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Wohl Remarks - In Memoriam: Evalyn A. Clark, 1903-2001

October 1, 2001

It may seem presumptuous of me to speak about what Evalyn Clark meant to me, when her contributions within and beyond the gates of Vassar were so significant. But, however important Evalyn was in terms of institutions and organizations, it was the way she touched and profoundly influenced individual lives, that we are primarily celebrating today.

Carl Degler has recently written that from his very first days in the Vassar History department he felt accepted as a teacher, scholar, and professional. (1) That was my experience too, and I have Evalyn to thank for it. From the beginning, amazingly, she listened to me, questioned me, shared her ideas with me. Without flattery, she conveyed quiet satisfaction and pleasure in my and her other young colleagues' professional development. And I was fortunate enough to be, in a very real sense, one of Evalyn's students. Several of you here today benefitted from Evalyn's teaching in the classroom: I benefitted from it immediately after her classes.

Several times a week, over coffee in the back room of Swift, I witnessed—or, rather, participated in—Evalyn's immediate reactions to the class she had just had. She tended to dwell on what she claimed had gone wrong, rather than all the things that had, we knew, gone right! In typically self-deprecating manner, she mulled over the class's handling of her assigned sources and whether she had been successful in getting her students, (to quote her), to "distinguish opinion from fact, to take into account different points of view, to judge the reliability of the author and to refrain from drawing conclusions unless the evidence warrants."(2) Had the discussion raised broader issues, such as, again to use her own words, "moral...values" and "humanistic value judgments"? (3) From these down-to-earth, conversational post mortems, I learned my craft. Evalyn also taught me the value of balancing compassion and concern for students with discipline and exacting standards. I also found inspirational the way Evalyn projected, after so many years in the classroom, her continuing commitment to, and excitement in, teaching. Can you picture her response if you had had the temerity to ask her if she had ever experienced "burn out"!

IF, in my early years at Vassar I observed Evalyn's teaching skills and techniques, so I did, again, quite recently. Every year Judy and I would bring Evalyn together with the English undergraduate who had won the Evalyn Clark Scholarship to study at Vassar. It was wonderful to witness how, when she was well into her nineties, Evalyn could quickly dispel the trepidation these young students naturally felt on first meeting her (they had heard of her formidable reputation and steely intellect). A few deft questions, some engaging reminiscences about what life was like for her generation of women scholars, and apprehensions vanished, replaced by fascination and delight! She retained, almost to the end, her sure teaching touch, her instinct for reaching out to young minds, her engaging enthusiasm for, and dedication to, serious ideas and ideals.

I have recently been going through some of Evalyn's papers and have gotten to know her better. (Did you know that she loved quantitative analysis? Her reports are peppered with it! She wrote that "The pursuit of the percentage" - - that is, statistics - - are "a keen intellectual pursuit" and one "I recommend as being better than a detective story." (4) Far more important, from her papers, a woman of remarkable courage and principle emerged. I already knew, of course, that Evalyn was a woman of strong convictions, strongly expressed. However, when I started at Vassar she was already in her sixties, an age at which it is somewhat easier to speak your mind. Now, from her papers, I discovered that as early as the '30s (when she was still in her thirties), she placed a higher premium on her principles than on her professional advancement. In 1935, Evalyn, then an untenured faculty member at Rutgers, had criticized the head of the German department for defending anti-Semitic acts in Nazi Germany - - and this before a committee of the university's trustees! "'But, Miss Clark,' asked one of the trustees, 'you do not mean to say that you have ever found any antipathy towards the Jewish race on this campus?' 'Yes', calmly replied Miss Clark, 'I have. For a long time there were no Jewish members of our faculty. Our former dean said she never would have a Jew on the faculty.'"(5) This forthright response captures for me much of the essential Evalyn - - her courage, integrity, probity.

