The National History Center Today: Some Questions and Answers

Wm. Roger Louis, January 2012

1. It is now about 10 years since the creation of the National History Center. How would you sum up its accomplishments as well as the goals that have not been realized?

The Center is dedicated to the study and teaching of history and the advancement of historical knowledge in government, journalism, and the public at large, as well as among fellow scholars. We help historians reach out to broader audiences, providing the historical context that will help better to understand today's events. We also offer programs that the AHA itself finds difficult to carry out because of the relatively rapid turnover in its leadership. In a measured sort of way, we are meeting those goals through a variety of programs. (I should explain that by using the "we," I am presuming to speak for the Center's leadership—the present chairman of the Board of Trustees is James Sheehan.)

Though we have not yet achieved the original aim of acquiring a building in Washington, D.C., we have become a virtual center, with the programs and other attributes of a physical center. We believe it is important to keep the vision in mind: a building in Washington that will serve not only as a meeting place for lectures, seminars, and research offices but also as a symbol of history in American public life. We continue to work toward this goal.

2. What have been your significant challenges?

The main thing is the budget. We have been able to recruit individuals willing to pledge $3,000 as Founders, and many have renewed their pledges. But it is hard to sustain this level of personal commitment. We are presently giving a lot of thought to restructuring the finances of the Center. We plan to reach out to those who might not be able to pledge such a large amount but who would like to support the Center's activities. Of course, we are very grateful for the further support from the Founders and others who can help the Center substantially, but we also welcome assistance from historians of all ages and all ranks.

3. You say the NHC is a "virtual center." What exactly does this mean, and how does it work?

A virtual center is one that operates programs, but without a large headquarters or staff. It accomplishes much of its work electronically, communicating via e-mail and conference calls, maintaining a website, and having a presence on Facebook. It works through partnerships with other organizations. In fact, partnerships have become a hallmark of the National History Center. Here's a list of the partnerships and a word about some of the programs:

With the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, a weekly history seminar in Washington, D.C.: I mention the Washington History Seminar first because it has occupied much of my time in the last two years. We are now beginning our third year. The weekly Monday afternoon meeting has become a popular event for scholars and the public. It is remarkable that Washington has never had a regular history seminar that rolls over week by week, drawing together historians from departments in and around Washington as well as historians working for the federal government.

I would like to emphasize its wider and perhaps more important significance. Supported in part by a grant from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the weekly sessions are recorded and made accessible to historians throughout the world. We believe that the seminar has thus succeeded in giving interested parties worldwide the opportunity to make the connection between historical context and contemporary affairs (on one occasion, John Pocock argued that there is no connection, and we regarded this as a salutary and stimulating critical session). The seminar now attracts a weekly attendance of up to 75 people (about as large as a seminar can be and still remain a seminar), but the recording of the sessions gives it a far wider audience.

With the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, the annual summer seminar on decolonization, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: There is no doubt that the International Seminar on Decolonization is a continuing success. There are now some 90 historians at the beginning of their careers who have participated in the summer seminars, and we have four years to go. Each year we have a pretty good balance of young historians coming from all parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as well as Europe and the United States.

With the Council on Foreign Relations, biannual lectures in New York: This series is also a success, thanks in large part to the President of the Council, Richard Haass, who has an interest in the historical context of present-day affairs. Some of the speakers have included the late Ernest May, Fritz Stern, Marilyn Young, and Paul Kennedy. It is important, we think, that we have two events each year that take place in New York City, where we attract slightly different participants, thanks to the Council.

With Oxford University Press, the book series Reinterpreting History: The volumes published so far cover such diverse subjects as Vietnam and the Atlantic world. There is a forthcoming volume on the history of human rights. All these books have all had their origins in AHA panels at the annual meetings. Susan Ferber, the history editor at OUPNY, is a great asset in recruiting authors and making the research arm of the National History Center known to historians throughout the country.

With the AHA's Teaching Division, Graduate and Early Career Committee, and Two-Year College Faculty Task Force, a workshop on excellence in undergraduate teaching: The teaching workshop that we held at the AHA meeting in Boston in 2011 was effective, standing room only. We will hold another teaching workshop at the Chicago meeting. As I have mentioned, the National History Center committed itself at the time of its founding to pursue teaching aims as well as those of research and service. With the AHA's teaching division and prize committees on teaching, we hope eventually to create a national society for teaching excellence.

With the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, the initiative on "Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right": The partnership on history and journalism is one that we have long had in mind and we believe it has significant potential. Several of the Center's sessions at the Chicago meeting of the AHA are dedicated to this theme.

4. Are there programs that have posed challenges?

Yes. At present it is the program that many have regarded as our signature program, the Congressional Briefings. The series aims at offering members of Congress and their staffs the historical context of current policy issues. It got off to a very good and fast start several years ago, but has faltered more recently. We have had difficulty in the last couple of years sustaining it, partly because the polarized politics of Washington make members of Congress reluctant to sponsor events that might be controversial, even though the National History Center, like the AHA itself, is entirely nonpartisan. We are now giving renewed attention to getting the series back on a regular schedule. Early next year, we will re-launch Congressional Briefings with a session on the history of the space program and space exploration.

5. What do you foresee as future directions for the Center?

We remain committed to our original goals in teaching and research as well as service, but our most prominent program will probably be the Washington History Seminar, because of its extraordinary reach each week throughout the world. Let me emphasize that whenever in Washington, all AHA members, above all graduate students, will be heartily welcomed at the Monday seminar, but I hope in any event that more and more historians will be able to take advantage of the electronic transmission each week.

6. All in all, then, you are still optimistic?

Yes indeed. The National History Center as it has evolved is serving a unique purpose in American public life as well as within the AHA.

The National History Center

The Early Stages: A Brief Chronology

1901 J. Franklin Jameson proposes the creation of a School of American Historical Studies in the nation's capital. Crediting Frederick Jackson Turner with the idea, Jameson suggested an institution patterned after the American Institutes in Athens and Rome and the Institut für Geschichtsforschung in Germany and Austria.

1964 In his presidential address to the AHA, Julian P. Boyd called for the creation in Washington, D.C., of a "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."

1999 In an article published in the November issue of Perspectives, James M. Banner, Jr., invokes the approaching centenary of Jameson's original proposal to argue for reviving the idea of a national center for history to support "the broadest range of efforts to strengthen the entire practice and field of history."

2000 James M. Banner, Jr. makes a presentation about his idea to the Research Division of the AHA in April.

2000 In an article in the November issue of Perspectives, Wm. Roger Louis, president-elect of the AHA for 2000, refers to the previous articles and the discussion with the Research Division, and makes a more formal, detailed proposal addressed to AHA members, calling for the creation of a National Center for Historical Studies.

2002 At its January meeting, AHA's Council approves the appointment of Wm. Roger Louis as the chair of the planning committee for the National Center for Historical Studies.

2002 The National History Center is formally incorporated in the District of Columbia on April 9.

Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is the founding director of the National History Center.