George Mason University: Peter Stearns receives American Historical Association recognition for a lifetime of distinguished scholarship

Peter Stearns, University Professor of History and provost emeritus at George Mason University, thinks there is more to know about happiness. So he is currently at work on a book that collects a variety of perspectives on the subject.

With two colleagues, he is organizing essays that represent diverse takes on happiness.

“Happiness is obviously an important current topic globally, but the historical research is scattered,” said Stearns, whose book “Happiness in World History” was published this year. “It’s an opportunity to collect a wider range of essays to try to establish different regional perspectives on happiness over time.”

The book will be the latest in a long line of Stearns’s impressive output of scholarship over his 58-year career; he has written, edited, or developed new editions of more than 150 volumes.

In addition to his research and writing, Stearns served as Mason’s provost from 2000 to 2014, when the university more than tripled its level of funded research and number of doctoral programs. While provost, Stearns also launched Mason Korea in Songdo, South Korea, and the collaboration with INTO to increase the number and diversity of students recruited from abroad. These projects, deeply rooted in a desire to increase global understanding, have fostered opportunities for constructive collaboration among different societies.

He also remains active in the classroom, teaching a course each fall and spring. Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning, launched in 2017 and an integral part of Mason’s rapid pivot to online teaching in March 2020, bears his name as a nod to his role as provost, his work in creating Mason’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and in the words of then-provost David Wu, his “tireless advoca[cy] for excellence in teaching.”

Prior to his time at Mason, he taught at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, Rutgers University, and Carnegie Mellon University, also serving in the administration at Rutgers and Carnegie Mellon. It was at Chicago that he founded the Journal of Social History, which is now edited at Mason.

With these contributions to the fields of history and education, and his extensive work with other journals and professional organizations, Stearns has earned a host of awards, the latest of which is the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction to his list of accolades.

Established in 1984, the award recognizes “senior historians of the highest distinction who have spent the bulk of their professional careers in the United States,” according to the AHA website. A full citation of the prize will be printed in the December issue of the AHA ‘s newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, and an awards ceremony will be held in January 2022, during the AHA’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

“The impact that Peter has made through his teaching, his leadership, and of course his scholarship, is extraordinary,” said Ann Ardis, dean of Mason’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “Peter’s students and faculty colleagues at Mason are fortunate to have benefited from all three elements of his career accomplishments.”

Stearns is the second Mason faculty member to earn this honor from the AHA, said Matthew Karush, chair of the Department of History and Art History. Lawrence Levine, who taught at Mason from 1994 to 2005 after retiring from a 30-year career at University of California, Berkeley, also received the award.

“The list of previous winners includes some of the absolute giants in the field,” he added. “These really are the most prominent and influential historians of their time.”

Stearns particularly appreciates the award in light of the variety of work that his career represents.

“I’ve had a good bit of time in administration as well as teaching,” he noted. “But I’ve always been committed to historical scholarship and particularly the exploration of new subjects for historical analysis—like happiness. I’m certainly grateful for the honor given the diversity of my own career.”