I also learned from Evalyn's papers that in her early days at Vassar the US War Department's Military Intelligence Division asked her for an analysis of the top Nazis, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and others. Her detailed report was, of course, scholarly. But her personality still comes through: "One of the few Nazi leaders", she wrote of Ernst Bohle, "who finished his education and got his degree [. . . ] even though", she added, "it was a business degree". The (to quote her) "rudeness . . . arrogance" and "pretentious ignorance" of the Nazi leaders offended her. (6) More significant, her report burns with hatred of their cruel contempt for law and human life. Evalyn loathed fascism and indeed fanaticism of all stripes. She once confessed to me that she had considered leaving the 'States, she was so ashamed that it had not entered the war in 1939.

During the summers she spent in Europe, every year from 1927 to 1937, Evalyn witnessed what she called an "ostrich mentality" - - the apathy and escapism that had facilitated the Nazi cause. This coloured and molded her personal philosophy of education, a phrase, I suspect, she would have scorned and snorted at! She took it as her mission to educate (and I quote) "intellectual and moral leaders in a world in intellectual and spiritual conflict." A well-educated public, she hoped, will keep democracy strong and maintain what she termed the "democratic control of foreign policy". (7) To this end, Evalyn far preferred the "realist with vision" to idealists and visionaries, and this informed much of her teaching. In 1968 the year book, the Vassarion (dedicated, "with gratitude and admiration", to Evalyn and also to Carl Degler), quoted a comment Evalyn had made in class: "Good intentions and idealism are not enough, and they can be dangerous . . . . "; "moral confusion and loss of conviction", she insisted, could result from wild generalizations and simplistic analysis. She hated ideologues for she had observed them, and their pernicious effects, at first hand in Germany. She loved passionate discussion - - but only if it was based on scholarly objectivity, hard evidence, and cool reason. She was, in her modest way, a cold war warrior, working hard for rationalism, decency, and freedom of thought and expression.(8) And she produced generations of teachers dedicated to the same mission. In all this Evalyn was my model. She helped me appreciate that history has an ethical dimension - - rightly used, it can be a weapon against fanaticism and hatred and so help us live more humanely and help us cope with the present in difficult times. I must briefly quote frm a letter I received last week from Jane Plakias, class of '42: "In 1939-42 all we had was the New York Times and Evayn to help us understand and react properly to the war news - - so many tragic events not just Pearl Harbor . . . would have been remote and incomprehensible without her daily comments."

In my early days at Vassar, I gradually realized (to my relief and delight) that behind Evalyn's rather intimidating exterior there was a wonderfully kind and warm person. She was a modest and shy woman who led with her head, but whose heart was always, always, in the right place. She taught all those who came into contact with her the value (I want to say even social imperative) of modesty, industry, probity. It is so very appropriate that her memory and stature will be honoured by the establishment of the Evalyn A. Clark Chair of History.

I count myself privileged to have known this model historian, great mentor, and exceptional human being. Evalyn was a good woman. She had a profound influence on my professional and personal life. I will forever remember her with gratitude and love.

Anthony S. Wohl
Eloise Ellery Professor of History

1. "Virtually from the beginning . . I felt accepted as a teacher, perhaps as something of a scholar, and certainly as a professional." Carl N. Degler, "Vassar College," in William E,. Leuchtenburg, ed., American Places. Encounters with History: a Celebration of Sheldon Meyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 100.

2. Evalyn Clark, "Freshman Year at Vassar," Vassar Alumnae Magazine, June, 1948, pp. 18-19. "To learn independence is the first mark of maturity", she observed, ibid., p. 20.

3. Ibid., p. 19.

4. Evalyn Clark, "Vassar College: A Case Study of a Survey made in a Small Liberal Arts College," Universities and World Affairs. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Document 3 (1 September, 1952), p.10.

5. New York World-Telegram, May 22, 1935.

6. See her report, "The Leaders of Nazi Germany", comments on Von Ribbentrop. Last phrase was directed at Rosenberg.

7. "Ostrich mentality", etc. is from her hand-written notes for "Responsibility of Higher Education in the National Crisis," for the Convocation of a Summer Institute, July 5, 1951.

8. I get a great sense of this from ibid.