of exaggerated nationalism as set forth in the patriotic histories of some of the most eloquent historians of the nineteenth century. May we not hope that this will be but a passing phase of historical writing, since its awful sequel is so plainly exhibited before us, and may we not expect that the historians of the twentieth century may seek rather to explain the nations of the world to each other in their various contributions to the progress of civilization and to bear ever in mind the magnificent sentiment of Goethe: “Above the nations is humanity”.

Though the fundraising agenda has tinged Binkley’s letter with a note of flattery of the alumnae (“a cultivated intellectual class”), the program he proposes is substantial. He intends to teach Mather history graduates to take an historical perspective in their understanding of the present day. By inviting them into the historian’s project after graduation, the program would broaden the base of historical inquiry, making it more robust. In the undergraduate textbook he was writing at the time of his death, Binkley planned to leave a blank page for the student to analyze his or her own family using the same criteria he employed for historical families:

When you have filled out this page put your name with mine on the title page of this book. You have become co-author with me, though to answer these questions in full you might have to write another book as big as this one.2

The study of units larger than nations reveals that the achievements claimed for individual nations often have a rich shared history that crosses national boundaries. Study of the smaller units encourages local loyalties. (He encloses samples of student work from the newly-established Mather course in Cleveland history.) The combined effect of these two lines of attack is to dilute national loyalties, which have such dire effects when nationalism is unchecked.

Binkley is particularly concerned that this broadening of historical work, both in personnel and in topics, should help to preserve intellectual freedom against the threats exemplified by Italian fascism and German National Socialism. He wrote in “History for a Democracy”:

The fascist cultures, however rugged they may be in some aspects, are delicate in respect to their historical digestions. Only the most carefully prepared history, put together according to prescription, will nourish them.3

An open historical program, too broadly based to be centralized, would starve fascism before it could establish itself. Where Binkley’s writings on the Holy Roman Empire attempted to develop an alternative to fascist historiography, here he reveals a program to deter fascism in America.

A few months after he wrote this letter, Binkley sent a copy to James Shotwell, chair of the American National Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations (of which Binkley was a member). The Committee had sponsored a study of school curricula, and had just received $5000 from the Carnegie Corporation for its publication.4 The study was published two years later as International Understanding Through the Public-School Curriculum, I. L. Kandel and Guy Montrose Whipple, eds., Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education 36 no. 2 (Bloomington, Ill: Public School Pub. Co, 1937).

This work was part of the international education movement the 1920s and ’30s, of which Shotwell was a leader. The purpose of the movement was to improve international understanding by promoting educational reforms to foster “international-mindedness”. A statement of principles for the World Federation of Educational Associations in 1929 started with “the creation of a new state of mind, a state of mind which will permit an understanding and appreciation of the character, attainments, and traditions of other peoples, and which will transcend national boundaries without seeking to destroy them”. The second principle aligns with Binkley’s use of local and international units: “Loyalty to both the nation and to mankind is a concept similar to that of loyalty to both city and nation and, while it may be somewhat more difficult to grasp and to hold, it is equally desirable and not unattainable.”5

Binkley, then, was an adherent of this movement. He was connected to it through his membership in Shotwell’s committee, and also through his friendship with Esther Caukin Brunauer,6 who had taken her Ph.D. at the same time as Binkley and had rented a room in his and Frances’ house in Palo Alto for part of their time at Stanford.7 She was now the director of the international education program of the American Association of University Women, and an influential writer and lecturer on internationalism. Like Binkley, she was looking for ways to contain fascism, and wrote several pamphlets against American isolationism in the late ’30s. After the war she was the American representative on the Preparatory Commission for UNESCO, and her internationalist associations made her one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s first targets in the State Department in 1951. She was on the editorial committee for the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation curricula study, and contributed a chapter entitled “The Development of International Attitudes” (co-authored with Daniel A. Prescott).

