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Merle Curti (1897–1996)

A leading U.S. historian, Merle Curti studied the complex relationship of education to democratic values and to capitalist institutions. Born in Nebraska, he went to Harvard for his B.A. and stayed to complete his Ph.D. He worked with both Frederick Jackson Turner and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. During Curti's years as a graduate student, he became acquainted with Charles Beard, the most influential American historian between 1910 and the 1940s. Around 1910 Beard had joined with James Harvey Robinson and Carl Becker to call for a "New History." These three believed that historians should be aware of the ways in which they constructed narratives: they should be aware that their narratives either protected the status quo or worked to create a better future.

Curti was an enthusiastic practitioner of the "New History." He rapidly published three books–The American Peace Crusade, 1815–1860 (1929), Bryan and World Peace (1931), and Peace or War: The American Struggle, 1636–1936 (1936)–that were designed to strengthen the peace movement in the United States. Beard admired Curti's scholarship and enlisted him to participate in the Commission on the Social Sciences created by the American Historical Association. The purpose of this commission was to improve the teaching of history at the high school and college levels. Curti was asked to write volume ten of the Report of the American Historical Association's Committee on the Social Studies in the School. This book, The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935), analyzed the educational philosophy of a group of men from the colonial period onward, concluding with John Dewey. Curti focused on whether the educational ideas of these men encouraged or discouraged the development of democracy. Like his mentors, Charles Beard and John Dewey, Curti argued that capitalism, with its emphasis on competition and with its hierarchical organization, was a threat to democracy. He shared Dewey's hope that schools could provide an alternative environment of cooperation and equality that would strengthen democracy in the United States. Curti's next book, The Great Mr. Locke: America's Philosopher, 1783–1861 (1937), was another expression of his interest in educational philosophy.

Beard also enlisted Curti to provide leadership for a project of the Social Science Research Council of the American Historical Association. This project resulted in a group of essays called Theory and Practice in Historical Study: A Report of the Committee on Historiography (1946). Known in the history profession as Bulletin 54, this volume would, in the minds of Beard and Curti, help create a consensus among historians in the 1940s that accepted the outlook of the "New History." During this decade, however, the report received more criticism than support. Beard, Dewey, and Curti were isolationists. Many intellectuals believed in 1918 that American participation in World War I had been a mistake. By the end of the 1930s, numerous scholars were embracing internationalism and wanted the United States to participate in World War II. These pro-war historians believed that the "New History" encouraged a position of moral relativism that made it difficult to condemn the evils of totalitarianism and to support the traditions of liberty in the United States and England. The pro-war historians also argued that Beard, Dewey, and Curti were representatives for a "conflict" school of historical writing. Their emphasis on a conflict between capitalism and democracy would, according to a new school of "consensus" historians, divide the nation in wartime. The "consensus" historians who became dominant in the 1950s argued that there was no conflict between capitalism and democracy.

At the same time Curti experienced this professional political defeat, he experienced success in helping to establish intellectual history as a topic to be taught in history departments. In 1943 he had published an intellectual history of the United States and its colonial past, The Growth of American Thought. This book won a Pulitzer Prize, and a poll of historians in 1950 voted it the most important contribution to history between 1936 and 1950. It expressed Curti's belief that ideas should be rooted in social history. It was a challenge to the approach to the history of ideas represented by Arthur Lovejoy and the Journal of the History of Ideas. Curti criticized Lovejoy for discussing ideas as if they were autonomous.

After teaching at Smith College, Curti moved to Teachers College of Columbia University and then to the University of Wisconsin in 1942. At Columbia he had directed the work of Richard Hofstadter, who became a leader in the new field of intellectual history. Under Curti's leadership, the University of Wisconsin was probably the most important center in the 1940s and 1950s for the study of the intellectual history of the United States. Several of Curti's first students at Wisconsin–John Higham, Warren Susman, and David W. Noble–became, like Hofstadter, leaders in the new field.

Curti continued to publish steadily, producing eight more books after 1946. The most important of these was The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier County (1959). Here he tested the frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner by a detailed analysis of census materials.


CURTI, MERLE. 1943. The Growth of American Thought. New York and London: Harper and Brothers.

CURTI, MERLE. 1946. The Roots of American Loyalty. New York: Columbia University Press.

CURTI, MERLE. 1954. Prelude to Point Four: American Technical Missions Overseas, 1838–1938. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

CURTI, MERLE. 1955. Probing Our Past. New York: Harper.

CURTI, MERLE. 1956. American Paradox: The Conflict Between Thought and Action. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

CURTI, MERLE. 1959. The Making of an American Community: A Case Study of Democracy in a Frontier Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

CURTI, MERLE. 1963. American Philanthropy Abroad: A History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

CURTI, MERLE. 1980. Human Nature in American Thought: A History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

CURTI, MERLE. Collected Papers. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

CURTI, MERLE, and CARSTENSEN, VERSON. 1949. The University of Wisconsin: A History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

CURTI, MERLE, and NASH, RODERICK. 1965. Philanthropy in the Shaping of American Higher Education. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

NOVICK, PETER. 1988. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

SKOTHEIM, ROBERT A. 1966. American Intellectual Histories and Historians. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


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