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Remembering a Mentor

Professor David Brion Davis, hail and farewell

April 16, 2019
 
 

It’s said that we die multiple deaths: First we lose our health, then our memory fades, and finally our bodily and mental functions cease. In fact, the arc of our departure continues well after our physical death, only to end when those who knew us die and our living memory is extinguished.

I, like so many of you who never left the academy, was profoundly fortunate to have had a real mentor. David Brion Davis, the great historian of slavery and antislavery, was for me and so many others the kind of intellectual father figure that all academics hope for. Someone who lived and breathed ideas, who inspired us, and challenged us to live up to our potential.

Incredibly modest in demeanor, Professor Davis called for a history that reflected five basic commitments.The first was to a history that wrestles with fundamental moral problems. He believed that history without a moral dimension was antiquarianism. His scholarship asked how people as intelligent and moral as us could participate in the most horrendous moral evils, and how, at certain historical moments, some individuals have been able to rise above their circumstances, address evil in fundamental ways, and expand our moral consciousness.

A second commitment was to the centrality of ideas. At a time when social history was ascendant, Professor Davis argued that because human beings have minds, their perceptions, value commitments, and emotions inevitably shape their behavior.  Religious ideas occupy a particularly important place in his histories, because religion has been the vehicle through which most people in the past made sense of the world and their place in it.

But Professor Davis rejected the notion that ideas can be treated as free-floating entities that can be studied apart from their social, economic, and political settings. To connect economic and political interests and the realm of ideas, he invoked the concept of ideology, not as a deliberate distortion of reality or a façade for material interests. Rather, ideology provided the conceptual lens through which historical actors perceive the world around them.

A third commitment was to a conception of culture as a process involving conflict, resistance, accommodation, and, above all, power, including the power of moral ideals. American culture has always involved a cacophony of contending voices, social groups, and points of view.  His scholarship focused not only on the ideas of elites and intellectuals, but those of enslaved African Americans, artisans, women, and many other groups, and the ways that they resisted various forms of economic and cultural oppression.

A fourth commitment was toward overcoming the parochialism of narrow national histories. Only by bridging the boundaries of nations and time can we understand how the history of the United States fits into the larger process of modernization.Only by resituating American history in a broader multinational frame can we understand what is distinctive about the construction of race in the United States, the nature of American slavery, and the limits of American social reform.

Finally, Professor Davis regarded the problem of slavery as lying at the core of any thorough understanding of modernity. Not only was the institution of slavery indispensable to the emergence of modern consumer societies and the settlement and development of the New World, it was also connected to the emergence of new conceptions of racial identity. Equally important, the struggle against slavery was part of a much broader revolution in intellectual and moral life. In condemning slavery, abolitionists and their allies developed new notions of contract and consent that radically reshaped attitudes toward poverty, cruelty, labor, the Bible, and marriage.

There is a tendency in the social and natural sciences to assume that the most recent scholarship necessarily supersedes and supplants earlier research.  Historians have a special responsibility to question that progressivist assumption.  History, at its best, is a humanistic enterprise that combines philosophic, literary, and psychological elements that do not become outmoded – much as the works of Durkheim or Weber do not become outdated.

Professor Davis was engaged in an act of historical recovery of a central narrative that had been actively and deliberately erased over the course of more than a century.  In the wake of his work and that of historians directly influenced by him, it is difficult today to imagine that up until the 1960s slavery was not regarded as a "problem" by most white scholars; it was hardly even a footnote, except in the work of such pivotal African American scholars as W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Williams, Carter Woodson, Benjamin Quarles, and John Hope Franklin.

There is no student of slavery who is not, consciously or unconsciously, immensely in his debt. He helped create antislavery studies as a distinct scholarly field.

We are currently witnessing a retreat from an idea that once stood at the center of higher education: That the distinguishing characteristic of a college education lies in the interaction between students and a professor.  A quotation attributed to President James Garfield said that the ideal college was "Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other." 

Digitized lectures, part-time adjuncts, and unbundled coaches and graders – all designed to make education less costly and more accessible – reduce higher education to training and credentialing. But, I hasten to add, there are other ways to debase undergraduate education: By reducing the professorial role to mere performance, offering excessively narrow disciplinary courses, or producing overly specialized research.

As a result, a diminishing number of students will ever have the opportunity to have a mentor like I did or perhaps you did. I am as strong an advocate for active, experiential, and proficiency- and project-based learning as anyone. But while it may make sense to offer distinct forms of advanced education to those who lack the time for a high touch educational experience, we must not forget that if college is to be a truly life transforming experience, this ultimately requires a professional who doesn’t merely fill a pail, but lights a fire.

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 to 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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