A Half Century with the AHA

Peter N. Stearns, December 2012

I wish I could say I joined the AHA in utero, but that would not be quite true. My father, also a historian, had been a loyal member, however, and I think I may have been dragged to a meeting or two as a child (I mean, exposed to the glamour of the organization at a young age). But I joined when I was about done with doctoral work and looking for a job, like so many of my colleagues. I vividly remember the one interview I had, as an initial result, at an annual meeting in Washington, D.C., which led nowhere.

Certainly, the organization has been a significant part of my professional life during my career, when job-seeking was safely behind me. I have benefited from the Association's various publications, Perspectives included; I am not always as informed as I should be about professional-disciplinary issues, but at least I've made some headway. I've had the privilege as well to participate in a number of Association activities, particularly during my years with the Teaching Division, and have consistently appreciated the dedication and advocacy the Association provides. I should add also, since I've now been involved in academic administration for quite a while yet eager to continue teaching and writing in the field, that the Association's activities and information help keep me professionally conversant, for which again I'm grateful.

My biggest concerns, as a historian, have been, first, blending commitments to teaching and research. As the Association reawakened to teaching issues, I've found it very helpful in building necessary links in this regard. Second, however, prodding the discipline to take on new directions, in teaching and research alike—always (since graduate school) toward a deeper commitment to social history, and for the past three decades toward greater interaction with world history as well. Again, the Association, including the newsletter, helped in these regards, sometimes with a bit more caution than I would have liked, but with real openness to innovation.

Third, in my list of concerns, has been a largely frustrated desire to help forge new links between historical analysis and a wider public, including a more interdisciplinary social and behavioral science audience. I do worry that historians spend too much time addressing each other, without the wider echo that would make historical thinking (in which I deeply believe) more widely accessible and available. Here too, the Association has periodically tried to help, among other things in its interactions with other disciplinary organizations. But I do think that more could be done, and wonder if the Association could embrace a clearer tension between its obvious need to serve internal constituents and a wider outreach.

At the least, I want to commend the Association for seeking to represent, at least, the whole history discipline, at a time when overspecialization risks isolating particular strands of scholarship, to the detriment of research and teaching alike. I'm not as attuned to the state of the Association as I was a few years ago, when membership issues and a narrowing of identities seemed very troubling, but I know at least that the Association stands for inclusiveness and cross-cutting connections – as it has for the past half century. For that, I remain deeply grateful.

Peter N. Stearns is provost and university professor at George Mason University. He is author of numerous books, including, most recently, of Human Rights in World History. He was vice president of the AHA, in the Teaching Division, 1994–97.