How Historians Repeat Themselves

Monday, June 29, 2009

Hoover senior fellow Norman M. Naimark spoke January 29 at Stanford University on “Passing the Torch: Thoughts about History, Teaching, and Mentorship.” Here are highlights of his talk.

Thank you for the invitation to speak today. It gave me a chance to think about an aspect of teaching and the university that is very important to me and consumes a good deal of my time and energy: mentoring. Mentoring has a particularly intergenerational quality about it. It is widespread in all academic disciplines and indeed outside the university in industry, society, and human communities of all kinds, but I think there is something particularly compelling about the link between the processes of mentoring and the teaching of history.

The concept of mentoring comes from Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus, king of Ithaca, goes off to fight the Trojan wars and leaves his young son, Telemachus, in the care of his old friend who is named Mentor. Mentor is to serve as counselor and teacher to the young man, not in the formal sense of a tutor but rather to help Telemachus in his yearnings to find his father and the meaning of his position in life. On the one hand, Mentor tries to build Telemachus’s confidence in himself and his courage; on the other, he is able to do this by building a relationship with the young man based on trust and affection.

This first Mentor set a standard for all the rest. To begin with, he did not tell the young man what to do but rather identified ways in which his pupil would find the appropriate paths himself.

Take the following quote about mentoring from Stanford Medical School professor Stanley Falkow, describing his research in the Stanford Report: “You listen carefully to a student and let them finish talking it out. And then you tell them to do what they said they wanted to do. And then they think you are very wise. I might ask them, ‘How long are you going to do this?’ if I’m not convinced, but I would let them do it.”

The prototype Mentor also built confidence and courage in his protégé by establishing a relationship based on trust and affection.

Here I take from my own experiences with my own mentor at Stanford, Wayne S. Vucinich, the inaugural holder of the McDonnell Chair in East European Studies. He enjoyed talking to young people so much about his field that they were irresistibly drawn into his world of the Balkans. Mentoring by the likes of Uncle Wayne, as we called him, is about breaking down barriers of communication between the young and old and persuading the young that they can indeed do it, that they have it in them, and that they can contribute, even if they are unsure.

In the university, almost everyone is a mentor of some kind. The more senior undergraduates are mentors to the more junior. Indeed, as an adviser of freshmen, I saw how my sophomore advising assistants also mentored the frosh. The graduate-student teaching assistants are mentors of the undergraduates. Faculty members mentor undergraduates and graduate students, and senior faculty mentor younger faculty. But I would like to focus on two mentoring relationships in particular: faculty to undergraduates and faculty to graduate students.


Mentoring undergraduates can take place in conjunction with a class or independent of class work. Once again, the most important thing is to establish trust and then to find ways to encourage young people to follow their own lights. The joys of this relationship are many. Especially if the relationships with students are established when they are freshmen, one gets the pleasure of seeing high school students become college students, youngsters growing up. Undergraduates come in as kids and become young adults—it’s a biological law. You share in their struggles with choosing majors and settling on possible career paths and even in the more personal moments: the breakups with boyfriends and girlfriends and the episodically difficult struggles with parents over career paths. Then you meet the parents at graduation, a moving and fascinating moment in many cases.

The first Mentor, as told in the Odyssey, did not tell his protégé what to do. Rather, he identified ways in which the pupil would find the appropriate paths himself.

For a variety of reasons, friendships with undergraduates often do not last long beyond graduation, although there have been some wonderful and notable exceptions in my time at Stanford. But I think the real joy of mentoring undergraduates is the process itself, not necessarily the long term.

Mentoring graduate students is different because most of the relationships formed with grad students last a lifetime. First of all, they are in your field—and most of us are specialists—so in training new generations of specialists we tend to have plenty of opportunities, at conferences and symposia, to see our former students and to continue having mentoring relationships with them. There are practical ties between mentors and their students, who need constant advice about the profession, letters of recommendation for grants and tenure, and advice about jobs and advancement. There is a sense of family with one’s students, and one of my primary mentoring tasks, as I see it, is to encourage former graduate students, who may not have known one another in school, to accept this invented family and to help and mentor each other.

Uncle Wayne (Professor Vucinich) was a genius at this. His students were an extended family, the Yugoslav zadruga. When he died four years ago, all his nephews and nieces from universities all over the country gathered at the memorial service here on campus to celebrate his life. I never truly understood the sheer pleasure he took in all of us until I, too, began to realize the satisfaction of seeing my former students make careers of their own and succeed in ways that gave them fulfillment and joy.

Mentoring graduate students is crucial to their education. Where trust is developed, criticism is more easily accepted, and training graduate students is nothing if not constant critical evaluation of their work. You need to encourage them, give them confidence, and (as Falkow said) allow them their own initiative, but somehow you also have to let them know they can be better scholars, just as you yourself got better—at least, we hope so! There is a lot of tutorial work in our teaching of graduate students, which is also a form of mentoring when done properly.


How does history fit in with mentoring? Let’s begin with two important themes.

