Beyond Vassar

A "Realist with a Vision"

By Professor Emeritus Anthony Wohl

With the death of Evalyn Anna Clark ’24, an era in our college’s history has come to an end. Together with Lucy Maynard Salmon, Eloise Ellery, and Mildred Campbell, Clark was part of the Vassar tradition of pioneering women historians who were at the forefront of their profession.

Born in 1903 in Canandaigua, New York, she came to Vassar on a scholarship given by Mary Thompson, who donated the Thompson Memorial Library. A classics major and Junior Phi Beta Kappa, Clark was a brilliant Vassar undergrad. In one afternoon she mastered the dialect of Theocritus: “A task on which many students,” her admiring Greek professor dryly commented, “spend a whole semester.”

Evalyn Clark '24
Evalyn Clark '24

In 1968 a fund was established to create, upon her death, the Evalyn A. Clark (pictured above) Chair of History. In spring 2002, Professor Miriam J. Cohen was the first appointed to this chair.

Graduating with honors in 1924, Clark continued her classical studies at Johns Hopkins University, receiving her Ph.D. in 1927. Her doctoral dissertation, “The Roman Army as a Factor in the Romanization of Gaul,” she noted, “led me to the discovery of the impact of French and German nationalism on the writing of ancient history,” and “later…to my mid-career change from ancient to modern European history.” Experiences garnered every summer in Europe between 1927 and 1937 also fostered that change. Increasingly, she was driven to examine what lay behind the rise of fascism. “Was it,” she asked, “resurgent nationalism or something far more primitive and threatening than political or economic forces and theories?” These concerns caused her to “retool”: studies between 1937 and 1939 at Harvard and Columbia completed her transition to modern European history.

In 1939, after a decade teaching at Douglass College and a year at Sarah Lawrence, and with war breaking out in Europe, Clark began her distinguished teaching career at Vassar as an assistant professor, with a starting salary of $2,600. The department chair wrote that he wished “this were a handsomer offer, but the salary budget is…feeling severely the results of the reinvestment of college funds at the lower rates of interest now prevailing…” Clark became a full professor in 1947 and in 1962 was named to the Eloise Ellery Chair of History.

Clark’s service to the college was remarkable. She was twice chair of the history department, associate dean of the college for a decade, and for one year acting dean of the college. For her last two years before retirement, she was director of the Five College Project, “designed to bring about the better preparation of high school teachers of social sciences.” This project resulted in the establishment of Vassar’s education department and teacher training and certification program — an addition to the curriculum very dear to her heart.

Beyond the gates of Vassar, Clark was active in the American Association of University Women and the American Historical Association. Most notably, she was an early member and president (1965–67) of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. “The Berks,” as it is fondly called, was formed in 1936 after a group of male historians categorically excluded women from a conference. In 1981, when the Berks was held at Vassar, Clark was honored (with Mildred Campbell) with a standing ovation. An unassuming, yet determined feminist, she was far more interested in leading by example than in feminist theory.

However widespread her committee and administrative service to the college and to her profession, it was as a teacher that Clark excelled. Against the dark background of World War II, she developed innovative pedagogical techniques. She later wrote that in her course, Contemporary European History, 1870 to Present, she “jettisoned any orthodox chronological approach…and began with 1939 and the New York Times, constantly working backward to trace the roots of the conflict. It was a contentious subject,” she continued, “since most students at the beginning were strongly pacifist and even isolationist. Therefore heated class discussion was inevitable and continual.” Throughout her long career, Clark never eschewed controversy, compromised her principles, or bowed to prevailing intellectual or political orthodoxies — consequently her courses, including her immensely popular course on the French Revolution, continued to generate animated, prolonged discussion.

