Follow me for a minute. I want to lead you through an imaginary human web that stretches across more than a century and a half.

At the far distant end, in the 1850s, the first strand in the web is tied to Michigan’s first president, Henry Philip Tappan. Here in the present, there’s a tiny strand tied to my little finger.

This isn’t a web of causation, just of connection—one person connected to another, then another, and so on, from Tappan to me.

So, here goes:

Henry Tappan became U-M’s first president in 1852.

In 1858, Tappan hired a young historian named Andrew Dickson White. White became the first professor to teach modern history in U-M’s original Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

One of White’s students was Charles Kendall Adams.

Adams graduated in 1861 and joined White as an instructor in history. After White went back to his native state of New York (where he would become the founding president of Cornell), Adams was appointed to fill White’s vacant professorship.

Adams was one of the first American historians to use the seminar method of teaching. In a history seminar, students study and write about original historical documents, just as working historians do. Adams’s colleagues picked up the seminar method and soon it became standard, not only at Michigan but in many other history departments, as well.

In the late 1800s, the most important historian trained by the seminar method was arguably Frederick Jackson Turner, author of the “frontier thesis” of American history. He earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins and then taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard.

At Wisconsin, Turner had a deep influence on a young colleague, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, who later joined the Department of History at Michigan, where he rewrote the history of slavery and the Old South.

One of Phillips’s star students was Dwight Lowell Dumond, who joined the history department in 1930. He wrote important books on the antislavery movement.

One of Dumond’s star students was Sidney Fine, who joined the department in 1948 and later was named the Andrew Dickson White Professor of History. He taught until 2001. His 53 years on the faculty are reckoned to be the longest tenure of any Michigan professor.

Of the roughly 29,000 students taught by Sidney Fine, my wife was one and I 
was another.

I was not one of Fine’s star students.

But I learned how to study original historical documents in his graduate seminar—a seminar of the kind introduced at U-M by Charles Kendall Adams, student of Andrew Dickson White, hired by Henry Philip Tappan.

That gave me the tools to write three biographies and a lot of historical articles. So I feel a long-distance connection to Henry Tappan tugging at me through seven degrees of separation, and I feel grateful for it.

Any LSA alumnus can play this game. A biology major can string a line to Tappan through the great U-M bacteriologist Frederick Novy (1864–1957). A teacher’s connection runs through John Dewey (1859–1952), the philosopher and theorist of education. An information specialist’s line goes through Margaret Mann (1873–1960), who helped start the unit that would become the School of Information. Graduates of the Honors Program have a very short route to Tappan. The program’s first director was Robert Cooley Angell (1899–1994), grandson of Thomas McIntyre Cooley, whom Tappan hired as a law professor.

This becomes more than a parlor game when you think about why these strands exist at all. They form a vast, complex web that is the University of Michigan as an institution—that is, a network of people reaching through time and space and united by a common purpose: To learn.

I remember Sidney Fine saying to me once that one of his 
purposes as a teacher was “to instill in my students a respect for my profession.”

At the time that struck me as self-serving. Shouldn’t he teach just for the good of his students?

I realize now he was thinking of how his work served institutions along with students—the institution of history as a profession and the larger institutions that supported that profession, the University, and higher education as a whole. Fine’s work as a teacher depended entirely on their health. And the teaching of history would outlive him only if those institutions were strong.

By the light of popular culture, American institutions look powerful, even too powerful. Since the 1960s, at least, the institution has generally been seen as the enemy of individualism, and no doubt that’s often true enough.

But in another light, the web of an institution can look delicate, even fragile.

President Tappan had something like this in mind when he said universities were like families. They were “maintained, not by legal enactments, but by the influences of predominant character, by the force of example . . . by the diffused spirit of the social life itself—the esprit de corps of the family or society and by principles breathed around from the intimate relations, the mutual dependencies, and common aims and pursuits . . . . Where eminent professors breathe around the spirit of knowledge and liberal culture, and give the example of a noble devotion to learning, they must . . . create a prevailing sentiment which . . . will prove more commanding than all written statutes, and without which written statutes are a dead letter.”

The University wasn’t standing on the strength of regents’ bylaws, and certainly not by mere bricks and mortar. It was held up by nothing more substantial than the breath of professors and students talking.

In 1882, a part-time instructor named Henry Carter Adams wrote to President James Burrill Angell—so many faculty names were triple-barreled in those days—to ask for a permanent position. Adams, who would become one of U-M’s great economists, wanted a job in Ann Arbor, he told Angell, because “you have the men to talk to.”

Adams said “men,” of course. It would be a long time before there were many on the faculty besides white males to talk to. But the idea is the same now as it was in 1882. The value in the institution lies in the quality of the talk and the questions asked—and so, by extension, in the freedom to talk and the eagerness to listen.

It’s worth reflecting that this delicate web needs tender care in its bicentennial year as much as in Henry Tappan’s time.

It’s one thing, as an individual, to love learning—to be aware, curious, and questing.

It’s quite another to support an institution whose whole purpose is to nurture and fulfill that love.

The institution is the purpose made permanent. It’s a means of defying our own mortality. It connects you and me to Henry Tappan, who said in his inaugural address, just before Christmas 1852: “We cannot entail estates in our country to our legal heirs. But an estate might be entailed in a great University as long as our country shall exist—a splendid beneficence—a monument worthy of the ambition of any man.”

James Tobin (A.B. ’1978, A.M. ’79, Ph.D. ’86) is the writer of the award-winning Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II.

Illustration by Erin Nelson