So I Became a Historian—Now I’m Telling How It Worked OutHistorians/History
tags: education, history crisis
Vaughn Davis Bornet’s Ph.D. is from Stanford University (1951), the B.A. and M.A. (1939, 1940) are from Emory University, the year 1941 was at University of Georgia. Author of over a dozen books and scores of articles and essays, he has been writing articles frequently in recent years on the internet’s History News Network. He holds “Distinguished” awards from American Heart Association and Freedoms Foundation. He taught at University of Miami, 1946-48, and Southern Oregon College, 1963-80. He was a staff member at The RAND Corporation in the 1960s. A Commander in the Naval Reserves, his active duty was 1941 to 1946. His 2016 books Lovers in Wartime, 1944 to 1945 and another, Happy Travel Diaries, 1925 to 1933 (both Amazon) are recent. His latest is Seeking New Knowledge: A Research Historian’s Rewarding Career (Bornet Books). He lives, apparently only semi-retired, in Ashland, Oregon.
Although what has happened to history as a major is being disputed as I write, it is clear enough that “something is going on.” This essay is written entirely for an audience currently puzzled about “what to major in.” Because the author majored in history at three universities way back when (Emory, UGA, and Stanford), he has something to say on the subject. He not only survived as a history major, he flourished. Now 101, and obviously very active, he weighs here how it has been all these years to face life as a history major under seven important employers. Read away!
The idea here is for me to tell you, the Reader, about my long preparation for a life in history—and how it worked out. I intend to be candid, truthful even when it hurts, and now and then just a bit prideful. I expect you to emerge 10 percent better prepared to stick with (or abandon) your decision to become a history major.
My opinion is, you see, that a totally informal, conversational, recitation about the interaction between my history major and my life will be a good way for many a student to pass the time. I do know one thing for sure: History as subject matter has been far more than relevant to what happened to me as I have lived on to over 101 years of age. That’s right: born October 10, 1917.
I don’t believe I took any history courses in my two high schools in the vicinity of Philadelphia. In that jr/sr year I did read several books akin to history, by Roy Chapman Adams, Lincoln Steffens, David Fairchild and others, but I didn’t know that.
Now we’re in college (Emory University, on a nice scholarship). Sigma Chi didn’t seem to care what I majored in, so OK. Right off the bat in the first quarter was a required history course, “Europe Since 1500,” I think. It was competing with half course, Slide Rule (where I made 100) and Spanish (which I flunked, making three A’s at the same time). I have to say I was humiliated, so at year’s end I dropped my engineering major. Soon I decided to major in journalism where there were more A’s, and a C (barely), in accounting. Soon it was pre-law, only because in that major, I was free to take just about anything I wanted—and I wanted to explore the curriculum. Surely a little of this sounds familiar to you. Right? What about history?
Well, there were all kinds of Southern history courses; all were entrancing and appealing to the mostly native Georgians dominating the class. English history was exotic. In fact, I liked those history courses and especially the term papers that were always required.
I had no idea at the time that the maybe eight term papers I wrote in 1936-39 were conditioning me for a life of research! Yes, it’s true. Footnotes, ibid., op. cit. and Bibliography were infiltrating my cosmos and I was evolving deep down inside, whether I knew it or not.
But history didn’t have a monopoly on my life at the time. I pitched baseball to five victories in a row in class competition. Though offered a tennis scholarship at Duke University, my father turned it down. I loved abnormal psychology. Three law courses: law of the press, constitutional law, and international law, using that Law Library, skewed me toward a legal career.
Philosophy, and a course in logic were exciting. Oh: I should mention elective Bible – its history, only. At the end came an Honors assignment to study every aspect of the New South and be examined. Lots of history (mostly Southern).
That summer after finishing Honors with six other graduates who stood with me in Glenn Memorial Church, a letter came from the history professors with the second of 12 scholarships I was going to get—with and without application. They were buying me!It was summer, 1939. I put aside those law books (secondhand from Gainesville, Florida), and returned to Emory for a Masters Degree, taking anything historical that I wanted, doing any thesis – so long as it was historical (Royal Government in Colonial Georgia with a sophisticated title, rooted in really original sources). I was entranced with 17th century England. And, for a time, Ancient Greece and Rome…. Anthony and Cleopatra somehow caught my full attention. And why not?
Now, the powers that be maneuvered a full year history grant at the University of Georgia under a very productive senior faculty member. But he wasn’t there! Anyway, I continued to learn much too much about The South. Whoa.
