From the From the Executive Director column of the February 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
In the spring of 1977 I found myself preparing for a move to Washington D.C.; it was a family move, since my husband had just accepted a job with the federal government. I had been trying to figure out how to raise two children and pursue an academic career, particularly one that required overseas research. The opportunity for a change, for a chance to try something different that this new location might offer was a welcome one. So when I saw an ad in the AHA Newsletter (yes, this was before there was a Perspectives) announcing a position at the American Historical Association with a new project that sought to explore job opportunities for historians outside academe, I thought, “This is perfect, I can help myself and others too, maybe.” I had always been drawn to the notion of somehow finding a job that would let me apply historical research to real world problems. But I was skeptical, too. My graduate professors at Emory, trying to be helpful when I asked about other work for a historian beyond the university, could only suggest my going to New York to be a “girl researcher” for Time Magazine. Nor did the AHA that I came to know from reading the Review and going to a couple of annual meetings seem like the engine of change that could create employment for historians in some other line of work beyond teaching. Since I didn’t have any other possibilities, though, it seemed like a good idea to take a bit of time off from packing to dash off an embarrassingly brash letter to Mack Thompson, then executive director of the Association, suggesting that if he and his colleagues from several other associations sponsoring this effort were really serious, then I might just be their person.
Weeks passed. I was preoccupied with the relocation, which wasn’t going smoothly. First there was a mover who became enraged when I could not race across 600 plus miles from Kentucky to Maryland with two little kids in one day and went AWOL for several weeks with all the household goods. The house wasn’t empty, though; it turned out we were sharing it with what had to be thousands of roach carcasses, the result of a recent fumigation to prepare the place for new tenants. “My good lady, this is Washington,” the nattily dressed foreign service officer we had rented it from condescendingly declared to me, when I complained. The final straw was an unsettling visit from the police of the small suburban village into which we had moved, just to assure us that everyone living in the neighborhood was white. Somehow, though, we eventually got the furniture back and cleaned out the dead roaches, and when I got a call from Mack Thompson one day to come in and talk about the position I had almost forgotten I had ever applied for it.
But Mack was serious about the job, as was Richard Kirkendall, executive secretary of the Organization of American Historians, which was co-sponsoring the effort. They had to be. The employment crisis of the mid 1970s was one of unprecedented proportions. In 1972–73, the first year for which we have good data, American universities produced almost double the number of history doctorates as there were advertised jobs. For the next eight years, until supply and demand reached equilibrium briefly in 1982, an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 “extra” historians received their PhDs.
How did this situation come to be? Higher education had expanded rapidly in the years after the Second World War, spurred on first by the GI Bill and then by the entry of the baby boomers into college. The war in Vietnam had its own special impact, encouraging a generation of young men, to choose continuing in graduate school over being drafted into a war they did not think was just. In 1977 when I, quite amazingly, was offered that job at the AHA, history programs were still annually conferring hundreds more doctorates than there were appropriate jobs, even though the demographics—the baby boom had by that time run its course in the nation’s colleges and universities—made it clear that the rapid growth of higher education must come to its end.
So when, at the Association’s annual meeting last month in San Diego, someone in the audience of a session I chaired on graduate education asked what the AHA was going to do about the job crisis, it took me back about 33 years. Should not the AHA be providing graduate students with information on federal government jobs, the questioner asked. Might not the Association create networks around the country for linking new PhDs to information on jobs outside of higher education? But wait, I asked myself, had not we been here before? Has the profession done nothing, learned nothing in more than three decades?
I’ve been obsessing over these questions since our meeting in San Diego, for the truth, as usual, is complicated. I did take that job at AHA as the single staffer with the new National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, plunging into uncharted territory with few credentials myself. It turned out to be the best job I’ve ever had. With a lot of help—I mean a lot of help—we channeled historians into a government jobs program (does anyone remember CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973?); we built a network of resource groups in different professional areas such as federal government, business, historic preservation, museums, historical associations, and archives; and we organized a collection of state committees for networking on jobs at the local level.
After a few years, these efforts blossomed into two organizations that continue to flourish 30 years later—the Society for History in the Federal Government and the National Council on Public History. Graduate students looking today for more information on career paths would do well to check them out. During those years we also linked up with the several graduate programs that had created programs in public or applied history—the University of California at Santa Barbara, Arizona State University, and several others. Major foundations like Rockefeller and the National Endowment for the Humanities supported a number of fresh efforts and also began tracking their impact. Over the years many more academic institutions have embraced this development, adding courses or concentrations in areas such as museums, archives, and policy studies. There are now dozens of vibrant public history degree programs in American universities; students in these programs found jobs and still do. Moreover, U. S. public history programs have become a model for universities abroad. Just last summer I was invited to a conference sponsored by the Free University in Berlin which has committed to a new public history program on the American model.
In the intervening years National Coordinating Committee member organizations created additional infrastructure that can link graduate students to a wider variety of jobs. The OAH, for example, established an ongoing relationship with the National Park Service in 1995, providing opportunities for historians to do important research aimed at upgrading and renewing the content of historical programs in the parks. The AHA created a standing committee on graduate education, with a committee chair who serves on the Association’s Council. Graduate students on the job market who check out the committee’s section on our web site will find much useful information on negotiating the job market outside academe. Finally, the AHA has for many years regularly closely monitored the job market for historians and makes those findings available—no small commitment of time and expertise. Historians finishing their doctorates—and history departments—today have many more tools and resources than they did in 1977.
What puzzles me most, though, is the seeming lack of impact of the major study on graduate education that AHA launched in 1999, with excellent leadership by Thomas Bender and Colin Palmer and substantial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. We were able to do extensive research on history graduate education, on its development over time and its place in the university and in history departments through surveys, site visits, and interviews. The final report was published in 2004 as The Education of Historians for the 21st Century (and is now available online for free, at www.historians.org/projects/cge/2004/Report). It contained many recommendations for history departments as well as the AHA. For a while, our community seemed to focus on it, but perhaps we have not given it the sustained attention we should have. Watch this space next month for another column on how AHA and history graduate programs have—or have not—risen to the challenges set forth in the report. And, as always, reader comments are most welcome.
Arnita Jones is the executive director of the AHA.
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