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Turner began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1889.
“The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle,” he wrote; “in place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.” Pioneer ideals were to be maintained by American universities through the training of new leaders who would strive “to reconcile popular government and culture with the huge industrial society of the modern world.”Whereas in his 1893 essay he celebrated the pioneers for the spirit of individualism that spurred migration westward, 25 years later Turner castigated “these slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and live stock for their own need, living scattered and apart.” For Turner the national problem was “no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest” but “how to save and wisely use the remaining timber.” At the end of his career, he stressed the vital role that regionalism would play in counteracting the atomization brought about by the frontier experience.
Turner hoped that stability would replace mobility as a defining factor in the development of American society and that communities would become stronger as a result.
At these two institutions he helped build two of the great university history departments of the 20th century and trained many distinguished historians, including Carl Becker, Merle Curti, Herbert Bolton, and Frederick Merk, who became Turner’s successor at Harvard.
He was an early leader of the American Historical Association, serving as its president in 1910 and on the editorial board of the association’s from 1910 to 1915.
Poor health forced his early retirement from Harvard in 1924.
Turner moved to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where he remained as senior research associate until his death.
His deep, melodious voice commanded attention whether he was addressing a teachers group, an audience of alumni, or a branch of the Chautauqua movement.
His writing, too, bore the stamp of oratory; indeed, he reworked his lectures into articles that appeared in the nation’s most influential popular and scholarly journals.
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