Donald S. Barnhart (July 18, 1925 – September 8, 2009)

Donald S. BarnhartIn the fall of 1963, I transferred from Fresno State College, where I had recently completed my sophomore year, and enrolled in San Francisco State College, where I studied for two years and then was graduated in 1965. By the beginning of my senior year, I had already completed all of the requirements for graduation as an economics major except for having the total number of credit hours required for a bachelor’s degree in any field. So, I resolved that during my final year, I would take only courses in which the professor was considered to be an excellent teacher, regardless of subject or department.

In so doing, I enrolled in a course in the Social Science Department called “Social Change in Modern Latin America,” which was taught by a highly recommended professor, Donald S. Barnhart. I enjoyed the course immensely. The professor was indeed an outstanding teacher, intellectually provocative and masterful in getting and keeping the students’ rapt attention, and I came away from the course having gained a lifelong interest in Latin America. Noting that Barnhart had a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago, I inferred, perhaps too hastily, that there must be something to the study of history—a subject about which I knew next to nothing—if it produced such fine, knowledgeable teachers as he.

Later, having completed my senior year, I visited Barnhart in his office to tell him that I knew very little about history but wanted to learn more, and to ask him to recommend a list of books for me to read in this quest. He did so, and I read all ten of the books he had recommended during the summer of 1965, before beginning graduate study in economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the fall. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, I had been hooked on history. Two or three odd turns of fate later, when I was studying for my Ph.D. in economics at Johns Hopkins, I began to specialize in economic history, a field that, broadly construed, would occupy me to a greater or lesser extent for the rest of my life.

When I completed the work for my Ph.D. at Hopkins in the spring of 1968, I noted in the preface of my dissertation my gratitude to those who had trained me there, and I added words of appreciation for Amor Gosfield, one of my professors at Santa Barbara, and for Barnhart. Of the latter, I wrote: “It was he who first aroused my historical curiosity. His teaching was an inspiration, and his blending of history, economics, and other social sciences provided an example of the potential fruitfulness of interdisciplinary studies. Above all he encouraged me both explicitly and by his example to travel the scholarly path, and for that I am profoundly grateful.”

A few years later, when I was teaching at the University of Washington, Barnhart wrote me to ask if I would write a letter of reference for him in connection with his application for a Fulbright Fellowship to support him during a sabbatical year in Peru. I was very glad to write the letter on his behalf, happy that I could, if only in small measure, do something to repay the man who had done so much to set me on my career path.

It is nothing out of the ordinary for a person’s life to take unexpected turns—indeed, it would be stranger if one’s life did not do so. I did not go college to study history; I had little interest in this subject until I happened to encounter Barnhart and found his teaching to be an inspiration. He launched me as a sometime contributor to economic, demographic, and political history. Whatever I have done to make a mark in these areas can be traced back directly to him. I hope that the expressions of appreciation and gratitude I made to him many years ago truly conveyed how much I owed him.

Donald Stanford Barnhart, after completing his graduate training at Chicago, taught history at the University of West Virginia and did graduate work at the Wharton School at Penn. He taught at San Francisco State from 1960 until his retirement in 1990. He died in 2009 at 84 years of age. He was a truly great teacher, and I will never forget him.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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