Raymond Grew, Reflections on Bruce Mazlish

This Foundation’s focus on global history is due to Bruce Mazlish’s ideas, skillful leadership, and personal gifts. To understand why that came to be, how he was so influential, becomes a way to celebrate his life. His commitment to global history evolved from his belief that the study of history is central to an understanding of the contemporary world and from a lifelong search for patterns of change that give history meaning. He started within the framework of Western civilization, reflecting currents of his time. Always engaged with the history of ideas, he also was concerned from the first about the impact of technology on society. That somewhat uncommon attention to both material organization and systems of thought thrived in the environment of M.I.T., and Mazlish wrote broadly on these matters in studies that employed methods prominent in the social sciences, especially economics, and in psychology.

Mazlish held an unusually firm, schematic view of Western history when nearly twenty-five years ago he organized a conference on global history. An established, accomplished scholar, he now addressed global history with intellectual conviction and personal commitment. Not everyone at that lively meeting accepted his vision, but his determination, his professional standing and connections, and his personal diplomatic and executive skills were essential to making global history the focus of the Toynbee Prize Foundation. That first conference at Bellagio was followed in the next twenty years by conferences in Darmstadt, Hong Kong, Ann Arbor, Pocantico Hills, Cambridge, St. Petersburg, New Haven, and Fairfax, Virginia. Each conference brought together scholars from different disciplines and countries to consider an important aspect of the global connections that shape modern society. For most of these pioneering meetings and the publications that followed Bruce Mazlish was the central figure in establishing topic, location, and participants. His strong presence engagement was stimulating rather than restrictive because his interests were so broad and he himself so open-minded. And I can testify to that. My paper at that first conference was cautionary (and some thought critical of Mazlish’s proposal).  I focused on the place of global history within the historical discipline and warned of the teleological dangers in terms like globalization. Bruce saw global history as recognition of the new era created by such developments as computers and satellites. At most of the subsequent conferences when questions arose, as they always did, asking what global history is, Bruce would point to critical changes in the modern era but then urge me to make my case that the value of global history lies in a perspective that raises new questions fruitful for the study of history in any period. I am not sure that audiences found our routine particularly enlightening, but Bruce’s engagement in it did reflect some of the lively intellect and personal warmth with which he nurtured a new venture—qualities that made it rewarding to be with him over the years, discussing all sorts of matters, at academic meetings, on walks, or sitting in that study on Irving Street.

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