How Lucy Maynard Salmon changed history
Past is the Past! But no, it is not past, In us, in us, it quickens, wants aspires, And in our hearts the unknown dead have cast The hunger and thirst of their desires. . . . We write THE END where fate has scarce begun And no man knows the things that he has done. Lawrence Binyon HAD Lucy Maynard Salmon written this poem with which she headed a chapter in her book ``Historical Materials,'' she would probably have changed the last line so that it read, ``And no human knows the things that he or she has done.'' Miss Salmon's interest in history was stimulated when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in the early 1870s. President Grant was in office. Appalled by the stories of corruption that surrounded many of his appointees, she began looking into the ways other presidents had used this power of filling positions of public trust. On graduating, she had to put this interest on hold while she spent five years teaching at a country school.Skip to next paragraph
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When she was able to return to Ann Arbor for a year, she immersed herself in the history section of the library, taking ``the appointing power of the presidency'' as her thesis.
At the same time she helped to establish the American Historical Association, of which she was a charter member. She read an abridged version of her thesis at one of the meetings. It was so highly acclaimed that the decision was made to publish it in full.
In the wake of the Grant scandals, magazines and newspapers seized upon her book as the most thorough study of the subject ever made. There was amazement that it was done by a woman, someone who didn't even have the right to vote! It was proclaimed one of the strongest instruments in the struggle for civil service reform.
The success of the book opened doors. Lucy Salmon was offered an instructorship at Wellesley College, which she turned down in favor of a fellowship at Bryn Mawr. In 1887, she was invited to join the faculty at Vassar -- and though she was to become ``famous'' (a term she disliked) and to lecture at universities across the country, Vassar and the neighboring city of Poughkeepsie were to be home base for the rest of her life.
Vassar was not all she might have hoped for. She had an intense dislike for the hierarchical structure that separated instructors from professors as well as students. She waged a constant battle with the administration over the size and nature of her classes and what books should be purchased with the meager funds available. Her own interest was in obtaining source material where students might see things firsthand -- the administration wanted only recognized textbooks. After many battles she was able to build up an acceptable library by appealing to philanthropists and most everyone she knew.
Teaching for her was a process of continued learning, a joint adventure for instructor and instructed. She thought this might best be achieved with her senior students through a seminar but was denied permission to hold one. She circumvented this edict by inviting these students to her rooms two evenings a week. There they carried on discussions around a table that had to be expanded as the popularity of the class grew, until it came to be known as ``The Table Long.''