Binkley wrote to Shotwell in December, 1935:

There is an idea I would hope to have presented somewhere in such a book. It is derived from the work I have been doing on the federative problem generally, and from the administration and policy in education here where we are working our way towards a new synthesis in the history department. In connection with a local problem of securing a fund for the development of studies here, I had occasion to write out a statement of teaching policy. While it is applicable in its present state to a university curriculum, it could perhaps be applied to the public school curriculum in some of its parts. Would you care to read the enclosed copy of the letter with a view to our situation?8

Shotwell’s response, if any, hasn’t turned up, and Binkley’s ideas about diluting national loyalties with infra- and supra-national ones do not appear in the chapters on history in the published study. His proposal was out of line with Shotwell’s position in any case: the latter thought that Science would have to supplant History in order for nationalism to be reduced: “Nationalism, self-centered, unneighborly, reviving tribal instincts of a long-lost past, must yield a place in the sun to modern science, which is creating an interdependent world.”9


Finally, note the typist’s initials “avb”: this is Adeline Barry, who had been hired to provide secretarial support for Binkley’s Joint Committee work a few months before, and who proved so capable that she succeeded Ted Schellenberg as executive secretary. She started a Ph.D. on “Literature and Literary Property in the Nineteenth Century” with Binkley in 1939, and then was responsible for winding up the affairs of the Joint Committee after his death the following year. She went on to work in the newly-formed Experimental Division of Library Cooperation at the Library of Congress, and then in the Navy’s Records Administration Office. The Bourne Fund was ultimately established with $25,154.22, and subsidized the publication of Binkley’s Collected Papers in 1948. I find no evidence that it still exists, but the Case Western History Dept. has an endowed chair named for Ms Barry: the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History.

A note on the text: I have transcribed it from Binkley’s carbon copies. There are two versions, one single-spaced and one double-spaced (which survives in two copies), but with no differences in the text. The only change I have made is to correct “alumni” to “alumnae”, as appropriate for a women’s college (and as in the official name of the Alumnae Historical Association). This was no doubt a dictation error, and let us hope it was corrected on the fair copy.

[1] June 5, 1935

[2] Miss Annie Cutter
2160 South Overlook Road
Cleveland Heights, Ohio

[3] Dear Miss Cutter:

[4] I have made a number of starts at writing the memorandum I promised you and I have found at every effort that it was difficult to expound fully the things I see as the opportunities and mission of this department.

[5] Now I think I have found out why it was so difficult for me to put my thought together on that point. It is because I was beginning at the wrong end. In my actual planning, I do not start with a picture of a department to be built up, but rather with a vision of a world I would like to see come into existence, and I deduce from that the things that can be contributed to this object from this particular place. I have decided to send you these ideas in the form of a letter, and I can only beg that you will be patient while I begin at the beginning and move on from there.

[6] There was a very famous speech once given by Henry Morse Stephens of the University of California to the American Historical Association. In the course of it he said: “Woe unto you writers of history and teachers of history if you do not see written in blood the results of your writing and teaching.” This is a rather terrifying indictment, but there is more than a germ of truth in the connection between the madness of modern nationalism and the line taken by writers and teachers of history.

[7] What kind of history writing and what kind of history teaching can serve contemporary civilization constructively? It is easy enough to refrain from “glorifying war”. We have not done much of that anyway. On the other hand, it would be impossible to treat the history of the modern state in the style of the Christian Science Monitor, leaving out the crime news. I think the historian’s answer to the problem presented by Henry Morse Stephens is not to be found in a pacifist attitude in reassessing praise and blame, but rather in utilizing in history other units than the modern state, and these units are of two kinds – those that are larger then the modern state and those that are smaller.

