U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Oklahoma, Parrington, and Football

Guest post from Neil Jumonville:

As a faculty member at FSU, of course I’m hoping that FSU beats Oklahoma in football this weekend. But I also have a soft spot for OU. Vernon Parrington, the important American intellectual historian of the 1920s and 1930s who is still recognized as an important pioneer in the field, was once their football coach, as unlikely as that sounds. It’s nice to be reminded what the noted historian Richard Hofstadter had to say about Parrington in his book The Progressive Historians: “Always a good athlete—he had played baseball briefly as a semiprofessional and during his faculty days at Emporia College had occasionally played, under the loose or nonexistent athletic rules of the period, on its football team—he now took over for a few hard-driven years the unsalaried position of coach of the Oklahoma football team, a job which required that he also act as athletic director, manager, trainer, referee, and publicity writer. ‘Everything Parrington touched he seemed to vitalize,’ wrote a later annalist of Oklahoma football. Introducing the powerful cross-blocking he had seen at Harvard, Parrington developed a strong winning team; but after three years of exhausting success he asked to be relieved of his coaching duties.” (pp. 371-72) Here is an example of a worker who refused specialization. It is said that George Lynn Cross, OU’s president from 1943 to 1968, once told the Oklahoma State Senate, “I want a university the football team can be proud of.”

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Where have all the polymaths gone
    Long time passing….

    It is a disappointing trend in some ways that our profession can be so antagonistic to those who have interests outside of their own field. It is an attractive feature of Intellectual History that it provides avenues for investigation into other academic disciplines academia itself is generally limiting.

    This extends even further when you look at the hierarchical system within academia. Research 1 universities are at the top of the food chain and if you work at a college (where you are expected to teach as much or more than research) you will have almost no hope of moving to a research institution.

    So here I sit at a small college where we are evaluated on teaching ahead of everything else. My research has to take a back seat. But I have other interests; I write music that is performed by college ensembles, I have assisted in the coaching of college sports (coaching and teaching are essentially the same thing – but it does not help your CV to list coaching experience), I have a family (no credit on the CV for that either).

    As a senior colleague told me after my second year, get comfortable because the outside academic world places no value on the things you do here. All of the teaching, advising, one-on-one work to improve student writing, none of it matters outside of my home institution. If could ignore all of that in the hope of publishing a book and a set of articles and then throw myself to the mercy of the job market, or I can do all of those things with the understanding that I am here for the rest of my career.

  2. Vernon Parrington as OU coach — how in the world did I never know about that? Fascinating. Meanwhile, OU’s president David Boren (who was my brother’s political science professor eons ago, at Oklahoma Baptist University — before he became governor) nowadays is primarily known as the power broker who will decide the fate of the college football conference system as we know it. I remain loyal to my Sooners, while despairing of the whole big-time college athletics apparatus for all the reasons Taylor Branch outlines in his new article for The Atlantic.

  3. If coaching were still an unsalaried position, I suppose more intellectual historians might take a crack at it. Might as well. Heck, “intellectual historian” looks like it might be shaping up to be an unsalaried position.

  4. Thanks for this post, Neil!

    As a faculty member at OU, I obviously find myself on the other side of the upcoming football game. But I’m delighted to see the OU-Parrington connection brought up by someone else.

    Parrington was actually the first football coach at the University of Oklahoma. And his eventual departure from OU was under particularly unpleasant circumstances.

    Baptists and Southern Methodists in Oklahoma had criticized the University on theological and moral grounds. Things came to a head immediately after statehood in 1907. In 1908, a new Board of Regents, appointed by the first Governor of the State of Oklahoma, Charles Haskell, fired OU’s first President, David Ross Boyd, and set about purging the faculty. Eventually, Parrington was one of ten faculty fired by the Regents, ostensibly because he smoked (though apparently because one of the Regents simply wanted to replace him with a Southern Methodist).

    The firing of Parrington and the other faculty members was highly controversial at the time. Parrington, in particular, was seen as a great loss to the University. He was a much loved English professor who had just built himself a grand home in Norman. And as his national reputation grew after he left OU, Parrington’s firing became truly infamous. Richard Hofstadter would later call it “one of the most scandalous episodes in American academic history.” David Levy, who is in the midst of writing a history of the University of Oklahoma (the first volume of which has been published and which contains a thorough account of this incident) concludes that Parrington’s dismissal was “one of the most shocking and ignorant injustices in the history of American higher education.”

    Though it cannot make up for what the Regents did to him, or for the loss to the University, OU’s North Oval, the oldest part of campus on which the university’s administration building sits, is now named the Parrington Oval.

  5. Two thoughts on Parrington from *New Directions in American Intellectual History* (1979).

    1. (p. xviiin1, from John Higham) “In 1951 John Caughey polled ‘an approximate cross section’ of academic historians of America, including all ages and specialists in all phases and periods, on the best works in American history published since 1920. Parrington’s Main Currents led the list so commandingly that nothing else even came close except Frederick Jackson Turner’s
    The Frontier Thesis in American History (1920).” …I thought the “frontier thesis” would count as an 1893 publication. It wasn’t published until 1920?

