Reflections on the History Wars
Arnita A. Jones
Organization of American Historians
Several months ago at a formal award dinner I found myself seated next to a successful businessman who serves on the advisory board of a large university. When he learned of my employment with a professional association whose members are drawn largely from the ranks of college professors, we drifted into a conversation about the changes occurring in higher education. In the course of our chat he began to describe his ideas on how a university education can usefully be compared to a factory production system. Students entering as freshmen, he said, are the raw material; they proceed for four years through the assembly line of coursework, resulting in an end product: a credentialed graduate ready to be retailed on the job market. Warming to his metaphor he contended that the contemporary university, like modern industry, must become more productive with less, in order to stay competitive. Faculty research is a commodity that can be marketed, thus reducing the overhead required for the degree production process. It follows then that faculty should be measured according to the laws of supply and demand, in this case by the marketability of their students and their services.
Alarmed, I asked how literature, history, and the other humanities disciplines fit into this production model. My dinner companion admitted cheerfully that they probably would not; other measures would no doubt be needed to gauge resources and results in humanities fields, but he certainly couldnt think of any. Bracing myself for a lecture on political correctness or the dissolution of the curriculum, I was surprised when the gentleman hastily assured me that he found some humanities disciplines most interesting, perhaps even useful, in a marginal kind of way. He was, he confided, an amateur historian himself and by the time dessert was served I was being regaled with stories of his research on family records in European archives. History might not be economically productive, but it could certainly be a harmless hobby, even one which can be self taught. We never figured out where history fit in his production model.
Now university presidents, development professionals, and others who have to make the case for higher education may not find this tale so unfamiliar. By any measure, it is clear that our system of higher education in the United States is undergoing profound transformations in reaction to escalating competition for scarce funds from government and private sources. A changed student population older, more ethnically and racially diverse and caught in its own economic difficulties is increasingly possessed of a consumer mentality, demanding less of itself and more of faculties. New technologies hold out the promise of research tools and teaching techniques undreamt of scarcely a decade ago even as they create the temptation to adopt economies of scale in terms of teaching loads and class sizes that are hostile to a healthy learning environment.
The humanities, including history, cannot avoid being impacted by these pressures as colleges and universities undergo the same kind of rationalizing process permeating other sectors of the economy. Classes are larger; retiring faculty are often not replaced or frequently replaced with part-timers; securing travel and research funds becomes more competitive; non-tenure track positions proliferate; and post-tenure review has become a reality in some public universities. And, lest we forget, another generation of graduate students, attracted to expanding doctoral programs in the late 1980s, faces bleak prospects for academic careers.
These trends are real, not ephemeral. Historians, and scholars from other humanities disciplines, are not likely to acquiesce in being measured by the factory production model. Still, in all but a handful of institutions they will be sorely disadvantaged if they cannot produce sound and specific information to describe their value to the public.
Until quite recently this thrust into public service seemed to come at a fortuitous time for scholars of American history. In the last decade several developments have converged to create an atmosphere inviting, if not seducing, historians to venture out of the academy and apply their skills and learning to a rich assortment of public venues historic sites and preservation programs, for example, or policy analysis, films, museum exhibits, and education reform efforts, to name only a partial list.
What are these developments creating a favorable climate for public presentation of history? Let me trace, four which I think are particularly significant.
The first had its origins in the employment crisis of the 1970s, but has in reality far deeper roots. I am fond of reminding my members and officers that the old Mississippi Valley Historical Association, as the Organization of American Historians was originally called when it was founded, was not the creation of faculty in higher education institutions. Rather it was organized in 1907 by leaders of the historical societies of the midwest, men like Benjamin Shambaugh, superintendent of the State Historical Society of Iowa, who argued that opportunities were almost unlimited to apply, as he put it, the scientific knowledge of history in the practical affairs of to-day. The new Associations founding fathers intended it to become a vehicle for securing cooperation between the historical societies and the departments of history in the Mississippi Valley.
Over the years, of course, these close connections faded, a process accelerated by the expansion of higher education under the G.I. Bill and its aftermath of baby boomers. When the MVHA became the OAH, it was largely an association of college and university professors. Not many years later, in 1976, the Organization became one of the founding members of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, now the historical professions advocacy arm, but then an effort to rebuild bridges to alienated colleagues in museums, historical societies, federal historical programs, and other places where new Ph.D.s might find employment. At the same time, a number of graduate programs began consciously tailoring their curricula to applied pursuits archival work, cultural resource management, business history, and the like and found a receptive market.
Some historians who made this transition into what we came to call public history jobs made it grudgingly, re-entering academe at the earliest opportunity, or drifting out of the profession altogether. Others never looked back and embraced the satisfaction of, (as Shambaugh had put it several decades earlier), applying history to practical problems. In 1991 American history Ph.D.s surveyed by the National Academy of Sciences reported the highest job satisfaction of any humanities field and the highest proportion employed in areas outside of higher education. This group is an important, although not a dominant, presence in the historical profession today.
