Highly Politicized and Agenda-Driven

Robert S. DuPlessis, September 1998

Thank you for your inquiry about my reaction to the launching of the Historical Society, about which I have been learning mainly via the net. So it is from this position of partial knowledge that I offer my comments.

From your viewpoint, is there a need for new society for historians?

From my viewpoint, not one founded by those involved in the Historical Society. In light of both the personal style and the historical agendas of those who have so far spoken for that Society (and who I thus take to be its core), I find it impossible to believe their expressed purpose of providing (to quote from the Society's statement of principles) "a place in which significant historical subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect and common courtesy."

In your opinion, in what significant ways does the new society differ from the existing organizations?

It is more covertly politicized; embodies a more hierarchic notion of how intellectual discourse is to be expressed; seeks to delimit more directly and more restrictively what are acceptable topics of historical study, how they are to be approached, and how they are to be interpreted. More generally, the founding of the Society has to understood within the contexts of the resurgence of conservative historiography and politics in the academy (as in the larger society), the reaction against feminism, and the changing of generations. At the same time, the Society may well serve as a lightning rod for discontents felt by many historians with the established historical organizations, for which see below.

What, in your opinion, are the inadequacies of the AHA and/or the OAH that can be addressed more effectively by the new society?

The inadequacies that I see in the AHA (I know nothing about the OAH) will NOT, so far as I can see, be addressed by the new Society, which seems to me to be far too driven by ideological, historiographical, generational, and other resentments to deal effectively with what I see as those problems.

That said, let me make it clear that I think that the AHA directs its efforts overwhelmingly to a narrow constituency, namely, the main graduate-school oriented ("research") universities. It is faculty from a rather small number of universities who run the AHA, as they have since its founding. While the all-white male nature of the AHA has changed somewhat in recent years, its profound elitism, entirely unrepresentative of the profession, has not altered in any substantive way. Historians at other kinds of universities and colleges (who comprise the vast majority of history faculty and teach the vast majority of students--and, I would hazard, produce a large amount of historical scholarship) are included only in token numbers.

This situation is embodied in the ranks of the officers and committees of the AHA. It is also institutionalized in the AHR, which is the main public representation of the organization. With rare exceptions, AHR articles are of interest to faculty teaching graduate students, but of little concern to that much larger number teaching undergraduates. Worse, the review section excludes any book even remotely resembling a text--regardless of the interest of such works to the actual professional lives of the majority of historians--while sedulously reviewing (often at remarkable length) works that can interest only a handful. In short, in its flagship journal the AHA has chosen to privilege the scholarly interests of a minority of the historical community. Strikingly absent is any notion that historians might be teachers as well as scholars or that their largest organization might try to address their pedagogic as well as (some of) their scholarly needs in a significant way.

Now Perspectives does deal with the practice of teaching, and that is a very good thing. But although its articles on teaching often mention books of use in teaching, neither Perspectives nor any other AHA publication that I am aware of carefully reviews books with an eye to their usefulness in the undergraduate classrooms where most students will encounter history.

In sum, I think that the AHA has some significant problems. Indeed, I have ceased expecting that the AHA will speak to my larger concerns as a historian as opposed (very occasionally) to my particular scholarly interests. I would be interested in a new organization that did so, the more so because my specific scholarly concerns are usually better addressed by the more specialized associations to which I also belong. But I don't think that the proposed Society will do anything for me, either. For despite its verbiage, I see it as highly politicized and agenda-driven (because run by those who claim to have no politics and no agenda). Equally important, it is really speaking from and to the same small circle as the AHA.

—Robert S. DuPlessis is on faculty at Swarthmore College.