Preliminary Responses to the Proposal for a National History Center

Wm. Roger Louis, December 2000

I have always thought of the membership of the AHA as including so many fiercely independent-minded historians that agreement on any topic is close to impossible. We exist as an association because we tolerate each other's views, and they usually clash. I had not expected anything like a consensus on the proposal for the creation of a National Center for Historical Studies (which I'll refer to here more briefly as the National History Center). The preliminary response does reflect a consensus, though along the lines that the prospect appears too good to be true. Can the vision of a National History Center that has been banging around for nearly a hundred years actually be realized?

Naturally enough, there are a lot of contrary-minded historians around to challenge any proposal, but even the skeptics seem more inclined to query financial and administrative issues rather than the proposal itself. Let me take the more skeptical points first, then the more positive ones on the center's potential.

The largest question is one to which I don't have an answer. It is, simply put, where is the money to come from? On the basis of professional advice, we know that we probably will need an endowment of $50 million to secure a center worthy of the AHA. The center would hold a balance between teaching and research. It would sponsor a full range of programs designed to foster teaching at the level of the secondary schools as well as the universities, and it would offer research fellowships. To achieve this purpose, we hope to raise $50 million from one person or institution. We are not yet certain, of course, whether this will be possible, but we are pursuing leads. The search may prove to be long and difficult, and it could well be that we shall have to raise the money from a variety of sources. My own sense is that we may be able to find a public-spirited citizen willing to invest in America's future in education by sponsoring the National History Center.

Another query concerns the Library of Congress. Since the library is governed by congressional legislation, what guarantees might there be to prevent members of Congress from interfering with a center jointly sponsored by the library and the AHA? Here is an excerpt from a letter that raises the basic issues:

Perhaps the time would come, as it has for the Endowment for the Arts and in part for the NEH, when key figures in Congress will disapprove of what the center is doing—revisionist interpretations of American history, publications that run against what some congressmen consider patriotic views, etc. Even if insulated financially, how could the center's integrity be maintained? And who would pick the center's officers? Would they have to be screened by a congressional committee?

To begin with the answer to the last question, no, the center's officers would not be screened by a congressional committee, nor would Congress exercise any control over the center's activities. The building we have in mind as a possibility is a Library of Congress building, and the building as such would be subject to the same regulations as any federal building. But the center would be governed by an autonomous board, which would include independent public figures chosen by the AHA and the library to maintain the center's integrity and purpose. The self-governing board would include historians representing the diverse membership of the AHA. Though of course the details have yet to be worked out, the officers of the center would be nominated by the AHA Council. It would probably be imprudent at this stage to speculate beyond those principles, but I am myself confident, speaking on behalf of the AHA, that every possible care would be taken to ensure an independent and able staff of the highest integrity.

I am heartened by the way in which the emphasis on teaching emerges as a dominant theme in the responses I've received so far. Again, I think the points can best be made by quoting excerpts:

The two things I liked best about the proposal were (1) that the AHA is going to include the groups that are usually ignored by major fellowship programs—the hardworking folks at junior colleges and smaller schools. I think that anyone would be a better teacher after spending some time at the proposed center, but it would be especially beneficial to the members of the profession who are out there teaching 15 hours a semester in remote places.. (2) I like the idea of using the center as a meeting place for out-of-towners, and particularly visitors from abroad. I recall that when I first went to England (and about as green as you can be), I joined the Institute of Historical Research. They even helped me find a flat!

The comparison with the Institute of Historical Research runs through several of the letters and messages I received. It is a natural enough analogy, though the National History Center in Washington would have a much stronger emphasis on teaching as well as research.

In similar vein, another letter recalls how lonely it was as a graduate student in Washington:

When I was doing research in Washington and College Park, I usually felt completely isolated, even though I knew there were many other grad students in Washington at that very moment pursuing historical research. One of the great advantages of such a center might well be to provide a "home base" for graduate students by hosting lectures, seminars and other gatherings.

In the same letter there also recurs the theme of uniting teachers not only in colleges and universities but in the schools: "such a center might focus on the task of bringing college-level teachers into closer contact with secondary-school teachers."

One letter emphasizes the way in which the center might help historians to reach a larger audience and to correct the tendency, especially pronounced in recent years, of historians talking only to other historians.

I especially like the idea of having a center that is devoted exclusively to the study of history. I'd urge the center to do as much as possible to make history accessible to non-historians: politicians, journalists, secondary-school teachers, educated readers, and the general public. One of the things that I think has been most disturbing about the writing of history over the past 20 to 30 years is the tendency upon the part of scholars to address only their fellow historians. The result is that people still talk and write about history, but in ways that are uninformed by recent scholarship. We, as historians, are as much to blame for that as anyone. So I hope the center will be not only a vehicle to communicate the work of professional historians to the outside world, but also an institution that encourages historians to talk to and write for a larger audience than their peers.

Pursuing a slightly different point, another message helps to refine one of the purposes of the center: "It is important that the center not be limited to any one way of doing history and that it should be set up in a fashion that accommodates quantitative as well as qualitative approaches to historical research and specialized kinds of analysis—be they quantitative or qualitative, artistic, literary, or social scientific."

Last, a letter that emphasizes the potential of the lost art of the public lecture:

I was "turned on" to history as a student in college, graduate school and even after that when I was inspired by listening to really quite magical lectures by people like Leo Marx, David Potter, and Carl Schorske. I like the proposal because it points to a regular series of "general public" lectures by people who are recognized for their skill at that craft. In other words, using the center as a place where history is actually taught to non-professionals as well as our fellow historians.

I was especially interested in this letter because it also develops a theme that I believe to be of central importance: the center might serve as "a point of contact" and also of "reconciliation" for members of the AHA and, beyond that, as a symbol of tolerance toward all approaches to history.

One message was quite different. It's reassuring to know that at least one historian read my letter in Perspectives with professional severity, but in a way that lightens the tone of the debate. I can't say that I agree with him. I write, or so I hope, within such constraints of grammar that my ear tells me he is wrong. But I like the letter:

Regardless of the merits of Prof. Louis's proposal for a National Center for Historical Studies his last sentence manages to be both annoying and incorrect. I thought we had moved past the point where we mindlessly apply the old saw about "an" and "h" words. The sensible rule (sound it out and you'll see) is that "an" is placed before a word beginning with "h" only if the "h" is silent—e.g., "an hour." If on the other hand, the "h" in the "h" word is sounded, "a" is the appropriate choice, as in "a historic opportunity."

There will always be an England, there will always be an AHA.

—Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is president-elect of the AHA.