What Horace B. Woodworth tells us about the Academia today
Next week is the 45th Annual Northern Great Plains History Conference. Since the mid-1960s when a group of faculty at the University of North Dakota founded the conference, it has roamed universities across Northern Plains and assembled scholars from across the region. My paper for this years conference will look at the career of Horace B. Woodworth. He featured prominently in the first chapter of my history of the Department of History here at UND and is the topic of an article that I submitted to North Dakota History (but have strangely heard nothing about for the past two years; I am confident that this means that publication is imminent.)
I’ve blogged on Mr. Woodworth before, but today, I want to suggest that his career might have something to offer the academy today. Over the past few years there has been a flurry of books suggesting that the organization of the modern American University is somehow broken. Louis Menand’s recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (blogged here) and Mark Taylor’s, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming our Colleges and Universities have both rooted the current (and typically ill-defined) problems with the university in growth of professionalization of the disciplines and the self-serving and exclusionary rhetoric that come to ossify the departmental/disciplinary mode of university organization. Both book (and numerous others) also saw fundamental changes in the American university as tied to changes in the organization of institutions; the traditional link between departments and disciplines must be weakened and replaced with a more integrated structure that better represents the dynamic realities of the modern workplace. In fact, as recently as last week, the president of the University of Chicago offered a similar argument noting the tensions between the need for individuals to fill highly specialized entry level positions and the need to produce people who can thrive in the higher reaches of the modern economy through their ability to manipulate and integrate abstract ideas.
What can Horace B. Woodworth teach us about these critiques? When he came to the University of North Dakota in 1885, he had degrees from Dartmouth and Hartford Theological Seminary and had worked as a teacher, headmaster of private schools, a preacher and a farmer. His first post was as Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy. By 1888, Woodworth was the Chair of Didactics, Mental and Moral Sciences, and the Principal of the Normal Department. In 1890, he left the Normal Department and assumed the title Professor of Mental and Moral Science and History. By the time he retired from the University in 1904, his title was simply Professor of History.
Such a dynamic career would be impossible today, of course, as the barriers between disciplines (particularly the sciences and the humanities) are virtually insurmountable. At the same time, Woodworth’s career path reflects a response to pressures produced both within and outside of the institution. The emergence of professional disciplines with more clearly defined professional standards guided Woodworth to a great specialization in teaching and in his research. This ultimately culminated in the publication of his book, The Government of the People of the State of North Dakota in 1895.
While I understand that today universities are far more complex institutions than they were in the time of Woodworth and the pressures of tenure, increasingly narrow disciplinary training, and bureaucratic ossification constrain career paths for most academics, it is nevertheless true that our 19th century predecessors were capable of dynamic changes over the course of their academic careers. As another example was someone like William F. Allen at the University of Wisconsin where he served as the Professor of Latin and Roman History; Allen was another New Englander trained as a Classicist at Harvard, Berlin, and Göttingen, but his most important contribution to academic life was his work editing Slave Songs in the United States.
The careers of individuals like Allen and Woodworth do not provide a template for a modern scholar to follow, but certainly demonstrate that the disciplinary organization in which we now reside (quite comfortably) is not immutable. In fact, the response of these early faculty to tensions from outside and within their institutions offers a dynamic model for university faculty today. University faculty should be engaged in their environment and our training offers us unique opportunities to act in dynamic ways that not only can improve the educational life of our institution, but also carve out and form the basis for new disciplines, fields of study, and knowledge. Change is not only possible, but good.