James A. Blaisdell

A Message from the Chair of the History Department to Majors in the Class of 2020

Professor Dubrulle (lower right) poses with most of his suitemates shortly after they graduated from Pomona College.

Professor Hugh Dubrulle, chair of the History Department, sent the following message to the majors in that department who will graduate this year.

Dear History majors in the Class of 2020,

Every year at the senior dinner, the department chair makes a few remarks to the graduands majoring in History and American Studies. The chair usually issues a few pleasantries, tells the students how much the department will miss them, asks them to stay in touch, and reminds them that in the future the faculty stands ready to help them in any way possible. In other words, once a history major at Saint Anselm College, always a history major.

This year, of course, we’ve had to cancel the dinner in the same way that we’ve had to cancel so many other things. I realize that anything I write online is a poor substitute for a senior dinner where you can socialize with your favorite professors and fellow seniors. But I’d feel negligent if I didn’t issue a heartfelt farewell of some sort to the history majors from the Class of 2020.

Long ago, I received my BA in History from Pomona College. There are three things that every alum of that college shares: a mystical reverence for the number 47; a perverse pride in our mascot, Cecil Sagehen (alums frequently punctuate observations on social media with “Chirp! Chirp!”); and a clear recollection of the inscriptions on the college gates that flank North College Avenue. My attitude to each element of this triad varies. Frankly, I’ve grown tired of the “Mystery of 47” which is fatuous, and I die a little when yet another alum posts on the Facebook alumni page, “Hey, I was at the meat counter in the supermarket, and I got ticket number 47!” As for Cecil Sagehen, he’s certainly distinct if a bit ridiculous. Of the three, it’s the inscriptions on the gates that seem most worthy of attention (and by the way, these gates—surprise, surprise—are far smaller than the ones at Saint Anselm College).

One side of Pomona College’s gates at the intersection of North College Ave. and 6th St. (ca. 1930).

The gates were erected in 1914 when James A. Blaisdell was the college president, and he provided the text for the inscriptions. On one gate is written:

Let only the eager, thoughtful and reverent enter here.

On the other, the inscription reads:

They only are loyal to this college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind.

Years later, Blaisdell admitted to one of his successors that the first quote was “a trifle too prohibitive,” and that he should have left out the word “only.” That was a good insight. I know that when I first marched through the gates as an 18 year old (a rite of passage that all freshmen endure) I was certainly eager (perhaps in the wrong ways), moderately thoughtful on a good day, but not at all reverent. Blaisdell felt much less ambivalence about the second quote, claiming it was “exactly as I still would wish it.” It’s this latter inscription that I’d like you to keep in mind.

I know I speak for every professor in the History Department when I write that, at some point, we made a pledge to study history. Perhaps our attraction to the discipline began because we found it entertaining and engaging. But as we got older, we began to see that history is interesting. When I write “interesting,” I use it in the same sense as John Robert Seeley, author of The Expansion of England (1883), perhaps the most influential history book written in English during the 19th century. When he employed that word, Seeley did not signify “romantic, poetical, and surprising.” Instead, he meant something that “affects our interests, which closely concerns us and is deeply important to us.” History, he intimated, provides special insights into the past, the present, and the relationship between the two.

History is truly interesting because it helps us recognize the degree to which we are surrounded and thus limited by the past. As the text on the department website asserts (and we must thank Professor Pajakowski for these lines), “We live in the shadow of the thoughts and actions of those who lived before us. To ignore this legacy is to live a sort of collective amnesia.” However, studying history also includes realizing that we are not imprisoned by the acts of previous generations; by studying past societies we can understand values that differ from our own and imagine alternatives to the world in which we live. This immersion in the experiences of the past (as well as the methods we use to interpret that past) enhances one’s judgment of people, places, and things today.

Having made our pledge, it was with these riches that we left college and later graduate school. We thought they were so important that we decided to become academic historians and devoted our professional lives to sharing them with others. You must have found history significant because you also devoted much of your time here over four years to this discipline. Now that you are graduating, we ask you to do as we did—to bear your added riches as a trust for the people you will serve in your own careers.

If you majored in Secondary Education and are bound for a job teaching history in high school, this responsibility should be fairly clear. But even if you are not going to be a teacher, there are still important ways you can bear this trust in service to your country, your work, and your community.

The foregoing probably sounds portentous. After all, I’ve taken my keynote from an inscription that appears on a gate, and such inscriptions are invariably solemn and pompous. And I’ve made the study of history sound like a sacred inheritance passed from one generation to the next (which, if you were paying attention in some of my classes, will remind you of Edmund Burke’s arguments in Reflections on the Revolution in France). Still, the ideas expressed in Blaisdell’s quote are no less true for all that.

After all, take a look around you. Is the world doing so well these days that it has no need of the historical understanding as well as the analytical and expository skills you obtained in college? Can it really dispense with the riches you acquired during your four years?

Although the department chair repeats the following sentiments every year at the senior dinner, they are still sincere. The department will miss you, and we ask that you stay in touch. We will always be happy to hear from you. If you drop by, even in the midst of a busy day, we will make time to speak to you because it gives us joy. If you need references or any other assistance, do not hesitate to call on us because we are happy to help. After all, we share a common understanding that history, as Seeley put it, is interesting; we are all in this together.

Best wishes,