Ohio History Journal

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Associate Professor of History, Western Reserve University

History-writing has no prouder tradition than the pretentious

"seminar" for graduate students, and yet in far too many cases it

has no rival for stuffiness and ineptitude. That the seminar has

survived and is in no immediate danger of extinction is not due to

the guiding principles of Ranke or Herbert B. Adams, but rather

because it serves as a convenient center for the dissemination of

bibliographical information, superficial literary mechanics, and the

proper format for dissertations. Student reports, in the absence of

really meaningful criteria, tend to be painfully dull and unen-

lightening. Many professors, gifted with a flair for "human inter-

est" stories, may avoid complete boredom, but unfortunately they

are not always equally successful in escaping sterility. Graduate

professors enjoy the immortality that comes with the publishing

successes of able students, but it is not at all clear that these books

stem from the scientific methods learned in the seminar room. The

writer is too aware of the perplexities involved in the seminar

method for him to approach this subject with anything but a humble


One important step toward revitalizing the seminar is to make

the seminar problems real and free from any suggestion of mere

antiquarianism. The writer recalls one seminar, which was given

by a well-known professor, which gave successive generations the

same problems: "Did Patrick Henry really say 'Give me liberty or

give me death'?" and "Who burnt Columbia, South Carolina?" A

colleague in European history echoed this technique in "Who burnt

Magdeburg?" and "Did Napoleon burn Moscow?" The answer had

become stereotyped, and one could scarcely hope as a graduate

student to add anything to a fresh consideration of the subject. The


1 This paper is written largely in response to a gracious letter from the editor

of the Quarterly; after noting the various articles accepted from my seminar students at

Western Reserve, he has requested that I discuss my seminar methods-a suggestion

that my vanity could not withstand.