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From the Letters to the Editor column in the March 2000 Perspectives

What Can the AHA Do?

Peter Eisenstadt, March 2000

To the Editor:

According to the January 2000 Perspectives, the number of PhDs in history minted by American universities reached a 20-year high in 1998, with a concomitant drop in the percentage of new PhDs able to find employment upon graduation. This is unfortunate, but it is not news. It confirms what has been obvious for many years, that the "academic crisis" will continue as long as it is in the self-interest of history departments to perpetuate it, which apparently will be forever.

In the same issue, Robert Darnton writes eloquently of the scourge of part-time employment and argues the AHA can help ameliorate their plight. But Darnton is also a realist. The AHA, he points out, is not a "trade union," and has little power "to expand universities or contract PhD programs." At best, the AHA can "help around the margins." All of the particular suggestions Darnton makes are useful, but we all know the problem is not going away and, judging from the current PhD statistics, will likely grow worse. What role can the AHA play?

The AHA is a professional organization. Its main purpose is to advance the professional interest of its members. In this it has been a miserable failure. Its deeply fissured membership does not share a common professional purpose or goal. For historians who work outside of the academy, the AHA is of little professional relevance. Neither is it an effective advocate for historians that work in universities.

This is not entirely the fault of the AHA. Talk of the organization doing something to improve the situation of part-time teachers must be accompanied by searching self-criticism and a recognition of what the AHA can and cannot do. As Darnton points out, the AHA is not a substitute for a trade union, nor can the organization do much to influence the admission policies of research institutions. For those who work in universities, I would suggest that participation in an actual union, one that crosses disciplinary lines in ways the AHA cannot, would be the most effective way of addressing legitimate workplace grievances. Graduate student unions are flourishing; most full-time faculty are already unionized. To those in university settings I say let academic unions thrive: fight the good fight, defend your interests, seek justice.

But for those outside of universities the struggle to improve vocational opportunities in colleges and universities is really of little relevance. Or rather it is no more important than any of a number of other critical public issues; such as the lack of adequate health insurance or the need for improved elementary and secondary education. What happens in universities is important but not essential to the future of serious historical scholarship and its dissemination. I do not wish to be misunderstood on this point. Perspectives is an appropriate forum for the discussion of professional issues, grand and petty. But the focus on the vocational crisis in higher education reinforces the notion that the fate of historical scholarship will be tied, for better or worse, to the situation of the universities. There is no reason for this to be the case. The AHA should be more concerned with higher scholarship in all forms rather than with the vocation of higher education. While the commitment and love of serious historical scholarship will no doubt endure, I am less certain whether universities as we now know them will have a role to play in its future.

In his comments in the January issue, Eric Foner, the incoming president of the AHA, argues that the state of historical scholarship is healthy, and affirms his commitment to address the problems of part-time academic employment. I applaud these sentiments, but would argue that the practice of history is flourishing despite the long-term systemic crisis of higher education. The growth of the Internet and distance learning will only enhance the trend of historians seeking nonacademic employment. This is a change that should be encouraged. The time has come for a thorough debate on the role of the university system in the credentialing of historians and in the production and dissemination of serious historical scholarship. To the extent we view the AHA as an organization with a vested interest in maintaining the academic history profession, rather than an organization for serious historians, regardless of their condition of employment, we misconstrue its purpose, and shortchange its future.

—Peter Eisenstadt
Rochester, N.Y.