Historians Today: Pleasures, Prospects, and Predicaments
Eric Foner, January 2000
The presidency of the American Historical Association is the greatest honor that a historian in this country can receive, and I am profoundly grateful to my colleagues for bestowing it upon me. Thanks to the dedication and enlightened leadership of my predecessors, Joseph Miller and Robert Darnton, the AHA enters the new century stronger than ever, well prepared to continue the work of promoting the study of history and the dissemination of historical knowledge so critical to a democratic society.
I assume this office at an exciting time to be a historian. The 1990s has been a decade of unprecedented public interest in history. The History Channel is among the most successful enterprises on cable television, and attendance at historical museums and other sites is at a record high. Works of history (sometimes by professional historians) regularly appear on best-seller lists, and Hollywood, for better or worse, continues to churn out historically oriented films. If my own university is any indication, student interest in history as evidenced by course enrollments has never been greater.
Despite a proliferation of partisan jeremiads lamenting the decline of historical scholarship, I believe that overall, the study of history is in a healthy state. It hardly needs reiteration that the past two generations have witnessed a remarkable expansion of the subject matter of history, as new methods and concerns have vastly expanded the cast of characters included in historical narratives and the methods employed in historical analysis. The professorate itself has changed so that it more fully reflects the composition of our society. In eight years of undergraduate and graduate study at Columbia University in the 1960s, I never encountered a single female or nonwhite teacher. Such an experience would be virtually impossible today.
Of course, recent changes in the study of history have produced their own concerns, about the fragmentation of scholarship, the difficulty of constructing coherent narratives (or whether narrative itself is ultimately a form of fiction), and many other issues. Rather than a sign of weakness, I see today's debates as evidence of the strength of our profession. The study of history is so immense and varied that it is less susceptible than other disciplines to radical swings of outlook or the sudden triumph of new fads. No single method or point of view can ever completely dominate it. The very clash of approaches and interpretations is what gives our enterprise vitality and advances historical understanding. I believe that in the sheer output of works of excellence, the 1990s can compare with any previous period. The rediscovery of the centrality of history in other disciplines—the "new historicism" in literary studies and anthropology, for example, provides further evidence of the vitality of historical scholarship.
Of course, the 1990s also saw history emerge as a political "wedge issue," with public officials and private pressure groups seizing upon developments like the proposed National History Standards or the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution to score points by blaming "revisionist" historians for many of the ills, real and imagined, of American society. No one was more surprised by being suddenly thrust into the public spotlight than historians themselves. Among other things, these debates revealed that aspects of the study of the past that we take for granted, especially the conviction that the constant search for new perspectives is the lifeblood of historical understanding, are viewed with suspicion by many outside of academe.
Ironically, even as popular interest in history has burgeoned, widespread ignorance flourishes about both historical methodology and historical knowledge. The recent impeachment of President Clinton revealed that large numbers of journalists and political commentators possess an appalling lack of information about basic elements of our constitutional structure and key moments in our national past. I vividly recall that a year ago, as a scholar of the Reconstruction period, I was inundated with calls from journalists who had just discovered that a previous president, Andrew Johnson, had been impeached. Not one possessed any real knowledge of Johnson's presidency, or, more important perhaps, of the era during which he served. If they did harbor thoughts about Reconstruction, they derived these from the old Dunning school, which viewed Johnson as a courageous defender of the Constitution sabotaged by vindictive Radical Republicans bent upon punishing the South after the Civil War, a point of view that has been rejected by most historians for at least three decades. My intention here is not so much to chide journalists and "pundits" for failing to do their homework, but to remind ourselves that we continue to face a daunting task of historical education.
Another serious problem confronting the profession is the rapid growth of part-time employment among historians. Judging by the rising number of listings in Perspectives, the job market has taken a turn for the better of late. Yet part-time and temporary employment continues to proliferate. As president, I hope to devote a considerable part of my energies to investigating this problem and devising ways for the AHA to help combat it. The first step is to gather accurate information about the extent of part-time employment and the working conditions of such historians. The most recent national survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 1993, found that part-time and adjunct faculty had increased from 22 percent of faculty appointments in 1970 to more than 40 percent. The proportion was far higher (64 percent) at community colleges, but colleges and universities of all sizes and types were also found to rely extensively on part-time and temporary instructors.
Impressionistic evidence suggests that the numbers are even higher today, but facts are hard to come by. Thanks to a Chairman's Grant from William R. Ferris, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a devoted friend of historical scholarship, the AHA, the Modern Language Association, and a number of other learned societies are undertaking a national survey that should provide up-to-date data about the extent and working conditions of part-time employment in undergraduate education.
The AHA has also initiated an e-mail survey of part-time and temporary faculty asking them to convey their own experiences, conditions, and frustrations.
I hasten to add that it would be quite wrong to assume that adjuncts are less able scholars and teachers than full-time employees. The point is that we must insist that all historians have a right to work under dignified conditions, with adequate compensation and benefits, a voice in academic decisionmaking, and decent prospects for promotion.
This issue will come before the AHA Council in January. In a subsequent column, I hope to detail what steps the AHA can take to try to curb the proliferation of part-time employment in the teaching of history and to bring such historians more fully into the life of the profession.
—Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) is president-elect of the AHA. He will assume the office of president at the AHA Business Meeting on January 8, 2000.