First, historians teach an appreciation for studying the past. Few of us believe the old adage by Santayana that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. To the contrary: we never repeat exactly the same mistakes in the same way. Moreover, studying history does not necessarily introduce righteousness among nations; in fact, sometimes the opposite occurs. We’re still going to make poor decisions and get into terrible wars. But history does provide crucial food for thought in making decisions and leading one’s life, a chance to be better prepared.

Undergraduates come in as kids and become young adults—it’s a biological law.

History is a “moral science” that allows us to re-create a moral universe. As my colleague and friend (and sometimes mentor) Jim Sheehan writes: “Our histories do not teach us what moral judgments to make, but they do pose, illustrate, and illuminate moral questions by making us see things as they are. By telling stories about the moral choices men and women must confront and by showing the implications of these choices, history gives us problems to think about.” In this sense, it also teaches a kind of modesty and humility that is often lacking in the other human sciences.

The second aspect of the discipline that we try to impart to undergraduates, especially history majors, but most fundamentally to graduate students, is that history is how you make it. It’s not some abstract, objective chronicle of past events and actions, nor can it be. It is a living science that links the past with the present in an animated conversation, to use the imagery of the famous British historian of Soviet Russia, E. H. Carr. In doing history, one is engaged in a creative act of research and writing. But there are also rules—rules of evidence, rules of exposition, rules of logic—that need to be learned, all of which require a strong dose of common sense and intellectual rigor.

Mentoring graduate students (one’s future colleagues) requires giving them confidence, allowing them their own initiative, and letting them know they can become better scholars.

Studying history and creating history are thus worthy pursuits. And this is where the mentoring comes in.

These days, undergraduates tend to come to the university feeling as if they know history. They had it “in school,” often a deadened version, and are interested in new and different disciplines. Their mentors at the university must recognize that many students have had an uninspiring secondary education that took the joy out of learning. History in particular was frequently presented as the chronicle of a dead past, rather than the living conversation between the past and present described above. “Western Civ” classes once tried to bring history alive, but now there is no Western Civ requirement at Stanford; historians have to work harder to get students into their classrooms. One does not have to convince students to take economics—in fact, the economics department is swamped in students—or the ostensibly more relevant “international relations.” The importance and intrinsic interest of the “moral sciences” is a harder sell.

We also have to mentor the creative act of making history at the undergraduate level, which is hard to convey in larger classes (it is the core of the honors program). History is not hard per se, but it can be overwhelming. The historian’s craft can be taught to almost any serious student, but at the same time it is difficult to get past the huge literature on virtually every subject. This can be daunting for graduate students, who are just starting their lives as professional historians. It is no accident that historians tend to get better with age, do their best work later rather than earlier, and continue to mature as scholars for as long as they are productive.


Few young people think of becoming professional historians, even if they enjoy reading and studying history. My five-year-old thinks about being a Power Ranger or a fireman; when I was a child, we were all going to be cowboys or baseball players. It used to be that virtually every young college student was going to be a doctor or a lawyer; today, we also have prospective consultants, high-tech engineers, and entrepreneurs. Our job is to convince undergraduates that there is no magic to becoming a historian, but there is magic in being one. My own case is probably typical: I had no clear idea what I wanted to do when I arrived at college. Uncle Wayne said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school and be a historian?” I was stunned. The idea had never occurred to me. But I trusted him and I thought, “I might enjoy that.” In the end, what Professor Vucinich gave me was the courage to try—and the fit ended up being perfect.

Graduate students, who have made their choices, still require a lot of mentoring. It’s not as easy as you might think to pass the torch. I remember well a certain neuroticism and deep insecurity in the graduate student outlook: you’re grown up and yet you’re not. The faculty all seem brilliant: they’ve read everything, and they’ve written all these books, while you’re having a terrible time finishing your seminar paper. How can there be 300,000 books about the French Revolution? Even as a veteran historian, I am still overwhelmed by all the books I’ve never read, and will never be able to read, on my own narrow subject. The past is huge, endless.

As a mentor I find myself talking, schmoozing, spending an inordinate amount of time at lunch and over coffee with grad students telling stories about my own insecurities, about the rough moments in my own career, trying to break down that feeling graduate students have that they know nothing and we know everything. This is, indeed, far from the truth. Not only that, they have what we more experienced teachers don’t—the perspective of the new. Students not only have something to contribute, but they need to be reassured that they can do it better than those who have gone before. Mentoring is breaking that barrier.

It is no accident that historians tend to get better with age, do their best work later rather than earlier, and continue to mature as scholars for as long as they are productive.

Let me conclude with an exchange I often have with graduate students and former students when they ask for recommendations for grants, jobs, better jobs, tenure, promotions, more grants, and so on. They often ask very apologetically and sheepishly. I always tell them that I’ll be glad to help, in good part because my mentors—like Professor Vucinich—constantly wrote for me, and they did it because they knew I would write for my students, and I know that my students will write for theirs. The muse of history, Clio, inspires us all. And the story of Mentor is one that is repeated over the generations.