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From the President column of the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

A Modest Proposal

Gabrielle M. Spiegel, December 2008

The conclusion of the annual meeting of the AHA in New York City in January 2009 will mark the beginning of the Association’s 125th year, offering an opportunity to reflect on what the organization does for the profession today and the prospects for its future development.

The oldest professional society of historians in America, the American Historical Association was founded in 1884 by a handful of historians trained—for the most part—in German universities and led by Herbert Baxter Adams of Johns Hopkins University. In 1889 the founders took the unusual step of obtaining a federal charter for the AHA because they were convinced, as Julian P. Boyd noted in his presidential address to the Association in 1964, that there was a pressing need to provide “the capital of the nation [with] a center for historians and for historical study in all of its vast ramifications that will be worthy of the dignity of the discipline and of its fundamental importance to the culture of a free society.”1 Today the AHA has nearly 18,000 individual and institutional members drawn from the ranks of history teachers in universities, two- and four-year colleges, and secondary schools as well as scholars working in historical societies, government, and independent institutions.

One of the pleasures of holding an elected position in the Association is the chance to become acquainted with the enormous range of its activities, largely unknown and hence unappreciated by most of us as we go about our normal routines of teaching, researching, curating, and writing. Over the past 124 years, the Association has fulfilled its congressional charter by promoting historical studies at all levels of the educational system, supporting the collection and preservation of historical documents, and disseminating the best of new historical research. Simultaneously the Association moved into new areas of leadership and advocacy for the discipline by establishing and monitoring professional standards, encouraging its members to use the latest technologies to disseminate their work (from movies to the internet), and developing relationships with the international historical community. The scope of its concerns and the range of its activities have broadened along with the expanding nature of our participation in a globalized world.

Having spent a not insignificant portion of last summer reading through all the presidential addresses delivered at the annual meetings of the AHA, it was fascinating to track the ever-widening concerns of the developing profession, both in terms of how the practice of history was to be understood and shaped, and in terms of the new tasks that expansion imposed upon the Association. Early meetings took place largely on the East Coast and presidential addresses were delivered after dinner to the assembled “gentlemen” (so addressed by the speakers). Perhaps fortified by the dinner, these initial occasions dragged on for hours, as can be inferred from the length of the printed talks.

The primary concern expressed during the first decades of the Association’s existence was to implement the “scientific study” of history based on the German model. For early presidents and members, and Herbert Baxter Adams in particular, the principal scientific model for history was evolutionary biology, and Baxter Adams was proud to have established the first history seminar room at Hopkins on the site of a former biology lab. A view of history modeled on biology allowed him to preach his doctrine of the Teutonic “germ theory” of America’s founding by Anglo-Saxons as the biological destiny of the country, one that played a powerful role, he argued, in the shaping of its fundamental institutions. This teaching so bored and irritated his students, among them Frederick Jackson Turner and Woodrow Wilson, that the latter was moved to distract himself by carving his initials in the seminar table, still visible today in the table, which continues to be used for weekly meetings of the seminar. Among early presidents, only Henry Adams departed from this path, suggesting, instead, that historians adopt physics as the true scientific basis for historical thought, advice never heeded, although physics did rear its head one more time in the presidential address by C. Vann Woodward in 1969, who succinctly and forthrightly declared that if physicists could live with the idea of relativity, surely historians could live with relativism, thus putting the final nail in the coffin of scientific history that had so bedeviled the leaders of the profession during the first half century of the Association’s existence.2

The early labors of professional historians in the United States were directed to the teaching and investigation primarily of American and European history, but as America’s role in the world expanded, so too did the reach of its historical concerns—a fact reflected in the changing concerns of those presidential addresses, which took up the call to introduce new areas and methods of historical study—until today the scope of fields taught and studied has attained truly global proportions, as we sought to suggest in the theme for the 2009 annual meeting: “Globalizing Historiography.” And as the demographic makeup of the profession changed, the AHA responded by establishing committees directly concerned with making sure that the entry of new groups—women, minorities, public historians, archivists, and the like—was guaranteed by fair and equitable treatment in hiring and promotion.

Alongside the widening intellectual concerns of the profession, the AHA similarly expanded the range of its activities, reaching out through its Teaching Division to collaborate with K–12 teachers of history, helping to craft standards and normal practices for teachers, holding conferences to consider the state of secondary schools and public policies addressed to them, and publishing pamphlets to aid in the introduction of new fields, most recently world history. Professional conduct and the training of graduate students, including periodic statements of “best practices,” were monitored by the Professional Division. Over the last decade, the status of graduate training and employment has been carefully tracked by Robert Townsend in articles in Perspectives on History, both in terms of the internal shifts within the profession and in comparison to cognate fields like sociology, political science, and anthropology. In this, the Professional Division was aided not only by the establishment of an ad hoc Committee on Graduate Education (which produced a widely read report, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century), but also by a Committee for Graduate Students, which was expanded this year to include early career professionals. Promotion of new areas of research has been aided by the work of the Research Division, which has sought to implement not only the introduction of these into the annual meeting, but to consider changing formats of presentation and novel technologies of historical research in the new digital age.

