Theodore K. Rabb, a leading historian of the Renaissance and an innovative professor at Princeton University who taught that the values of Western culture are an inescapable, invaluable fountainhead of modern life, died Jan. 7 at a hospital in Princeton, N.J. He was 81.
His death was confirmed by a son, Jeremy Rabb, who declined to specify the cause.
During an era in which scholars developed increasingly specialized interests, Dr. Rabb adopted a sweeping academic approach, ranging from economic history to politics to painting, emphasizing the broad scope and lasting influence of ideas that flowered during the Renaissance.
His academic specialty was the study of 17th-century England and the European Renaissance in general, and he was the chief historical consultant and on-camera commentator for a 1993 PBS series on the Renaissance.
“The Renaissance,” he said in the series, “. . . is the carrier of gigantic change. And we are the children of the Renaissance in that we now expect change to happen.”
He wrote or edited more than 20 books and in 1970 was a founding editor of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, which reflected his views that the fields of history, art, economics, politics, science and religious studies are often intertwined in their effect on society.
Dr. Rabb was a wide-ranging scholar who was “perpetually inventive,” Anthony Grafton, a longtime Princeton colleague, said in an interview. “He never stopped asking the big questions.”
For his first book, published in 1967, Dr. Rabb used computers to analyze British commercial records of the 16th and 17th centuries. Three decades later, he was among the first scholars to adopt the Internet as a teaching tool, going into high schools to present lectures on the Renaissance built around images and documents found online.
“If you can bring just one work of art into the classroom,” he told Newark’s Star-Ledger in 1998, “these great images may stick with the student long after what the teacher said leaves the student.”
At Princeton, where he taught for almost 40 years, Dr. Rabb spearheaded a popular — and demanding — two-year interdisciplinary humanities course in the 1990s, blending history, literature and philosophy.
“He was a kind of legend among students,” Grafton said. “He had this broad vision of how to teach the humanities. He was very good at getting students to take the adventure.”
Each course, taught by tenured professors to a select group of undergraduates, delved deeply into major works from antiquity to modern times. Students did roughly twice as much reading and writing as in a standard class.
“It was a tough course,” said John V. Fleming, an emeritus professor of medieval literature at Princeton who helped launch the course. “But it was something of a phenomenon. Ted was the one who had this vision. It was quite revolutionary for the time.”
Dr. Rabb bristled at notions that the study of Western civilization was “elitist” or ignored the historically underrepresented groups in society. The truth, he argued, was just the opposite.
“In my view, if today’s students want to understand where they come from, and why they behave as they do, this is where they must begin,” he wrote in The Washington Post in 1994. “It is patronizing and deeply unfair for our generation . . . on the assumption that we are the heirs of Mozart, Austen, Rembrandt, Teresa, Galileo, Rousseau and the like — to downplay that legacy for our children.”
At one of his final lectures, in 2005, former students returned to campus and joined in singing a tribute to Dr. Rabb — in Latin.
Theodore Rabinowicz was born March 5, 1937, in Teplice-Sanov, Czechoslovakia. Fleeing Nazi persecution, his family settled in London. His father was a journalist and businessman, his mother a homemaker.
After graduating in 1958 from the University of Oxford, Dr. Rabb, who shortened his name as a young man and added the middle initial of “K,” pursued graduate study in history at Princeton. He received a master’s degree in 1960 and a doctorate in 1961, and then taught at Stanford, Northwestern and Harvard universities before joining the Princeton faculty in 1967.
His books included “The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe” (1975), in which he suggested that the artistic and scientific efflorescence of the Renaissance transformed a world of constant turmoil into one of relative tranquility. In later years, Dr. Rabb focused on cultural studies, publishing “The Artist and the Warrior: Military History Through the Eyes of the Masters” in 2011 and “Why Does Michelangelo Matter? A Historian’s Questions About the Visual Arts” last year.
Survivors include his wife of 59 years, the former Tamar Janowsky of Princeton; three children, Susannah Bailin of New York, Jonathan Rabb of Savannah, Ga., and Jeremy Rabb of Los Angeles; a sister; and five grandchildren.
Throughout his career, Dr. Rabb championed efforts to strengthen the national standards for teaching history. He was on the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities and was chairman of the National Council for History Education. At Princeton, he launched a program to place graduate students from elite universities on the faculties of community colleges.
“To have an informed citizenry, history has to be learned, not as a set of lifeless facts, but as a felt, meaningful way of understanding oneself and one’s society,” Dr. Rabb wrote in The Post in 1994.
“The decline of history in the schools would cause a shrinkage of the ‘rational and knowledgeable’ citizenry that is a precondition for a healthy democracy,” he concluded. “A sense of history could offer an antidote to the mean-spirited and divisive rhetoric that stalks the land.”