    2. (p. 21-21, from Laurence Veysey) “We look back upon the earlier masters of our subdiscipline, men like Vernon L. Parrington and Ralph H. Gabriel, with mingled reverence and misgivings. Their claim to be writing comprehensively about ‘American thought’ now strikes a great many of us as impossibly pretentious. As we reread their works, we find them really amounting to the history of American intellectuals—ministers, literary figures, social philosophers—but written with a startling, unconscious selectivity in the choice of emphasis withing the group; in other words, often badly done even within those narrower limits. The writings of these intellectual historians now assume the stature of fascinating primary sources, reflecting, often poignantly, the beliefs and attitudes of some early twentieth-century American academics. We no longer take them seriously on their own terms because we have since learned so much about the complexity, indeed the jarring discordance, of the thought patterns that have prevailed among large fractions of the population in America. …I do not mean here to contend that holistic statements about America are always wrong. …”

    Good stuff. Oh, how the mighty had fallen between 1951 and the mid-1970s. – TL

  6. Parrington didn’t do so badly: he ended up in Seattle at the University of Washington (where he did not do double duty as coach!): http://www.washington.edu/home/tour/parrington.html

    I always think of Parrington through Lionel Trilling’s evisceration of Main Currents in American Thought in his “Reality in America,” but I’m betting that Trilling was never deployed to coach the football team at Columbia, although it’s amusing to think of what that might have produced on the field.

  7. 1. Erratum: I meant to say pp. 20-21 on the Veysey snippet.

    2. Regarding Dan’s comment on Trilling contra Parrington, it seems that intellectual historians—over the life of the subdiscipline—have had the most productive interdisciplinary traffic with folks in English/Literature. I’m thinking of Louis Menand, in part, when I say this. But also in relation to the influence of literary theory on the field of history.

  8. “Regarding Dan’s comment on Trilling contra Parrington, it seems that intellectual historians—over the life of the subdiscipline—have had the most productive interdisciplinary traffic with folks in English/Literature. I’m thinking of Louis Menand, in part, when I say this. But also in relation to the influence of literary theory on the field of history.”

    Tim, is that influence really constant “over the life of the subdiscipline”? I admit to little familiarity with Parrington beyond his reputation, so I may be wrong about this, but my gut tells me that the sort of inderdisciplinarity (what a horrible word, by th way) he represented as a literary scholar working on intellectual history was quite different than what one gets now from the importation, infliltration, whatever, of literary theory into history since the ’80s, or whenever one wants to date it.

    And it seems to me that the sources of intterdisciplinary influence shift over time. Literary theory has been big lately, but that traffic flowed from other directions before that. Sociology, economics, psychology, etc. have all had their heydays in history, intellectual and otherwise. Even Habermasian public sphere theory had its moment of the sun in the ’90s. Heck, when hasn’t history been seeking some sort of interdisciplinary “philosopher’s stone”? I await the day when the literary theory philosopher’s stone is discarded for good. All it has managed is to turn lead into fool’s gold, lots of it. To be replaced, no doubt, by some sort of Darwinian neuroscience. Apparently that’s the next big thing in literary studies now. Egad!

  9. Varad: I was very careful to say “seems that” and “most productive.” I purposely left myself some wiggle room. But an affiliation certainly exists between the kinds of textual examination done in English departments, and the kinds of debates conducted in History about “the” interpretation of historical documents. The common denominator is the high traffic in texts (books, letters, articles, etc.). I may be getting grandiose here, but intellectual, cultural, and intellectual-cultural historians seem to have the keenest sense of interpretation in terms of both the documents they use and how readers might interpret their final historical narratives. Those sensibilities crossover the most with English-literature, and perhaps philosophy, departments. – TL

  10. We should note that several early college football coaches were social scientists or historians. The first coach at Indiana University was social science professor Arthur B. Woodford. One of the first coaches (if not the first) at Auburn was historian George Petrie. One of the first coaches at Georgia was Charles McCarthy, who later went on to be the Wisconsin state librarian and one of the architects/chroniclers of Wisconsin Progressivism.

    As I show in my forthcoming book*, many Progressive Era historians and social scientists–especially several who were students of Richard T. Ely at Johns Hopkins–were enamored with college football. They thought that it was a way to strengthen the morals of college students and discipline their minds. This attitude changed substantially by the 1920s, but before World War II, it was very common to find professional social scientists who were rather enthusiastic about football. Also (for the most part) college coaching did not professionalize until the 1920s. So at the turn of the century, it was not at all surprising to see amateur coaches at the helm of college teams–especially professors.

    *”The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with College Football” (University Press of Kansas, “CultureAmerica” series, March 2012)

  11. Oops, I got the name of my own book wrong. It should be “The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time College Football.

    I should take the advice I always give my students: proofread!

  12. Professor Ingrassia,

    I really appreciate your remarks on early college coaches being social scientists and historians. I am the Social Science Department Chair and Boys Varsity Basketball at the high school where I teach and it is nice to know that my decision not to spend my entire day in a gymnasium was made within the spirit of past practitioners. I believe those of us in the social sciences and humanities can be effective coaches because of the analytical approach to our discipline. In that I mean we are thinkers first, doers second, a process I found to be very beneficial in my own athletic experiences. As a philosophy teacher, I have found numerous passages applicable to coaching. (I am quite fond of the Stoics and their striving for emotional control, though I must admit, like most coaches, I have yet to perfect their techniques for doing so.) As a former college athlete it pains me to see what is happening in the world of amateur sports. It seems the lessons and values I was encouraged to embrace as a player have been replaced by a hedonistic narcissism from which it appears we may likely never recover. I was interested to know if your forthcoming book will include anything about Robert Maynard Hutchins and his elimination of football at the University of Chicago in 1939. Also, have you come across anything in your recent research that takes as strong a stance against the “Gridiron University” as Dr. Hutchins did?

  13. My apologies for the belated response, but yes, the book does address Hutchins. Few have taken as strong a stance as Hutchins, but there were others in the 1930s who were nearly as critical as he. More recently, I would look at the work of Murray Sperber, who (I believe) helped get Bob Knight dismissed from IU a few years back

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