Although she would have scoffed at the high-flown expression, Clark took teaching as a solemn mission, an ethical trust to inform and energize the next generation of society’s leaders. She had been profoundly influenced, during those pre-war summers in Europe, by having witnessed propaganda and rigid ideology drive out free inquiry. In her teaching she emphasized, to use her own words, “the development of critical, informed thinking and independent judgment,” close attention to the sources, respect for the evidence, and avoidance of glib judgments and unsupported generalizations. Her teaching embraced cautionary tales against idealists and ideologues. “Good intentions and idealism,” she insisted, “are not enough, and they can be dangerous.” The “realist with vision” was her ideal.

“One of the greatest contributions we [at Vassar] can make,” she once stated, “is training for citizenship” and “a lifetime [of] civic activity.” This training, with its emphasis on the development of informed, internationally aware citizens, lay at the heart of her educational philosophy and practice. During the war she set up “town meetings” on campus and world affairs study groups in Poughkeepsie, and she served as a shrewd analyst of Nazi leadership for the Military Intelligence Division of the War Department. In 1952 she addressed UNESCO on the place of international relations in the college curriculum.

Clark was a woman of strong convictions strongly expressed. She abhorred “pretentious ignorance, vanity, puffery, and faddism.” She encouraged her students to detect and avoid these human failings, and by example, taught them the value of modesty, integrity, common sense, and cool analysis.

To challenge her firmly held interpretations, her students had to read, read, read! They recalled with gratitude, perhaps mixed with just a little self-pity, the high standards she set for them and the long hours they spent in the library poring over original sources and preparing the weekly annotated bibliographies she demanded. “….We were aware,” recalled one former student (who went on to become a distinguished historian), “that she was working as hard [as] or harder than we. Only a truly gifted and dedicated teacher…could have inspired us to such efforts.”

Clark’s stature as a teacher was recognized and honored in four major ways in her own lifetime. In 1968 a fund was established to create, at her death, the Evalyn A. Clark Chair of History. In 1984 the Evalyn A. Clark Fund, to encourage “excellence in teaching,” inaugurated a series of annual symposia on the “current problems, issues, or techniques” of teaching in a liberal arts college. Also created in 1984, the Evalyn Clark Scholarship enabled British undergraduates to study at Vassar. This was most appropriate, for Clark had always taken a special interest in foreign students as part of her continuing commitment to better international relations. Finally, in 1990 she won the coveted American Historical Association’s Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award.

Clark loved teaching and loathed the idea of compulsory retirement. But, happily, after her retirement in 1968 she maintained her close involvement with Vassar. Although she continued to travel — including long motoring holidays well into her 90s, and two summers in England in search of her ancestry — the center of her universe remained Vassar. Well into old age she was an active class president and attended many reunions. In the gracious house on College Avenue she occupied for so long with Mildred Campbell and recently with Margaret Wright, professor emerita of biology, she entertained a steady stream of former students — among them lawyers, diplomats, journalists, and teachers of renown—who continued over the years to share their experiences with her and to seek her advice. Deep love, as much as respect, gratitude, and admiration, marked these relationships.

And she continued to enthrall and fascinate younger students. It was wonderful to witness how, well into her 90s, Clark could quickly dispel the trepidation the young Evalyn Clark Scholars naturally felt on first meeting her (they had heard of her formidable reputation and steely intellect). After a few deft questions and some engaging reminiscences about what life was like for her generation of women scholars, all fears evaporated and were replaced by a sense of profound enchantment and delight. Her touch, her instinct for reaching out to young minds, and above all her engaging enthusiasm for and commitment to serious ideas and ideals were evident almost to the very end.

Evalyn Clark died June 17, 2001, at the age of 98. Her life had spanned the turbulent 20th century. It is with love as well as deep admiration that we remember this consummate teacher.

Professors Emeriti Hsi-Huey Liang, Clyde Griffen, Rhoda Rappaport, David Schalk, and Margaret Wright also signed this tribute.

To contribute to the Evalyn Clark Memorial Travel Award to support a history major who wishes to travel to conduct research in this country or abroad, write Box 14, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12604.

Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries