Thursday, September 22, 2016

Tonsor #9 -- Where Scholars Go to Die

I was having a beer with a couple of other graduate students. We were on a patio that looked onto William Street, enjoying the warm air and kibitzing about our classes during Week One at Michigan. The man across the table said, with apparent satisfaction, "There are no more conservative professors in Ann Arbor."

"Oh, that's not true," I shot back. "I had lunch with him."

Rackham Graduate School at U of M
That comeback may have gotten a laugh, but it pointed to a real problem: the anemic state of ideological diversity among academics in 1987. Not just at Michigan but across the nation during the Reagan era, faculty in the social sciences and humanities voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Political diversity was noticeably absent in Rackham Graduate School, the home unit of history graduate students at the university. Tonsor informed me that he knew of only one other professor in U of M's history department who voted Republican, and our history department was arguably the largest in the U.S.

I hasten to add that, although the other profs I would encounter at Michigan were liberal, my experience in Ann Arbor was not as horrid as what was being reported on many American campuses. Perhaps I chose my classes wisely and had a little luck, but my profs were fair. They never docked me on ideological or religious grounds, nor did I sense there was ever a political litmus test to win grants or earn good grades. David Hollinger, Raymond Grew, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Tom Tentler, David Bien, Kathleen Canning, Jim Turner, Victor Miesel, Linda Neagley -- I never saw them politicize history in their lectures, classrooms, or seminars. Indeed, it was they who taught me that academic rigor requires intellectual diversity.

*     *     *

The next morning, a Tuesday, I arrived at Tonsor's office in Haven Hall to tell him about an upcoming trip that would require me to miss one of his classes. He was not yet in for office hours, so I looked at the material he'd posted on his door. You can tell a lot about a person by what they post on their door. What caught my eye was a cartoon from the New Yorker. It showed a baseball scorecard of two teams, the Realists and Idealists. In each of the nine innings, the Realists had scored a run or two, while the Idealists had been shut out. Yet the final score was Realists 0, Idealists 2. It made a good laugh all the better knowing who posted the cartoon on his door.

"Hello, Mr. Whitney," said Tonsor as he neared his office. I was beginning to learn his tone of voice, that note of deliberation characteristic of his greeting. It was as though he awaited the unwrapping of a pearl. As he flopped his satchel down on the desk, I sat briefly to tell him about my upcoming trip to Washington, DC. I could tell that he was genuinely pleased for me, as I had won first place in a national essay contest on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

"Do not become corrupted by the Imperial City," he admonished me. "It's where scholars go to die. As for the conservative movement -- well, it died when it put on a blue suit and went to Washington."[1]

Now that -- that last sentence -- provides yet another illustration of how Tonsor tossed out seemingly effortless aperรงus that left me vexed. I was under the impression that conservatives were enjoying their heyday with Ronald Reagan in the White House. Before I could ask for elaboration, he returned to the matter at hand, and said that we could arrange to discuss the material in History 416 that I'd miss. That was considerate of him -- not every professor was so accommodating.

On my way out the door, I remarked with a smirk that Cassirer's Philosophy of the Enlightenment was as tough as its billing.

With an arch smile and a waggle of the head, Tonsor replied, "Among intellectual histories of the Enlightenment, it's Moby Dick. There are easier whales to harpoon, but they wouldn't be as much fun to pursue."


[1] Even though he enjoyed access to the art and to the Library of Congress, Tonsor did not particularly care for Washington, DC. In one of his letters he wrote upon his return from a two-week stint in DC, "I am so pleased to be home. Washington is not my place ... however kind everyone was to me." Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, June 16, 1980, p. 1; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.

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