The Tasks before Us
James Grossman, December 2012
This 50th anniversary issue of the AHA's newsmagazine steps a bit outside our comfort zone to contemplate the future of our discipline. We do so in a way that reminds me of one of the many reasons I am proud to be a historian. A friend who works in curriculum-reform circles once contrasted mathematicians gathering around a table to define and solve a problem, to historians (and by extension other humanists) gathered around the same table a few months later: problematizing the problem, and then debating both the imperative of such problematization and the implications of various definitional pathways. Had he not been trained as a historian—not to mention being possessed of a genial and patient nature—I suspect he would have thrown up his hands and allocated the grant money to another discipline. Here, we ask colleagues to speculate on our own pathways, our future as a discipline, while at the same time using their contributions to then interrogate the very notion of historians engaging in such an enterprise.
This exercise in "audacity," to quote Perspectives editor Pillarisetti Sudhir, owes much to his vision and energy. Here, we not only commemorate the anniversary of our publication, but also the retirement of our longtime friend and colleague after 16 years at the AHA in various editorial positions. It is fitting to mark the transition to our new editor, Allen Mikaelian, with an issue that affirms Sudhir's ambition and broad vision for the discipline, and particularly his commitment to transnationalism, which runs through many of these essays as a central theme.
The essays themselves, and the striking extent to which they speak to one another, reflect the curatorial imagination of former AHA president Lynn Hunt, who has marshaled this collection of essays for your holiday delight and inspiration. Her thoughtful introduction not only frames the essays, but also underscores a point that current AHA president William Cronon and I have emphasized in another context: that one of the most important roles played by the AHA (and by other scholarly societies as well) is to provide "a gathering place in which we can discuss, collect and disseminate information, and where possible, intervene." I would add to Hunt's list that the AHA is also a place to disagree—whether on the content of historical scholarship, on professional issues such as the ethics of sponsored research, on the very role of historians in public culture, and on the function of scholarly societies.
Perhaps I am most grateful to Hunt for her opening metaphor. I've been accused of shoveling all sorts of stuff; it's comforting to see the shovel used more politely here to illuminate why we dig where we dig, and what it means to look for something without a prior commitment to finding just what we expect beneath the surface. Dipesh Chakrabarty offers a wonderful example of this, suggesting how climate change nudges us to reconsider how we think about human agency. Frederick Cooper's essay reminds us to maintain a bit of humility when we talk about writing "global" history.
Indeed, I am struck by the many ways in which humility emerges as a theme in these essays, and am myself humbled by Daniel Smail's reminder that I am a "shallow historian"—having focused my teaching on little more than a century, my initial research on merely a few decades, and my subsequent work on a longer period in only a curatorial/editorial capacity.
The essays also suggest a humility of a different sort: our ability (or lack thereof) to speak effectively beyond our guild. In many ways, we do this well, and in presentations about our work I often point with pride to the wide readership attained by many of our members, (and even to our non-member colleagues). We are less successful in promoting the significance of historical thinking, perhaps even of history education as we understand it (as opposed to the ubiquitous, problematic invocation of Santayana's reference to forgetfulness and repetition, an idea more relevant perhaps to Alzheimer's than to history). As Christine Mathias notes, much of public culture remains unaware, for example, of the tools historians bring to the table of policy analysis—this despite the markedly everyday nature of historical conversation.
Consider in this regard Benjamin Alpers's emphasis on generating public support for the humanities and for the work of humanists. How can we, as historians, contribute to that essential enterprise? Daniel Smail notes the perils of promoting our work condescendingly to the general public through such references as the bovine lives invoked by Nietzsche's observations of cows with a past but unaware of it. Would it help if we engaged more publicly with other disciplines, such as economics, which have fewer readers among the general public but a weightier voice at the policy table? Francesca Trivellato "wonders if a dialogue between economists and historians might even be possible," while at the same time implicitly highlighting one of the many reasons why conversation between historians and social scientists is essential to public culture, public policy, and perhaps even public education.
Alpers carries this theme into the worlds of higher education inhabited by many of our members, alerting us to the depth of public misunderstanding about how higher education works, and about the nature of its cost structure. We might wonder whether his reference (via Benjamin Ginsberg) to how "faculty have progressively lost power to administrators with a fundamentally bureaucratic vision of the university" could be expanded to include the moments in which we have ceded such power. I am too often reminded that so many of our colleagues consider committee work to be a burden, and teaching a "load" that differs fundamentally from one's "own work," defined of course by one's current research agenda.
Although many of the essays here derive from consideration of future research agendas, Alpers's is not the only piece urging us to remember the breadth and scope of our mission. We are teachers, whether in our classrooms or in the vastly diverse environments in which we earn a living, consult, and volunteer. Hunt and Alpers keep the important question of employment structures on our horizon, as the academy's work force changes before our eyes. This transformation in structures of employment relates closely to our careless tendency to forget the enormous role of two-year colleges in our education system. Charles Zappia reminds us that more than two million students take at least one History course in the California community college system alone.
Taken together, these essays suggest that the future of our discipline lies in our ability to convey how much we have to offer, thinking broadly all the while about our work as teachers, scholars, and members of communities that can benefit from our ways of asking questions and seeking answers, as well as our ways of disagreeing about those questions and answers. And, as Carolyn Bynum reminds us, we can do this long after anyone sees fit to pay us for the privilege. As my teacher, friend, and colleague Timuel Black reminds me as he approaches his 94th birthday, "just because I'm re-tired, doesn't mean that I'm tired."
James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.
- Public History, Public Historians, and the American Historical Association
- In Admin: Four History PhDs Discuss Their Alt-Ac Careers
- Making the Case: The Many Venues for Historians’ Advocacy
- For the Record: An Editor's Reflection on the In Memoriam Essays
- Letter to the Editor: On Professional Boredom and Teaching History