University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The History Class, 1890-1990; Part III, The History Class, 1950-1975

Volume XXXXI  · 1989-1990
The History Class: 1890-1990 
Part III: The History Class—1950-1975
--AN UNBIASED OBSERVER (Bernard N. Schilling, 1976.) 

Several previous summaries have been made drawing together essential facts concerning the origin, makeup, and principles of this society. After intervals of twenty-five, forty, and finally about sixty years, brief accounts were written which are now in the archives. Since the last of these, by the then retiring president, Mrs. Robert Wickes, was drawn up over twenty-five years ago, it would seem proper to review events of the last quarter century, and so bring the record near to our present time. We need not repeat details of founding in October 1890, or list again names, dates, papers, and other routine matters preserved elsewhere. But we should look once again at the membership and its essential activities, if we are to determine how well the Class has maintained its fine tradition of serious work toward an intellectual ideal.

In 1950 there were just twenty-one members, the exact number of those who met to form the original company. In composition, however, and rapidity of turnover, changes had taken place as Rochester itself and its University were transformed in the course of time. Whereas the founders had come largely from old Rochester families, intimately known to each other, with similar interests, even living in the same neighborhood, by 1950 the personnel was inevitably more varied, reflecting the greater complexity and variety of the city's life and development. The University in particular became more conspicuous, until more than a third of the members (marked with * below) showed connection with some aspect of this growing institution.

(Members in 1950-1951: Mrs. Bentley, Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Dodge, Mrs. Schilling*, Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Hersey*, Mrs. Hodge*, Mrs. Diez*, Miss Huntington, Miss Little, Mrs. MacLean*, Miss Montgomery, Mrs. Parker, Mrs. Roby, Mrs. Russell*, Mrs. Van Deusen*, Mrs. Wickes, Miss Withington*, Mrs. Will, Mrs. Bush, Mrs. Rodgers.)

By 1965, there were eighteen members, just half of whom represented the University faculty or administration. The number eighteen maintained itself with some fluctuation until recent years, when a smaller group seems adequate. The Class stands now in 1976 at fifteen, of whom only four however were on the roster twenty-five years ago.

(Members in 1975-1976: Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Collins*, Mrs. Diez*, Mrs. France*, Mrs. Gramlich, Mrs. Griswold, Mrs. Hickman, Mrs. Johnson*, Mrs. MacLean*, Mrs. Parker, Mrs. Parks, Mrs. Schilling*, Mrs. Snell*, Mrs. Van Deusen*, Mrs. Wesson.)

But more important is the work being done by the membership, whatever its numbers or composition. For the History Class was remarkable right from its very title: it studiously avoided calling itself a "club." While there is no trace of Puritanism in its social, entertainment side, this is traditionally a Class, not a club, and to be what it should be, it must keep to its educational character. If it is a "Class," then it exists for teaching and learning, the teaching done by individuals who learn from each other. It must therefore have a subject matter of interest and importance, a program of study carefully organized, with lectures or papers assigned according to a long-range plan that is consistently adhered to by people who are equipped to carry it out. A review of recent activities will prove that the History Class as presently constituted has shown that it can and does live up to the austere demands of its tradition.

At first the company had "American" in its title, but after eleven years this word was omitted, leaving since 1901, only "The History Class" to show the breadth and scope of its aim. Exclusive study of America gave way to England, France, Italy, Russia, and other countries of Europe, which in the course of time and contemporary change were enlarged to Latin America and Asia. For some years the group had met every two weeks at 3 in the afternoon from October to May, but again changing times and circumstances compelled the less taxing schedule of one meeting a month. The current practice is to meet seven times from October to May, omitting January, each at the home of a different hostess, with six papers being delivered. The seventh session in May is given to plans for the following year, ending in a cocktail reception for husbands.

If we glance now at the subjects assigned and the papers read since China and other Asian countries came within range, we see how far the Class has travelled "in the realms of gold" indeed, since its inception eighty-six years ago.

The study of China began in 1946-47 and continued for three years, investigating the dynasties, the conquerors, and especially the religion, art, and culture of that enormous country. Then came, for obvious reasons at the time, Communism in Russia and the Far East, to be followed after two years by India, aspects of whose history, culture, and modern political problems created by independence and rivalry with Pakistan, took up the program for three years. From there the Middle East came into view, 1954-1956, and proceeding back westward in a sense, North Africa for one year, and Africa as a whole for a run of four years. A similar period, 1961 to 1965, covered Latin America, from general views of cultural, political, international relations to concentration on individual countries. Similarly, study of Southeast Asia, 1965 to 1968, began with general surveys, ending in a closer look at single nations, their history and current problems.

When in 1968 the program committee decided to review "The Racial Composition of American Society," 1968 to 1970, it marked the first time in more than twenty years that the Class had returned to its original interest in America and things American. But not for long, as with characteristic energy, it was decided to explore the history of great cities, beginning in the ancient Mediterranean with Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Rome. This theme, beginning in 1970, continues to hold present attention and has yielded some of the most interesting papers ever presented. "Planned Cities" (Amsterdam and Bath), "Trade Cities" (Cologne and Marseilles), "Medieval," "Religious and Political," "Renaissance," and "Communist Cities" (Prague and Moscow) have come into review, while under the rubric of "Capital Cities," Paris and London have had the advantage of being presented by persons who had actually lived there for a period of time.

The Class found itself now so engrossed that members were unwilling to give up their productive theme and proceeded in 1974-1975 to explore "Lost Cities" starting once more in the Mediterranean. Much was learned of the great pioneer archaeologists Schliemann and Evans, as study continued into "Lost Civilizations" represented by Thebes and Babylon in ancient times, along with the Mayan centers Tikal and Palenque, ending with the Mexican Teotihuacán and Tenochtitlán. In 1976-1977 it is hoped to continue with "Lost Cities" of the Near and Far East as well as South America, including Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu in all its grandeur.

Thus with undiminished momentum the History Class goes forward in the happy knowledge that it pursues an aim which, like the old tale in Scandinavian mythology, can never come to an end nor ever grow uninteresting.

Looking back on these activities, one is struck by the imagination and courage displayed, first in the conception, then in the actual fulfillment of a plan of study so ambitious. But these are the virtues, are they not, of the enthusiastic amateur, who, happy in being accountable only to the desire to know, and having nothing to prove save how interesting the study of history can be, serenely tries to do the impossible with no fear of defeat. So the History Class may go on doing what otherwise cannot be done, meanwhile greatly enriching the mind and spirit of its members.


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