Theodore K. Rabb

On a gray day in December 2005, students crowded into a classroom in McCosh Hall. Ted Rabb was giving the final lecture in Humanities 216-217, the first half of an intensive survey of the Western tradition, aimed at freshman. Students from past years as well as this one thronged the room. At the end of the eloquent lecture, in which Ted surveyed the Middle Ages and told them of the joys that awaited them next term, when they would reach his beloved Renaissance, the students gave a storm of applause, handed out pieces of cake and celebratory T-shirts, and sang – in Latin, of course, and to trumpet accompaniment – a specially rewritten version of “Gaudeamus igitur.”  The event made a fitting conclusion to the career of one of Princeton’s great teacher-scholars.

Brought up in England, Theodore K. Rabb first came to Princeton in 1958, as a graduate student, after taking a B.A. in modern history at Oxford University, At Princeton he studied modern British and European history and colonial America with several of Princeton’s greats, including E. Harris Harbison ’28, Frank Craven, and the art historian Erwin Panofsky, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and received his Ph.D. in 1961. After teaching at Stanford, Northwestern, and Harvard, he returned to Princeton in 1967, and has remained ever since, except for stints as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins, the State University of New York – Binghamton, and the European University Institute.

Ted has had a formidable career as a scholar and writer. He began as a historian of early modern Britain and its overseas expansion. His first book, Enterprise and Adventure, which appeared in 1967, made innovative use of quantitative methods to study the British merchants who powered the expansion of the British commercial empire, and he returned to one of the major figures in this story in 1998, when his massive, minutely learned biography of A Jacobean Gentleman: Sir Edwin Sandys appeared. But from the start of his career. He nourished an equally strong interest in Continental Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries – especially in the history of art, music, and science. The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe, published by Oxford in 1975, remains one of the most influential interpretations of the political and intellectual crises of the 16th and 17th centuries. Rabb’s Renaissance Lives (Pantheon, 1993; rev. ed., Basic Books, 2001) and The Last Days of the Renaissance: And the March to Modernity (Basic Books, 2006) offered his broad-gauged vision of the origins of modern culture to a large reading public. A brilliant essayist, Rabb has made a specialty of the review. His lively, learned, and beautifully polished pieces on books, exhibitions, and performances have appeared in many journals and magazines, including The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Opera News, and he continues to produce them with miraculous speed, precision, and elegance.

An unapologetic lover of the high traditions of the European past, Ted has also been fascinated throughout his career by the new methods and media of his own day and their uses for the historian. In 1970, he and Richard Rotberg founded a major new historical periodical, the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH), which they continue to edit. The JIH has published dozens of innovative and influential articles and reviews, many of which have collected and reprinted as important books on such topics as Art and History, Climate and History, and The Making and Unmaking of Democracy. Ted also served as the principal historical adviser for the dramatic and innovative five-part PBS series Renaissance, for which he rallied many of his colleagues and students (the author of these lines took the losing part in a Latin disputation, staged with great ceremony in the University Chapel), and which received an Emmy nomination, and for the telecourse The Renaissance: Origins of the Modern West. These achievements have brought Ted many honors, including fellowships from the Delmas, Ford, Pew and Guggenheim Foundations and invitations to speak everywhere from Jerusalem to San Francisco and from Stockholm to Rome.

Ted has been an officer of numerous organizations, including the American Historical Association, the Social Science History Association, and National History Day. He has chaired the Board of Trustees of the National Council for History Education and the New Jersey Council of the Humanities. He has consulted for the National Endowment for the Humanities and for many colleges and universities. And since 1974, he has built bridges between Princeton and New Jersey’s community colleges. The Mid-Career Fellowship Program, which he has directed since 1977, gave dozens of community college professors the opportunity to recharge their intellectual batteries, and the Community College Internship Program, which he ran from 1974 to 2001, enabled dozens of Princeton graduate students to start their teaching careers at local community colleges.

Last – but certainly not least – Ted has been a devoted and innovative teacher. In the 1970’s, he conducted a large group of faculty, who offered an interdisciplinary introduction to the culture of Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment – a course that became one of the highest-rated in the University. In the 1990’s, he worked with Bob Hollander, John Fleming, and others to create Humanities 216-219. In this four-course sequence, which Ted directed and taught in for many years, a small group of dedicated students spend half of their freshman year following several professors on a terrifying but exhilarating cavalry charge through the whole long history of Western Culture. It’s a demanding exercise, one that requires hundreds of pages of reading every week, as well as a considerable amount of writing. Year after year, students have described the course as the highlight of their academic experience – in the words of one, “For two years it was my intellectual home at Princeton.” At the end of the curriculum, Ted’s graduate seminars, often held in his warm and hospitable house, have introduced dozens of students to the analysis of early modern politics and culture.

And many of the most influential and innovative students of early modern European and British history now at work began their careers writing dissertations under his supervision. As a teacher, Ted has never been a soft touch. His manner, like his dress, has always been formal. And he has always been a sharp, articulate, critic of wordy writing, unclear thinking, and weak analyses of sources. At a conference held in his honor a few years ago, a distinguished military historian recalled that during his student days, another professor had told him, “If you can study with Rabb, you can run with the big dogs.” Everyone who has worked with him – from the freshmen in Humanities 216-219 to those who have written dissertations under his supervision – knows that this warning is true. Yet students at every level, from advanced graduates to freshmen, have also seen that Ted cares for them deeply. More than one tells of a comment by Rabb that has changed his or her life.

At the Princeton conference, a distinguished social historian recalled how, years after he had finished his doctorate, he had lunch with Ted in a European city. He tried to pull out his wallet and pay for the meal, but Ted forestalled him, saying “I will always be your teacher.” Generations of students and colleagues who have benefitted from Ted’s advice, learned from his scholarship and teaching, and enjoyed his hospitality will agree: Ted will always be their demanding, generous teacher.