John Plumb: The Mentor Who Some Students Recalled as Evil

Historians in the News

Edward Tenner, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Aug. 13, 2004):

[Edward Tenner is a senior research associate at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. He is the author of Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) and Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996).]

"Mentor Is Now Portrayed as Monster," read the New York Times headline. It referred to a hockey coach and agent, whose reputation for making stars had continued to attract young would-be pros and their parents despite charges of abusive techniques.

The piece reminded me of other accusations made two years ago in the more genteel world of British academe. An article about the late British historian Sir John Plumb had astounded me as the only candidly negative memorial to a prominent scholar I had ever read. With admirers in the royal family itself, Plumb had been not only a world-famous scholar but also one of the great mentors of his profession. I had always admired him for the outstanding students whose careers he had launched. He also was hailed as a courageous defender of fairness; in an article about the historian and author Simon Schama, I had read of Plumb's battle against what he considered the injusticeof examiners who were refusing his pupil first-class honors.

But in an"alternative appreciation" originally published in Historically Speaking, the newsletter of the Boston-based Historical Society,in April 2002 and reprinted in the Times Higher Education Supplement, a former student, Jeremy Black, now a professor of history at the University of Exeter, unveiled another and less flattering aspect of Plumb's work. Black was responding to what he considered one-sided tributes by Plumb's protégés. His article could not be dismissed as a mere outlet for the bitterness of Plumb's hidebound academic enemies. Black asserted that Richard Cobb, an Oxford professor of French history renowned for his sagas of the ordinary French people of the old regime and the revolution, was among those who called Plumb"evil," and Cobb was as idiosyncratic and anti-establishment as an Oxford scholar could be.

Plumb was not just a leading historian of patronage but a vigorous dispenser thereof, Black argued, and what his students no doubt perceived only as steadfast advocacy appeared to some colleagues as strong-arm tactics. An Ivy League department head recalled to Black the"extraordinary pressure" he had encountered to hire a Plumb student. Plumb did not hesitate to use his position as a college master to intimidate a young scholar who had written an adverse review of a protégé's work, warning him over dinner that"this was not the way to secure a career at Cambridge." At a dinner with Black, Plumb also disparaged another former student while boasting of his success in placing him."Others were abused, damaged, and harmed," Black concluded. There was a"malignity" in Plumb's methods.

Whose picture is more accurate, Black's crafty don (in both senses of the word) or the grateful disciples' generous exemplar? The answer may be unknowable, but it raises a far larger issue. The ideal of the mentor has been extolled in business, academe, government, the military, and the professions for decades. I see merit in it, too. But I'm also disturbed that it nearly always is presented as a good in its own right; too rarely are its origins and ethical ambiguities examined. Having had mentors, I can understand both sides of the story....

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