World War II was coming for the United States, we wise ones thought in spring 1941, so I took up weightlifting and signed up with a recruiter for something military. Given the chance, I walked out on the Marines, and on September 25 I was called to active duty in a secret Intelligence unit of the Navy that seemed delighted with my history major. (It’s hard to believe they insisted that their recruits be “a third generation American.”) I was first an enlisted yeoman; then, luckily, an Ensign. Trained, two months, in “stuff.” I was the best, of many hundred, in the obstacle race, at NITSI-Naval Training School, Indoctrination, Quonset Pt, R.I. (Richard Nixon graduated in the next class, August, 1942.) As I lived that first military experience I admit that I don’t recall anybody asking, “What was your major in college?” I thought everybody would care.
My war career lasted over 4 years and involved major leadership on my part; nobody from the Admiral’s staff paid any attention to me; I ran the huge barracks at NAS Alameda alone, but with lots of Master at Arms and Compartment Cleaners working hard. I wrote a clean formal book on the subject of barracks administration, never published at 165 pages, when the Bomb ended the war unexpectedly. I wrote pamphlets spelling out things.
This barracks officer was popular! My history major was a howling success. Why? I could do almost anything that was needed! It turned out that I had taken a “paperwork skills” concentration; it was adaptable; I was literate; I was used to getting things done. At war’s end they wouldn’t let me out for four months because I was “valuable to the demobilization.” They offered me instant Lieutenant Commander if I would stay in. I didn’t, but later I decided to stick with the Reserves and put in 23 years total.
Postwar, I did advanced personnel work at Mercer University, for the Veteran’s Administration. I could authorize all kinds of remedial services and classes for the disabled. Next, I was employed on a 12 month contract at University of Miami, for 2 full years. I taught a heavy load of Western Civ and US Survey. It was time for Stanford, where I majored in history (with a political parties minor) and finished in June 1951. God bless the G.I. Bill.
I got three large grants after Stanford, doing tricky research and writing. My family was happy. Now (1953 to 1958) I pretty much founded the field of social welfare in American scholarship. A famous figure in San Francisco said I should fathom “The welfare needs of the people of California, and how they are being met” for the famed Commonwealth Club. They expected a big book. In three years they got one: California Social Welfare. Original, 108 tables, 100 pages of law, about 600 pages; some bullying of organizations public and private was part of “research.” Bodies I battled ranged from IRS to county and private units.
It was one of three books I now wrote on social welfare, having never studied a word on the subject or heard of it. Here were philanthropy and foundations; adoptions and birth control; charity; government programs of aid; religious units financing things. Prentice Hall went all out to produce the 5,000 handsome copies of California Social Welfare and they disappeared. Next I drafted, over and over, on a full year grant, Welfare in America, a beautiful book including photographs and poems. Oklahoma issued it twice.
Then after exciting New York City committee work with the American Heart Association, a weekend a month, I wrote for them the influential, The Heart Future. That newsworthy book made the news columns of the New York Times.
This yesterday history major was now to be interviewed in New York City repeatedly by organizations wanting me to work for them. I flew, from Santa Monica each time, but my collie said “no” to leaving the Pacific Ocean permanently. (There were offers, and quasi chances. One, possibly, was to direct the national FDR Infantile Paralysis unit. Rockefeller checked in with a research study. A mental health unit wanted me. All NYC.)
Groups stepped forward to help me along. I was the editor for things American at a great encyclopedia, but despised the working conditions. Then I was part of the scholarly Bureau of Medical Economic Research at the American Medical Association in Chicago. My financing during those years is of little interest but I do think it pertinent to mention that at one point when first enrolled for unemployment insurance in Chicago, I was referred to Midas Muffler, who wanted a head of “Research.” I wish I had ventured a visit, so I might say at this point something about “history and mufflers,” but I accepted a great alternative offer at that very moment.
We moved around, and we changed allegiances, but we survived. We were solvent. I was in a Marquis book already (and later another) but renown was in no way as important as contentment.
However, we must admit at this point that there had been for me a happy marriage in 1944 and the birth of two exceptional children. All three made their marks in life, in a very big way.
Now we turn to the tour-de-force: I became a general, final, editor for administration at The RAND Corporation, THE think tank, in Santa Monica. Enroute to the next step, I had aided three famous intellectuals prepare their books, for a year, half a year, a quarter of a year, fulltime in each case. Those books amounted to something! They were on FDR, Space, and thermonuclear war. I had to learn in a hurry and do a “perfect” job. Then I helped on a book about the cost of ulcers to society; planets in other systems; Laos; and more. That history major had built me for a think tank life.