[8] Larger than the modern state is, of course, western European civilization. Too many of our historians have written the history of the western world as if it were indeed a sum made up by adding the histories of France, England, Spain, Germany, et cetera. The conscientious use of the larger units brings to light many very significant facts which are otherwise obscured. Especially it brings to light the parallel course of development taken by most states. Our American canal era is paralleled in Europe. The same is true of the problem of centralized or decentralized bank note issues. The conventional historical account of the rise of parliament, which presents parliament as a peculiarly English institution and neglects its all-European character in the fourteenth century, changes as soon as we use this more general approach. For the parliamentary institution was developing simultaneously in England, Aragon, Castile, Hungary, Poland, France, and all central Europe. I mention this fact because I have just come from a department meeting in which we arranged to have a chapter written for our freshman course on the rise of the early parliamentary institution, giving it this all-European character that we want it to have. There is nothing of this kind written for students; therefore we have to write it ourselves.

[9] There is also the smaller unit, that in our own case is Cleveland. When I study the history of nationalism, it is quite evident that our present predicament arose from two parallel developments – the diminution in the authority of super-national society and lapses of feeling for the sub-national region or community. If the present-day national frontier is to lose something of its terrible significance to the lives of all modern peoples, this can come about in part by sustaining local loyalties where they have survived and by developing them where they have not been deeply planted.

[10] In our teaching here, we put these views into effect; we try to get away from the national state as the fundamental unit of the historical narrative and tend even to break down the distinction between American and European history. At the same time we sponsor interest in local history. These seem to me the practical ways of responding to the warnings of Henry Morse Stephens.

[11] But that is only one side of the picture. There is another side that is perhaps even more important, and that is the service of historical study in the life of the individual student. Here again I think I can clarify my views better if I start with the vision of the world outside the college and work back from there to the college and the department. There are several contemporary cultural dangers that concern me. One of them is the growing gulf that separates specialist scholars from cultivated laymen. This gulf has been widening for several generations. We see the most extreme consequences in Germany. How strong in this country, in this culture, is the ideal of freedom of investigation, how widely supported is the tradition of objectivity in the analysis of concrete social problems? I do not know and it worries me.

[12] I feel, however, that one of the things that will help to preserve this kind of freedom in American culture is an increase in the number of people who actually share in the labor of scholarship. Hence I think it is important to restore amateur scholarship to a place it has not occupied for a long time.

[13] So far as history is concerned, the restoration of amateur scholarship is most easily identified with the fostering of research in local history, and here you can see two elemente of my thinking meet. The development of local history to give depth to loyalties that are infra-national is important from the standpoint of the problem of nationalism and world peace. It is also an excellent means to an end in closing the gulf between professional research and the leisure-time activity of a cultivated intellectual class.

[14] More than this, I am impressed by the value to an individual of some task that will tie together the local and immediate environment with the long perspectives that come in the study of history. I am enclosing with this letter a rather quaint document – a little history of Luther Avenue, a small street off 55th Street, written up by a Mather student who is not of more than average scholarly ability. The work may seem trivial and perhaps it is, but it has served to give this student and her family and some of her neighbors an interest and an experience of real value. The street in which this girl lives has become for her and her family something more interesting and worthwhile than it could otherwise be.

[15] As you know, we prepare here the teachers who will work at the junior and senior high school levels. One student was working in our class in local history while she was doing her practice teaching. There is in the course of study in history taught in junior high school a unit in which the students are taught certain facts about the Connecticut Land Company and about certain of the early Cleveland families. This practice teacher undertook to carry one step further the program of deepening an individual’s interest in the local environment. She experimented with her class of high school students by having them discuss with their own families and bring to class information about their own coming to Cleveland. She made an effort to give dignity to what their own families had done in the building up of the community. I enclose a copy of her report on this experiment.10

[16] Now this is precisely the procedure that is followed in the use of history to inculcate nationalist ideals. It deals, however, with the infra-national unit in this case, Cleveland. It does not conflict with training in national patriotism, but it does supplement it with something else that should tend to limit the monopoly of a national frontier as the sole boundary of loyalty.

[17] In a small article, a copy of which I also enclose, I have presented some thoughts on a related topic. The enrichment of a local culture calls for some resistance to the centralizing tendencies that would concentrate all creative activity to the few great centers. Just as I am in favor of the amateur against the monopoly of the professional in scholarship, so I am in favor of the small college against the monopoly of the great university, and the smaller town or city against the monopoly of the great metropolis.

