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Revisiting History After a Half Century at Harvard

September 9, 2019

​Revisiting History - Charles Maier reflects on a half century at Harvard

September 9, 2019
Clea Simon in Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies

With the end of the 2018-2019 academic year, Charles Maier ’60, Ph.D. ‘67, the Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History and CES resident faculty, retired, bringing to a close more than 50 years of teaching at Harvard. When we spoke in his book-lined corner office at Adolphus Busch Hall, Maier, who served as director of CES from 1994 to 2001 and, again, in the fall of 2006, reflected on his career at a changing university, what he’ll miss, what he won’t, and what he’s doing next.

As you begin retirement, you’re starting another book. Would you tell us about it?

Charles Maier: I’m am trying to write a history of the last 100 years from a different perspective than most historians and journalists have provided. In effect, I am seeking to offer a long-term narrative that can accommodate or allow for an unhappy outcome as well as a triumphant ending. I like to say history is characterized by its surprises, but the task of the historian is to make them seem a little less surprising. I have been surprised and dismayed by Trump’s America and the advent of similar populist outcomes throughout the world, especially since many of us believed that liberal democracy had prevailed as of the 1990s. Of course, developments may quickly change again, but for now the earlier hopefulness has faded. So how do we conceive of a longer-term history that can make sense of the disappointing events of 2019 as well as those that elated us in 1989?

During your time at the university, what events have been most significant?

Charles Maier: In the 52 years I’ve taught here since getting my Ph.D., I would say there have been two major global upheavals that impacted our politics and the university. One was everything we might associate with the protests against the Vietnam war and with 1968 and after in the broadest sense, when this university was turned upside down, and all the presuppositions about hierarchies of expertise and scholarly objectivity were put into question. Calm returned in the early 1970s, but as I could observe from my involvement in Leverett House and undergraduate teaching, much changed durably with respect to dress, gender relations, expectations of teachers. The other transformation took place in the outer world with the events of 1989–90. As a contemporary historian, I wrote a book, Dissolution, about the collapse of East Germany and the end of the Cold War divisions in Europe. I’d grown accustomed to thinking that a bureaucratic state socialism would exist forever in some sort of stalemate with Western capitalism. Those events led me to allow more for the possibilities for historical change than I had for the previous twenty years, when I remained focused on structural stability.

Would you share your thoughts on the university and how it has changed?

Charles Maier: I believe that Harvard has become a much more imperial university.

Would you elaborate?

Charles Maier: The University had long been a confederation of specialty schools, such as medicine, law, and the business school claiming virtual autonomy; but the college and its faculty seemed clearly at the center. Of course, it is still important – the Harvard BA primarily confers the elite status one associates with the University. But starting with the Kennedy administration, and then the creation of the Kennedy School, the symbiosis of the University and the policy world is stronger. The global ambitions have grown. As a Harvard freshman in 1956-57, I’d meet President Pusey walking across the yard. Today, no matter what the affability of our recent presidents, the administration seems more remote. The size and complexity of the administration has grown significantly. The preoccupation with continual fund-raising seems to have grown exponentially. Institutional complacency is a besetting danger. I began my studies in Athens, and I conclude my teaching in Rome.

Of course, the student body has changed as well. In my class there were, maybe, a dozen black students, and several of them were from Africa itself. We do better with diversity now, although not as well in that regard as we should. Certainly, there are more Hispanic, Latino and Asian-American students, which has created a huge demographic change.

One major change concerns the role of women, which is now much healthier. In 1961 I married the “Radcliffe girl,” I had been smitten with on the Harvard Crimson, Pauline Rubbelke, one of the first female editors. Pauline [who passed away six years ago] became a great historian of American independence. We entered graduate school here together, but I think our professors (and certainly the redoubtable female department administrator) always assumed that because she was a woman she was going to have babies and focus on the family. So at times, for example, I was awarded grant money, and she was not. Once the History Department decided they wanted to hire me, her career aspirations seemed secondary. All this has changed, and it is obviously a vastly beneficial change.

Would you share just some favorite memories?

Charles Maier: The interaction with students has always been invigorating. Undergraduates ask questions that force you to explain things, and they don’t get cynical in the same way people in my age group do. They’re not yet world-weary, so to speak. Some may be melancholy, but they’re not jaded. Graduate students are, in effect, junior colleagues; they can interact on the same level of theoretical sophistication by the time they are into their own research.

Would your life have been different at another university?

Charles Maier: I’m sure some things would have been different, but the impulses that have driven me would be roughly the same. This has been a good institution for me. I am probably too driven to write and attend diverse seminars to have been as fulfilled in a small college. I don’t think I would have done so well in another profession. I did contemplate journalism because I worked a lot at the Crimson, which contributed so many later celebrated writers to the New York Times, but I decided I wanted more time to be reflective, and I loved history.

Are there Harvard Square institutions you particularly miss?

Charles Maier: When we were graduate students, there were rather sleazy cafeterias on Mass Avenue where we’d go for lunch. There was Hazen’s (which closed in 1973) that always offered a beef stew and the Hayes Bickford (which closed in 1970), a larger establishment open all night. Since I worked at the Crimson often until two in the morning, we’d go in there, and we’d encounter all the MBTA workers. Elsie’s was the great sandwich shop at the corner of Holyoke and Mount Auburn, that featured hefty 50-cent roast beef specials. And of course we had two movie theaters, the “UT” with its entrance where the Santander Bank now is, which featured first-run films and the old Brattle, that introduced us to Bergman and other European art films.

How has Harvard’s involvement or interest in Europe changed?

Charles Maier: This is hard to answer since I had been interested in finding European-oriented courses from my arrival. Harvard culturally always provided a strong component of literature and social science courses on Europe – and some of the most brilliant and original professors taught these, including CES’s own Stanley Hoffmann. Interest in Europe has been reproportioned by the rise of Asia, but I think we’ve always had a fairly lively interest in Europe. And of course the founding of CES has played an important role in anchoring that interest even when the attention of departments has diversified. We have attained the capacity, over the last generation, to send more and more students to Europe as undergraduates. And more European young people seek their education here. That’s a big change. On the other hand, Europe has become much less exotic than it used to be.

If you were to recommend one book on Europe to current Harvard students, what would it be?

Charles Maier: If they wanted some history, maybe the late Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It is a wonderful synthesis of politics and political ideas for the second half of the twentieth century.

What do you think you’ll miss in retirement?

Charles Maier: I’ll miss teaching, and also participating in thinking about teaching, not being in a department as it thinks about its curriculum and courses. I’ll miss having a voice in that. It was one of the major strengths of the concentration in Social Studies, which I directed for several years in the 1990s. I’ll miss not having undergraduates. I’ll miss not having the brightest graduates – that I won’t be able to help nurture their thinking.

Is there anything you won’t miss?

Charles Maier: I won’t miss grading, especially given general student expectations in an era of pervasive grade inflation. I assume for a while that I’ll be writing letters of recommendation. Up to just these past two years it claimed perhaps 20 to 25 percent of my time between October and February.

All in all, I feel immensely blessed to have lived in this period. We’ve had no major wars except for Vietnam, for which I was a little too old to be impacted by personally. We’ve had largely continuous economic prosperity and growth, and we’ve become a much more tolerant country with respect to race and with respect to sexuality. My younger adulthood took place during a great era of confidence in liberal institutions at home and internationally, and an era in which my country’s influence – too often abusive – was often for good. I worry about that all being thrown away. This is what I am concerned with, not with what I’ll miss personally, because I enjoyed a good wave of history. I was surfing on a good wave.

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