A second reason for the high visibility of public history in the last decade is the publics growing appetite for history. Over the last thirty years or so, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens have joined or organized thousands of local historical societies. Millions of others participate in the reenactment of battles and other historical events, watch documentary historical films, attend Chatauqua and other public programs sponsored by state humanities councils and other community groups. Last year the historic sites managed by the National Park Service received 55 million visitors an audience of staggering proportions for historical research and programming.
A third circumstance encouraging the public presentation of history would include the modern history education reform movement, a phenomenon which has been with us for a decade now and shows no sign of abating, although clearly we have entered into a rancorous phase of its development. Academic historians have been deeply engaged with history in the nations schools since the late nineteenth century a fascinating story that has yet to receive sufficient attention. But, as in the case of other efforts to reach out to the public, interest in reforming precollegiate history education was swamped in the great expansion of higher education after the second world war.
Beginning, however, with two national commissions the Bradley
Commission and the National Commission on the Social Studies in
the mid 1980s and converging with grassroots efforts like history teaching
alliances to connect precollegiate and higher education history teachers,
the campaign to improve history teaching has now captured the nations
attention. This reform movement has nurtured an appetite for an enriched
curriculum and better prepared teachers that may be difficult to satisfy
given the divisions within American society today and the lack of will
to apply Americas economic resources to education. The most recent
manifestation of these efforts has been national standards in history and its future is very much in doubt.
Finally, it is important to recognize that recent historical scholarship itself is also a reason for historys flourishing public sector. As historians in recent decades have focused on women, minorities, workers, ordinary soldiers, and the like, they have found audiences from those same groups. Lately, however, it has become very clear that those audiences are not always blank slates merely to be engraved by the historian.
How ironic it is then, at just the moment when higher education is asking humanities scholars to demonstrate the public value of their work, that those historians who have ventured out into that public arena now find themselves engaged in a major phase of the culture wars. The specific battles will be familiar to you all: the debate over whether the nation could or should celebrate the anniversary of Columbus voyages from a multicultural perspective; the outrage generated when the American West exhibit at the National Museum of American Art used paintings to portray a darker side of westward expansion; the strident criticism received by some historians who believed they could make a positive contribution to the development of a history theme park planned by the Disney corporation in northern Virginia; concerns on the part of the family and followers of the Martin Luther King family that the visitors center planned by National Park Service could not adequately commemorate his life and work; the cancelling of the Enola Gay and later other exhibits by the Smithsonian Institution for fear of offending noisy pressure groups and the Congress; and of course the National Standards in History, maligned in newspapers throughout the country, and on dozens of talk shows, and denounced by a vote of 99 to 1 in the U.S. Senate.
What happened? How did Clio get mugged on the way to the forum? or should I say Capitol Hill?
Well, she was not so careful as she might have been in following the rules. She ventured alone into a strange and unfamiliar neighborhood, looking uncertain of where she was going, not striding confidently and with purpose. And she didnt carry a weapon, at least not a weapon of choice on the mean streets of public discourse in the late twentieth century.
I have to admit that as a discipline we have approached public history in a hesitating way, not quite sure of the legitimacy of what we are doing. Gradually this situation has improved over the years as the products of public history work have been held up to critical scrutiny in learned journals and other scholarly forums. And it is another irony of this story that the recent attacks on history in museum exhibits have forced historians to reach out to other professionals and join with them in some hard thinking about standards of appropriate behavior in the public presentation of history.
Doing public history well is not easy, not just a matter of picking up a quick consulting fee for repackaging some old research or lectures; not just a matter of punching a clock at an institution where one gives substantially less than 100 percent effort; certainly not just a matter of rnaking clients or consumers feel better.
It is partly a matter of understanding the needs of our audiences, learning to respect the perspectives and knowledge they bring to a public presentation or exhibit; learning how to treat them as partners rather than empty vessels. It is a matter of exploring, with our various publics, the dissonance frequently apparent between documents and memories.
But it is also a matter of developing a coherent explanation for the fact that, yes! we do rewrite history. Of explaining why the historical profession tolerates, indeed revels in differing interpretations of the same sequence of historical events. Why analyzing a decision-making process is not attacking the legitimacy of the decision made.
We dont need to learn to use fabrications, deliberate misreadings or misunderstandings of the positions held by those who disagree with us that weapon of choice in much of todays public argument about history. We probably do need to learn to talk in something more closely approximating sound bytes. And we need to learn to argue vigorously on behalf of the work we do and the integrity of the discipline we represent in the news media, in state and federal legislative bodies, with our students and clients. And most important we must remember that those trustees and legislators, with their production model of higher education, are listening to the debate.
In the nearly twenty years I have been associated with public history in one way or another I have seen a great deal of change in how the profession responds to the opportunities public history presents and I expect to see more. Attacks on history and historians have been painful, frightening, sometimes numbing. But I also see members and leaders of my organization energized by the debates over who owns history and exhilarated by the realization that Americans care deeply about the work historians do. It is an exciting time to be an historian.