R. R. Palmer
President of the Association, 1970
This presidential address was delivered at the annual meeting in Boston, December 28, 1970. American Historical Review 76, no. 1 (February 1971): 1-15.
The American Historical Association in 1970
We have come together this evening to hear the eighty-fifth presidential address of the American Historical Association. It has been customary in the past for my predecessors to speak on general problems of history, or to call for new directions in historical study, or to offer mature reflections on the subjects to which their professional lives have been devoted. Tonight I am going to speak about the American Historical Association itself. Much has been heard here on the nature of history in these eighty-five years, and I have said in other places, a bit repetitiously, what I think of the eighteenth century and the Age of the Democratic Revolution. It seems best to use the present occasion to survey the problems of our own Association in the year 1970. The date of these observations is early October, the copy deadline for the February 1971 number of the American Historical Review. I hope that the rush of events, in these strenuous times, will not make my remarks this evening seem already outmoded.
As historians we are forever talking about revolutions, crises, and turning points. Let us recognize one in our own midst. The Association is in a period of crisis; and what comes out of it probably will be, as with actual revolutions, not complete success for any one group but a continuing interplay between people who have different opinions. In current language it may be called an identity crisis. We share it with the whole academic world. As historians we claim to be a profession, but we do not quite know what the profession is. Are we researchers, teachers, writers, or experts on various countries and centuries? Are we activists or academics? Is our Association a trade union or a learned society? While we uphold our own interests, how can we best serve the public interest as well? There are no easy answers to these questions. The Association must somehow face them all and have a place for all kinds of members.
The crisis, though long in developing, became apparent a year ago. We had in 1969, I suppose, the most turbulent business meeting in the whole history of the Association. It was attended by over two thousand persons, of whom over fourteen hundred were members, or were at least counted as voting. This was over ten times the attendance of preceding years; even in 1968, when controversial issues also arose, only 116 voting members were present. To be sure, the attendance last year was a small fraction of the membership as a whole. Yet to have so many come to a business meeting, and remain for several hours, is indeed a sign of something like a revolution, and probably also of counterrevolution, as anyone should know who has studied such phenomena in the past.
There were three issues that produced this unprecedented turnout. One was the Vietnam War, or rather the question of whether the Association, acting officially as such, should vote to condemn it. It was on this issue that the balloting was most evenly divided. The larger issue, of course, was whether a professional or learned society should ever take an official stand on any political question. Many of our members firmly oppose such declarations, and yet they would make an exception of such a rare and special case as the prolonged American military involvement in Southeast Asia; and I think that if the resolution had been presented in different language, with emphasis on the destructive effects of the war on college and university campuses, which are our immediate concern, a substantial majority might have been won for it.
The second issue was the election of the president of the Association. For the first time in its eighty-five-year history--perhaps not soon enough--the AHA had a contested election on the floor of its business meeting. It is true that in 1944 an opposition candidate for the presidency was in fact nominated; but the candidate refused to run, never appeared at the meeting, and sent a letter repudiating those who had nominated him. In 1969 the opposition candidate received almost thirty per cent of a very large vote.
The third issue was a set of amendments proposed by the Council to modify the constitution of the Association. These amendments were passed and are now in effect. It is possible that their import is not generally understood, since the pressures at the meeting a year ago greatly shortened the explanations the Council had intended to offer. I shall therefore offer a brief explanation now. The effect of the amendments was and is to limit the formerly sovereign powers of the business meeting. In the AHA, as in other learned societies that grew tip at the close of the last century, each at first with only a few hundred members, it was long the practice to regard the "Business Meeting," as it was called, as the general assembly of the whole membership. As such, as in a small Rousseauist city-state, it had final authority in the election of officers and in its power to reverse or instruct the elected Council. Now that our Association numbers eighteen thousand, distributed over a country three thousand miles wide, it is difficult to, maintain that the hundred or so members who normally appear at a business meeting, and constitute less than one per cent of the membership, really represent the membership or should exercise the powers of the membership as a whole. Who or how many come to a business meeting fluctuates from year to year and depends on prior knowledge of the issues at stake, the interest or activity of particular groups, and the part of the country in which the annual meeting is held. The former power of the business meeting was one of the most archaic parts of our constitution; there are others to which I shall refer later. At present, and in the future unless further constitutional change provides otherwise, there cannot be an election of officers on the floor of the business meeting, nor can that meeting, without more ado, simply overrule the Council or give it positive orders. It can vote to reverse an action of the Council; the Council may then accept the reversal or submit the issue to a mail ballot of the whole membership. The business meeting also has enacting powers, unless the Council declines to concur, in which case the issue is submitted to a mail ballot. The business meeting can question, criticize, urge, and recommend to the Council, it can pass resolutions, and it can propose constitutional amendments. It is to be expected that the Council will listen seriously to the business meeting. That depends on the future vitality of the business meeting itself. At present, however, where the business meeting and the Council formally disagree, the appeal is to the membership as a whole.