Finally, one of the perennial concerns of past presidents, repeatedly appearing in their addresses, was to establish mechanisms for reaching the broader public for history, thus fulfilling one of the founder’s mandates, which sought to guarantee, as James Banner noted in an article in Perspectives in 1999, “that “the potential contributions of historical studies to citizens’ understanding of the great issues of history, to their search for a usable past, and to the formation of public policy [not go] unrealized.” To achieve this, the original founders of the AHA sought to create a center for the study of history in Washington D.C., a proposal first broached by Frederick Jackson Turner to J. Franklin Jameson and Charles Homer Haskins one spring evening in 1901, as the three sat musing on Turner’s veranda. Repeatedly over the course of the last hundred years, efforts to implement this idea were approved by the Council of the AHA, committees were established to carry it out, and initial efforts to fund it were pursued, all to no avail, despite fervent pleas on its behalf by a succession of presidents. The idea was taken up by Wm. Roger Louis as the major goal of his presidency of the American Historical Association in 2001, an effort that led to the creation of the National History Center. The center was established in 2002 as an independently incorporated initiative of the American Historical Association and it has created a series of programs that include Congressional Briefings on the historical context of legislative issues such as civil rights, social security, reform of the legislative process, educational reform, U.S.-Korean relations, and terrorism; a program to bring professional historians together with policy makers at the state and federal level to discuss history education policy; a continuing series of summer seminars focusing on the theme of decolonization; an NEH-sponsored summer institute that has brought teachers from two- and four-year colleges together at the Library of Congress to examine American history in a global context; and a lecture series at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

One of the more surprising aspects of holding office in the AHA has been a growing recognition of the enormous scope of its advocacy on behalf of historians and history at every level of the profession. To be sure, the AHA early on was instrumental in helping to set up the National Archives, a project close to the heart of J. Franklin Jameson, the first managing editor of the American Historical Review and president of the AHA in 1907, who led the decades-long campaign for the establishment of a national archives. Today, the AHA continues to advocate the need to preserve the nation’s records, collaborating with other public history organizations to ensure that critical historical records are not lost to future historical investigation. The AHA participated in establishing the Freedom of Information Act and the Presidential Records Act. The National Coalition for History is located in the headquarters office of the AHA in Washington, D.C., and both it and the AHA routinely join with organizations like the National Humanities Alliance, National History Day, the NEH, the ACLS, regional Humanities Councils, and public history groups to promote the study of history throughout the country.

But perhaps the biggest surprise, for me anyway, was to realize that all of this activity is supported by an extremely modest endowment, indeed one shockingly small for an institution as old and venerable as the AHA, almost half of which, in addition, is restricted in its use to support the prizes awarded at the annual meeting. For most of its history, the AHA has relied upon the revenue stream from membership dues and whatever modest profits it could realize from the annual meetings and pamphlet publications. In the past, this has proven adequate for the tasks the Association set itself, but even before the current economic crisis significantly depleted the endowment, it seemed reasonable to assume that a larger endowment was necessary to see us through what almost everyone believes will be difficult times in the years to come. Changes in the digital environment, particularly the availability of the American Historical Review free and online, raised the question of whether the AHA could continue to rely almost exclusively on annual revenue from membership dues and subscriptions. A fair number of presidential addresses over the past decades proposed campaigns to enhance endowment, the most striking of which was the proposal by Julian Boyd in the 1964 address noted above, that the Association dedicate itself to raising $50 million dollars to guarantee its future health, an impressive number, especially when adjusted for inflation.

Today, I have a more modest proposal. That in celebration of the 125th anniversary of the AHA, each and every member commit to giving a $125 to a “125th Anniversary Fund” that is to be established in the coming year. Monies collected in this 125th Anniversary Fund would not be used for operating expenses but would be directed to expanding the public programs and outreach of the AHA to new constituencies and for enhancing the endowment, as stipulated by the donor. By the standards of 1884, $125 is roughly the equivalent of $2,850 in today’s values, making this a modest proposal indeed.

We should not underestimate the importance of even such small gifts for the future well-being of the Association. The AHA is a wonderful institution, with marvelous staff members who are quietly efficient and enormously effective in implementing its goals. Over the last century and a quarter, the AHA has proven itself to be sensitive to the changing character, needs, and aims of historians and their audiences, fierce in its promotion of the teaching of history at all levels of the country’s educational system, vigilant in its defense against incursions into the rights of historians’ to practice their craft, whether in the form of access to archives or freedom of travel, speech and thought. It deserves our support, no matter how modest, so that it can meet the challenges of the coming years with the assurance that it will be able to provide the full range of services and activities that it has taken up since its founding. Contributing even the modest sum of $125 to the AHA on the occasion of its 125th anniversary will allow it to face the next 125 years with continuing confidence in its ability to serve the profession and the nation with the same exacting standards of excellence that has characterized its activities in the past.

—Gabrielle Spiegel (Johns Hopkins Univ.) is the president of the AHA.

Notes

1. “A Modest Proposal to Meet an Urgent Need,” presidential address delivered at the Sheraton-Park Hotel, Washington, D.C., December 29, 1964, published in the American Historical Review 70:2 (January 1965): 329–49.

2. “The Future of the Past,” presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington, D.C., December 29, 1969, published in the American Historical Review, Volume 75:3 (February 1970), 711–726.