Columbians Ahead of Their Time
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Richard Hofstadter “A university is not a service station. Neither is it a political society, nor a meeting place for political societies. With all its limitations and failures, and they are invariably many, it is the best and most benign side of our society insofar as that society aims to cherish the human mind."

Richard Hofstadter (1916–1970)
PhD 1942
Faculty 1946–1970

The historian Richard Hofstadter was a core member of the group of postwar Columbia intellectuals that included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Robert Merton, and Daniel Bell. At a time when politics were assumed essentially to reflect economic interests, Hofstadter began studying alternative explanations for political conduct: unconscious motives, status anxieties, irrational hatreds, paranoia. Hofstadter wrote some of the most influential books to appear in American political and cultural history, among them The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), both recognized with Pulitzer Prizes, and the celebrated The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). His American Political Tradition (1948), an enduring classic, remains today a standard work in both college and high-school history classes and has been read by millions outside the academy.

After earning his MA and PhD from Columbia, Hofstadter joined the faculty in 1946. He was named the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History in 1959 and remained at the University until his untimely death from leukemia in 1970. Many of Hofstadter’s graduate students have gone on to important scholarship and teaching. One of them, Eric Foner, the current DeWitt Clinton Professor, says, “He played brilliantly the role of intellectual mentor so critical to any student’s graduate career. For all his accomplishments, he was utterly without pretension, always unintimidating, never too busy to talk about one’s work.” In 1968, following the campus disruptions that spring, Hofstadter delivered the commencement address, in which he defended Columbia as “a center of free inquiry and criticism—a thing not to be sacrificed for anything else."

Read more about Hofstadter in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Alan Brinkley

Professor Alan Brinkley on the 1950s.

Read a sample of Hofstadter’s historical writing. 

The Oral History Research Office in Butler Library.

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