Friday, November 30, 2012

David Hackett Fischer Celebrates 50 Years at Brandeis

My good friend Dan Cohen, a Brandeis alum and undergraduate student of David Hackett Fischer, recently called my attention to this story on Fischer published in the university alumni magazine.  Several of Fischer's former students, including Steve Whitfield, Anne Plane, Richard Rath, and Allan Kulikoff, offer testimonials on Fischer's fifty-year teaching career at Brandeis.  I particularly enjoyed Fischer's discussion of why he chose Brandeis over other universities.  Here is a taste:

A little more than a half century ago, historian David Hackett Fischer was a newly minted PhD from Johns Hopkins University with offers in hand from four universities, including one from a very young, brash institution in Waltham.

Clearly in demand, the ambitious historian set out to do what any well-trained scholar would do: conduct primary research about each potential employer.

To his amazement, Fischer says, at the first “very old and eminent school in the Northeast” he met the president and the dean — a sure sign a meaty historical discussion with two intellectual heavyweights was imminent, or so he thought. Instead, the pair was more interested in “who my grandparents had been and where I bought my sport coat,” Fischer recalls with a laugh. Strike one.

Next, Fischer says, he visited a Southern university, “a great and honorable place,” where he was delighted to learn that some members of the history department had a long-standing tradition of convening every Monday evening to discuss the great topics of the day. During his visit, the topic would be capital punishment. Fischer duly marshaled his arguments. Once the discussion started, however, Fischer discovered the focus wasn’t on the pros and cons of capital punishment. The debate was about the best methods of execution. Strike two.

The third university Fischer traveled to was a large Western university with its very own airport. There, Fischer learned, he would be enlisted to teach the introductory American history course. So far, so good. Then he asked about enrollment in the course, and discovered he would be instructing 1,000 students. Strike three.

When Fischer finally arrived on the Brandeis campus, he walked to the then new faculty club, where he was scheduled to meet Professors Leonard Levy and John Roche, both experts on constitutional history. Caught up in a passionate debate about the finer points of substantive and procedural due process — “fists crashed on the table, and coffee cups went leaping in the air,” recalls Fischer — neither Levy nor Roche noticed the visitor.

Finally, Fischer recounts, “Professor Levy glanced over at me and asked, ‘Why are you here?’ I thought, This is the place for me.”

I also found it interesting that members of the  Clinton-Gore campaign staff read Fischer's Albion's Seed in 1992 so that they were attuned to regional differences across the country.