I know that there were some in 1969, and doubtless are some now, who think that in obtaining those amendments the Council was acting defensively, that it was afraid of a take-over by some small unspecified group, generally supposed to be far to the left, or that it was protecting its own oligarchic freedom of action by appeal to a large uninformed or apathetic electorate. There has been talk of an establishment entrenching itself behind the pretended democracy of a popular plebiscite. It has been said that those of our members who are sufficiently interested, informed, and active to attend a business meeting should have the powers that that meeting formerly enjoyed. I simply do not agree. Of course the Council was taking precautions against a "take-over," or whatever the seizure of power by a handful of members might be called. But there were also more immediate reasons for the amendments.
If an assembly of historians can bear with a little more of their own history, they may recall the business meeting of 1968. On that occasion it was a group that proved to be a minority at the business meeting that asked for the so-called plebiscitarian solution. Unable to get the business meeting to disapprove of holding the International Congress of Historical Sciences at Moscow in 1970, this group won a vote instructing the Council to submit the question to a mail ballot, which upheld the idea of the Moscow meeting by two to one. At the same time, in 1968, the business meeting reversed a decision of the Council, which had concluded after much deliberation that a list of approved Ph.D. programs should not be made public. Constitutionally, as was then its right, the business meeting ordered publication of this list. The Council--that is, the officers and elected members--violated the constitution in not carrying out this mandate. The Council did so not out of obstinate adherence to its previous judgment, but because of anguished outcries, accompanied by threats of legal action, on the part of institutions that thought that they would be injured if a list was published. There were indeed other important considerations. The matter was arranged by agreement. But the constitution was violated. It was to restore some orderly procedure to the affairs of the Association that the amendments were proposed and carried.
Of the amendments adopted last year it should finally be said that they contain some liberalizing features, not at all calculated to keep an in-group in office. Formerly ex-presidents remained as voting members of the Council for three years; now they do so for only one. Now for the first time the nominating committee is required to announce in advance, early in the year, the names of its nominees for president, vice-president, treasurer, and elected members of the Council. The purpose is to enable those who may be dissatisfied to know who the nominees are in time to prepare and publicize a list of alternative candidates if they wish. The names of the alternative candidates are then placed on the usual ballot that goes out in November. As few as a hundred members may thus by petition place a name on the ballot. For the first time, also, proposal of constitutional amendment is no, longer confined to the Council or the business meeting. Not only these two, but any one hundred members may propose a constitutional amendment by petition. Such a proposal by petition, calling for restructuring and enlargement of the Council, will be considered by our business meeting tomorrow, along with an amendment proposed by the Council. The business meeting, however, does not act finally in such a matter, since any proposed amendment must now be accepted or rejected by mail ballot of the membership as a whole.
Such is our machinery at present. What are our problems? They fall into two general categories. One has to do with the representativeness of the management of the Association. The other embraces a wide variety of questions on what the Association ought to do, or what historians in general ought to be doing under present and future conditions. "Management" seems an unsuitable term in our circumstances; the first problem simply refers to the operating organs of the Association--the elected officers and Council, the executive secretary and his staff, the editor and editorial board of the Review, the nominating committee, the program committee, and all the other committees--and whether these operating organs represent or are responsive to the membership. The two sets of problems are connected. Presumably, if the operating organs were differently constituted or controlled, the activities of the Association and its priorities might be different.
I do not wish to minimize the problem of representativeness by saying that it is an old one. You can imagine my surprise, in the course of my recent somewhat hurried researches, to discover a pamphlet entitled "Why the American Historical Association Needs Thorough Reorganization." It was privately printed in Washington in 1915. Its main author was Frederic Bancroft, who is remembered for the Bancroft Prizes in American History. He led a movement against what he called a "ring." He quotes phrases that he says were not new even in 1915: "The oligarchy does as it pleases." "We are run by a big-university trust." You have to "have the favor of the old guard." This old guard, he said, was composed of John Franklin Jameson, Frederick Jackson Turner, Andrew C. McLaughlin, George Lincoln Burr, Charles Homer Haskins, and a few other notables of the profession. It was charged that the men in this ring, really bossed by Jameson, jocosely referred to as the "dean," were entrenched in the editorial board of the Review, and chose themselves or their favorites in turn to be president.