[18] Cleveland, as I see it, is marvellously situated as a proving ground in which to show what can be done to resist the cultural monopoly of New York, and it is also a community which could make a good demonstration of the possibilities of amateur scholarship in competition with professional. I will not speak here of the new techniques in the graphic arts and their application to this problem because they are covered in the reprint from the Yale Review which I enclose.

[19] There are several things that could be done in Cleveland to realize these possibilities. In the field of letters we could have in this city a local literature distributed in mimeographed or hectographed form, read and criticized, brought to the people with the cooperation of the newspapers and the public library, both of which institutions would willingly participate. There could be here, either attached to the public library or the university or as an independent organization, an archive of business history. Business history is at the moment one of the great neglected fields of scholarship, and one best adapted for the cooperation of amateur with professional. The spirit of cooperation that has survived in Cleveland through all our ups and downs of fortune could be counted upon in the development of a program such as that which I have sketched.

[20] Now, coming down to more mundane details of department administration, what does this mean? What is that small contribution that can be made from this point to these objectives? First of all, we develop our history teaching with the thought that a student should form the habit of using historical perspective constantly in the examination and appraisal of immediate things. We want to send our students out with the feeling that they have only begun the study of history, and that the study of history is not divorced one whit from the study of contemporary life. In one course, for instance, I systematically relax requirements, teach the students how to find reading on any topic within the compass of the course, and make it the object of the course to induce voluntary habits of reading, and build up a list of books far beyond what they can read while in college, capable of occupying them for a long period in the future. We have also introduced instruction in the writing of history of one’s own locality, family, or business. Next year we will have for the first time a course in the social history of Cleveland, given by Professor Cole. These objectives work their way into our department plans from the freshman level to the senior level. We have been able in the last year to introduce seminars in history which are intended not only to teach a certain subject matter, but to familiarize the students with the research scholar’s approach and to develop in them the liking for informal and conversational exploration of thought. We hope to make some of them less satisfied than they otherwise would be with the social life divorced from intellectual interests.

[21] In all of this, I am sure that you and your classmates, and those of the Alumnae Association who remember the work of Professor Bourne, will realize thet we are building upon the fine foundation that he laid, and that more and more as our plans become realities we will come to think of the work of the department as something that includes the alumnae within its compass. Not the least of the items in the rich legacy left by Professor Bourne is the Alumnae Historical Association, whose sympathetic interest in our work continually cheers us on.

[22] I hope you will forgive this overlong letter. It has not seemed that I could do justice to your cordial interest in less space.

[23] With warmest regards, I am

[24] Very sincerely yours,

[25] Robert C. Binkley

[26] rcb:avb

  1. Doc. 5339: Annie Spencer Cutter to RCB, [1934-02-17].↩︎

  2. A Sense of History, ch. 2.5.↩︎

  3. History for a Democracy”.↩︎

  4. Doc. 5142: Shotwell to RCB, 1935-12-06.↩︎

  5. Robert Sylvester, “Mapping International Education: A Historical Survey 1893-1944,” Journal of Research in International Education 1, no. 1 (September 1, 2002): 90–125, doi:10.1177/147524090211005, at p.113.↩︎

  6. Betty Miller Unterberger, “Brunauer, Esther Delia Caukin,” Notable American Women: The Modern Period: a Biographical Dictionary, ed. Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green (Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 114-116.↩︎

  7. Doc. 182: FWB to her parents, 1928-02-07.↩︎

  8. Doc. 5180: RCB to Shotwell, 1935-12-16.↩︎

  9. James T. Shotwell, “International Understanding and International Interdependence,” in International Understanding Through the Public-School Curriculum, pp.11-12.↩︎

  10. Binkley also sent a copy of this report to the Board of Education with suggestions for improving the local history curriculum, and received an encouraging response. Doc. 6073: RCB to Charles Lake, 1935-05-04; Doc. 6072: Charles Lake to RCB, 1935-05-14.↩︎