“Dr. Colton's appointment underscores our conviction that in this ever more technical and bureaucratized world of ours the humanities are desperately needed. Such themes as the meaning of justice, progress, liberty, the common good, and consciences must once again become part of the public agenda. Dr. Colton is admirably equipped to lead us in this most important new undertaking of the Foundation.”
Rockefeller Foundation President John H. Knowles, 1974
Joel Colton was a distinguished historian of modern Europe who specialized in French history and culture. Named the Rockefeller Foundation's (RF) director for humanities in 1974, Colton's appointment marked the Foundation's renewed focus on the humanities, which had not had their own director within the Foundation since 1962. His tenure with the RF was characterized by a commitment to humanities scholarship, public engagement, and a firm belief in the humanities' relevance to public discourse.
Colton was born on August 23, 1918 in New York City. He earned his B.A. degree at the City College of New York in 1937, and his M.A. in history at Columbia University in 1940. Colton then earned a master's degree in education at City College and worked as a teacher in training at the Bronx High School of Science from 1941 to 1942.
Colton served in the Army during World War II, including an eighteen month commission as a military intelligence officer in Europe. After the war, Colton returned to Columbia to work toward his doctorate. In 1947, he took a position teaching European history at Duke University, and completed his Ph.D. in 1950. From 1967 to 1974, he served as the chair of the University's history department.
In 1974, Colton accepted a position as the Rockefeller Foundation's director for humanities. His leadership reflected his belief that the humanities should play a central role in contemporary life and his commitment to publicly-engaged scholarship. He oversaw the establishment of the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships in the Humanities to support humanistic scholarship with contemporary relevance. From 1978 to 1980 Colton served as the liaison to the RF-sponsored Commission on the Humanities, which examined the role of the humanities in American education and public life. The Commission's final report, The Humanities in American Life, was published in 1980.
Colton organized three conferences at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center: “Modernization, Economic Development, and Cultural Values" (1978); “Human Rights, Human Needs, and Developing Nations," co-hosted with Malcolm Richardson (1979); and “International Philanthropy and the Humanities," co-hosted with Kathleen McCarthy (1981). Colton took a study leave in 1981, and began working as a consultant to the Foundation. In 1982, he coauthored a history of the RF's humanities work, “The Humanities and 'The Well-Being of Mankind:' The Humanities at The Rockefeller Foundation Since 1928,” with Malcolm Richardson. Colton returned to teaching at Duke in 1982, and retired in 1989.
Colton received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1957), Rockefeller Foundation (1961-62), and National Endowment for the Humanities (1970-71), and was honored as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1979. He authored several books, including Compulsory Labor Arbitration in France, 1936-1939 (1951), Leon Blum: Humanist in Politics (1966), and a book for the Time-Life "Great Ages of Man" series, Twentieth Century (1968). He is perhaps best known for coauthoring the classic textbook, A History of the Modern World. First written by Princeton historian R. R. Palmer in 1950, Colton and Palmer (and later a third historian, Lloyd Kramer) collaborated on the subsequent 9 editions. The textbook has been translated into ten languages.
Joel Colton passed away on April 17, 2011 in Durham, North Carolina. His officer's diaries can be accessed at the Rockefeller Archive Center.