History Department Is Unified


Historians at Harvard share your enthusiasm for the recent successes of Afro-American Studies (staff editorial, November 19, 1993). The University has been strengthened and Chair Henry Louis Gates and his colleagues deserve our thanks. But I regret that you thought it useful to misrepresent the Department of History to make your point. There is no "infighting among the department leadership" preventing "the expansion of...20th-century American offerings." That is why the "University" (by which you seem to mean the Dean and the President) have left it to the department to build and rebuild as we best can.

The truth is that the "University" understands, as the Crimson still does not, that our "failure" to appoint a senior historian of 20th-century American politics is a venial sin. We have continued to teach the subject while offering many other courses in American history, including some 14 undergraduate courses presently listed in 20th-century history.

We have a talented and dedicated junior faculty alongside five senior members teaching in American fields. We are uniquely strong in American foreign policy and diplomacy. What is the problem!? Why don't you, in any case help us persuade first-years and concentrators what their counterparts at Princeton, Amherst, Berkeley, etc., have never forgotten: that history is a subject you can enter anywhere, any time?

If you've studies American history in school, all the more reason to begin it at Harvard, as students do elsewhere, in courses on East Asia or ancient Rome or Africa or modern Germany. And these courses will prepare one for business, law, medicine, politics--even for American history. Nothing has pained me more since coming from Berkeley in 1986 (seeking more satisfying undergraduate teaching!) than the willful and misleading denigration of a fine department lacking a senior historian in one field. It is a ludicrous slander!

The Department of History is in a flood tide of renovation. This is not the space in which to detail what I reviewed in an 80-minute interview with a reporter from The Crimson in September. To my knowledge you have not reported on that interview, in which I tried to place our failings, alleged and real, in the context of massive change, reform, and growth.


Here let it suffice to say that since 1986, History has made 14 new senior appointments, including three promotions of associate professors. In that time, seven professors retired while 13 senior professors whose appointments antedate 1985 remain without dissension; we are teaching, writing, and (yes) searching. We're working out our problems amicably--including that of American history. Thomas N. Bisson   Chair, Department of History