I founded two oral history projects (RAND’s, Truman Library). Did maybe twenty long and really vital interviews at RAND. I also ghosted an important Harvey Mudd speech for the general manager. They used it to raise funds for some time, I heard.
Now came misfortune, as funding modifications unexpectedly demanded by the Air Force put me in a bind. How would I as a history major like to edit, henceforth, for engineering? I wouldn’t. The sciences? No, no. Sorry, children, I know you love the ocean and I love town hall and other things, but “it’s over.” Opportunities with gigantic corporations in “aerospace” got a no.
I had a few tough months. Interviewed by “history chairmen” I always heard “but you’re senior to many history faculty and certainly to me! Clark Kerr in two pages said his California system didn’t hire interdisciplinary people. I should have waited a decade; then they sure did!
Now in the mid 1960s, I rejoined academia. That is, I came in at “the top” of a rather small place: Professor of History and Social Science and Chairman, Social Sciences Division, at up and coming Southern Oregon College in Ashland on a twelve-month contract. I did it for seventeen years, most of it anyway. Directing and living with seven departments I found I had developed all kinds of—what shall we say?—maybe “talents.” I could DO things and avoid many hazards.
Sudden illness (a heart infarction) in time brought early retirement. It was the same thing that hit LBJ in 1956. Retirement? Really?
There isn’t much drama from 1980 to 2018. It’s been articles, and books all over the place, including four months (with my wife, Beth) working for Chapman Colleges World Campus Afloat. She was secretary to the cigar smoking ship’s dean. Lord!
It may be of some interest that during my years as Quasi-Dean teaching regular sessions and summers, I taught twenty-three different courses. It was necessary to fill slots when abruptly necessary.
There was membership for two decades on the United States Civil Rights Commission for Oregon. President of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Earlier, it was Sigma Chi; now it was fifty years and more in Ashland Rotary. Son was an Eagle Scout, daughter an ardent Girl Scout.
So: Let’s talk about “history” not quite in the erudite manner to be found now and then on the History News Network, but as, well, something I blundered or maneuvered into in the 1930s, ignored in the early 1940s, lived with solidly thereafter to 1951, and apparently got paid enough when affiliated with it to support a family—and to be happy—for several decades (actually, a lifetime).
I see nothing to be gained at this point in conversing about all that “who’s who” and “distinguished” stuff I picked up enroute, nor do I want to list books I wrote (eighteen) or helped others to write (maybe ten). Do take note of this plain fact: In my years as a historian I gave very little attention to the idea that I was “out of the ordinary” and said little about it—despite having endured and profited from nine (yes, nine!) years of university instruction, all told.
I would like to say here that “any history major could have done it.” But I really don’t know. I had handled major morning paper routes in high school; worked in my dad’s engineering office on ordinary stuff in summers; gotten little or no advice or “tutoring.” You could have. Yes.
I guess what I want to say is that one nice thing about majoring in history is that you may keep getting abler.
Back in the early 1930s I had no idea what I wanted to be. Taking history courses was “a way out.” It postponed decision. I kept getting more knowledgeable, yes, apparently smarter, but: I didn’t have to do anything about it. The world around me kept thinking I could DO whatever they had vaguely in mind. Sure enough, I mostly could. They didn’t seem concerned and neither did I.
Over a period of twenty-three years in the Naval Reserve, I was forced to take and teach all kinds of odd courses. Nothing to it. I always took them—yes, and over time, taught them, too. I can run things. Now, where did I learn that? I can DO things. How come? A 355 page book on SPACE requested by Congress was prepared by twenty geniuses in 1959. I was asked to precis it to a mere seventy-two pages. Yes!
Some are entranced at my editorship of American history, geography, and biography at the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I did do significant and important work there and liked the occupation of an editor.
I guess that those twenty-five books per “field” at Stanford on history, political parties, union labor, really seven fields in all, taught me something in addition to history, right? That is, “I can survive and sorta prevail in our world.” Why not? I did major in history!
I am published in quite a variety of learned journals, because a history major refuses to be sequestered. The Bornet bibliography goes to maybe 30 pages of fine print, 1933 to date.
So choose your major, you male or female student enrolled “somewhere.” There is a future family out there for you to create and support by being a teacher or professor—or lots of other things. Your father and mother are going to have to assume that you do know what you’re doing by majoring in history. Have a good life, next generation historian, if that’s what you decide you want—and life decides to let you become! Welcome to my academic fraternity, and good fortune attend ye, as you live from now to the very end of your highway.
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