James Harvey Robinson

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James Harvey Robinson

James Harvey Robinson (June 29, 1863 in Bloomington, Illinois – February 16, 1936 in New York City)[1] was an American historian, who co-founded New History, which greatly broadened the scope of historical scholarship in relation to the social sciences. Jay Green concludes:

From his innovations in historical methodology and research to his revisions of secondary and undergraduate pedagogy, Robinson endeavored to reform the modern study of history, making it relevant and useful to contemporary peoples. A quintessential Progressive, he combined astute in erudite thinking with a penchant for activism in order to challenge his professional colleagues' "obsolete" conception of history and to demonstrate written histories potential for inspiring social improvement.[2]


Robinson was born Illinois, the son of a bank president. After traveling to Europe in 1882 and returning to work in his father's bank, Robinson entered Harvard University in 1884, earning his M.A. in 1888 before returning to Europe. After further study at the University of Strasbourg and the University of Freiburg, he received his Ph.D. at Freiburg in 1890, and began teaching European history at the University of Pennsylvania in 1891, moving to Columbia University in 1895–1919, becoming a full professor in 1895. He trained numerous graduate students who went on to professorships around the United States.

Following a series of faculty departures from Columbia in disputes about academic freedom, including that of his friend Charles A. Beard, Robinson resigned from Columbia in May 1919[3] to become one of the founders of the New School for Social Research and serve as its first director.

Robinson died in New York City.

New History[edit]

Through his writings and lectures, in which he stressed the "new history"—the social, scientific, and intellectual progress of humanity rather than merely political happenings, Robinson exerted an important influence on the study and teaching of history. An editor (1892–95) of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, he was also an associate editor (1912–20) of the American Historical Review, and president in 1929 of the American Historical Association.

European history textbooks[edit]

Robinson's An Introduction to the History of Western Europe (1902, followed by several editions) was "The first textbook on European history which was reliable in scholarship, lively in tone, and penetrating in its interpretations. It revolutionized the teaching of European history and put a whole generation of history students and history teachers in debt to the author." (Harry Elmer Barnes)[4]

The Mind in the Making[edit]

Robinson's book The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform (1921), was a bestseller, introducing a generation of readers to the intellectual world of higher education; it argues for freedom of thought as essential to progress.

The Human Comedy[edit]

Robinson's last book The Human Comedy: As Devised and Directed by Mankind Itself (1937) contains his mature reflections on history after a lifetime of study.

From Chapter 1:

"It is a poor technic when attempting to convert one's neighbor to attack his beliefs directly, especially those of the sacred variety. We may flatter outselves that we are undermining them by our potent reasoning only to find that we have shored them up so that they are firmer than ever. Often history will work where nothing else will. It very gently modifies one's attitude. Refutations are weak compared with its mild but potent operation. To become historically-minded is to be grown-up."

From Chapter 2:

"It is true that biologists have, many of them, given up what they call 'Darwinism'; they have surrendered Spencer's notion of the hereditary transmission of acquired characters, and they even use the word 'evolution' timidly and with many reservations. But this does not mean that they have any doubts that mankind is a species of animal, sprung in some mysterious and as yet unexplained manner from extinct wild creatures of the forests and plains."

Notable quotations[edit]

"We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship."

"In its amplest meaning history includes every trace and vestige of everything that man has done or thought since first he appeared on the earth."

"History... may be regarded as an artificial extension and broadening of our memories and may be used to overcome the natural bewilderment of all unfamiliar situations."


  • Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, New York: G.P. Putman, 1898 online edition
  • An Introduction to the History of Western Europe, 1902 online edition
  • The Fall of Rome: Some Current Misapprehensions in Regard to the Process of Dissolution of the Roman Empire. , 1907 online edition
  • The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1912 online edition
  • Outlines of European History (with James Henry Breasted and Charles A. Beard), 1914 online edition
  • History of Europe: Ancient and Medieval (with James Henry Breasted)), 1920 online edition
  • History of Europe: Our Own Times: The Eighteenth and Eineteenth Centuries: The Opening of the Twentieth Century and the World War (with Charles A. Beard). Boston: Ginn and Co., 1921 online edition
  • The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform, 1921. Intro. by H.G. Wells. Revised edition 1923. online edition
  • The Humanizing of Knowledge, New York: George H. Doran Co., 1923 online edition
  • The Ordeal of Civilization: A Sketch of the Development and World-Wide Diffusion of Our Present-Day Institutions, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1926 (reissued as The Story of Our Civilization)
  • Civilization, London and New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, 1929
  • The Story of Our Civilization, New York: William H. Wise & Co., 1934 (formerly entitled The Ordeal of Civilization)
  • The Human Comedy: As Devised and Directed by Mankind Itself, with an introduction by Harry Elmer Barnes, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937 online edition


  1. ^ www.britannica.com
  2. ^ Green, Jay D. "Robinson, James Harvey" (1999)
  3. ^ The New York Times: History Professor Quits at Columbia, May 6, 1919
  4. ^ Intro. to The Human Comedy, 1937, p. ix

Further reading[edit]

  • Barnes, Harry Elmer. "James Harvey Robinson" in Howard Odum, ed., American Masters of Social Science (1926)
  • Green, Jay D. "Robinson, James Harvey" in Kelly Boyd, ed. (1999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, vol 2. Taylor & Francis. pp. 998–999. 
  • Hendricks, Luther Virgil. James Harvey Robinson: Teacher of History (King's Crown Press, 1946).
  • Mattson, Kevin. "The Challenges of Democracy: James Harvey Robinson, the New History, and Adult Education for Citizenship." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2#1 (2003): 48-79.
  • Whelan, Michael. "James Harvey Robinson, the new history, and the 1916 social studies report." History Teacher 24.2 (1991): 191-202. in JSTOR

External links[edit]