These accusations were taken up by a special Committee of Nine, whose report was dismissed as a whitewash, but which produced a new constitution adopted in 1916. This is the constitution under which, with amendments, we still live. It was at this time that ex-presidents, instead of remaining as voting members of the Council for life, were limited to three years. This remained the rule until a year ago. Elected members of the Council, as distinct from officers and past presidents, were raised in number from six to eight. We still have this council of eight elected members that issued from this mild revolution of fifty-four years ago. It was also in 1916 that a nominating committee was first provided for, to be elected by and report to the members of the Association, and so to be completely independent from the officers and the Council. In the 1930s, by further changes, the eight elected Council members and the members of the nominating committee, instead of being elected at the business meeting, were elected by a mail ballot that preceded it. In 1969 this same principle was finally applied to the president, vice-president, and treasurer also.
It is a delicate question whether we have a ring or an establishment today. If we do, it is certainly no such tight little group as John Franklin Jameson seems actually to have once been able to lead. Our committees are not dominated by the Council, and their members come from many places and parts of the country, especially since the mid-fifties, when the Association for the first time had enough funds to pay travel expenses for its committees. A real effort is made to get a wide distribution of persons who serve the Association in various capacities. Yet among the officers, the Council, and the editorial board of the Review the predominance of persons from certain eminent universities can hardly escape notice. The trend is even increasing. Of presidents of the Association in the twenty-five years since 1946, fifteen have been from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Columbia. For the twenty-five years from 1921 to 1945 the corresponding figure was only ten. At present no member of our Council teaches at a college that does not have a graduate school. There were two such on the Council in 1940. Geographical distribution of elected Council members is at present good in that it corresponds fairly well to distribution of the membership at large. But half these eight councilors received their Ph.D.'s from Harvard, and none from any point west of Chapel Hill. In any case, it is surprising to discover that of the eight Council members elected in 1916, after the upheaval provoked by Frederic Bancroft, only one was at an institution east of the Alleghenies, and she was a woman, Lucy Salmon of Vassar. Only one had a Harvard Ph.D., and he taught at Indiana. In 1915 Chicago and Cornell were among the six universities that were said to dominate the profession of history. What has happened since then is a bit like the long-term drift of the Rhodes Scholarships. When these scholarships were first introduced, in the years following 1904, less than ten per cent of the awards went to students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; in the 1960s the proportion was one-third. One would have to be a very confirmed Ivy Leaguer to raise no eyebrows at such a development.
Many of our members today, and some who are not members but might be, feel that the Association does not represent them; they have little interest in it and think it has little interest in them. In one way the situation is as in Bancroft's time. In 1915 the Association had passed through a period of rapid growth, reaching a membership of almost 3,000 at which it leveled off for a period of thirty years. We have just passed through another such period of even greater expansion, reaching a membership of 18,000, four times as large as twenty years ago. But the problem now is more serious than it was in 1915. The rebellion of that time was apparently without ideological or educational significance. It was directed purely against oligarchy as such; between the rebels and the "ring" there was no difference on what the Association should be or do. Today the problem of representativeness is more closely related to the problem of what functions the Association should perform.
There are various reasons why people whose work is in history may lack interest in the American Historical Association. I have already touched on the geographical problem. Regional distribution of our membership has changed surprisingly little in fifty years. While there has obviously been a great growth on the West Coast, the only region to show a proportionate decline is New England, whose share in the membership, since 1920, has dropped from seventeen to eleven per cent. Even so, exactly half our members, not counting foreign and Canadian, still live in the Atlantic coastal states from Maine to Florida. While this fact explains the frequency of Eastern names in the affairs of the Association, it also suggests, since distribution of total population is different, that college teachers of history west of the Alleghenies may feel less inclination to join. The idea of an Eastern establishment is thus reinforced. There may be dissatisfaction also, East or West, among members and nonmembers who teach in small colleges, in junior colleges, and in large developing universities away from the older and better-known institutions. Many of these persons in fact take part in the program of our annual meetings or other activities. There is another group who feel that the Association should not be merely a society of professors, but somehow bring history into the mainstream of public affairs. This group has always been present, though in the early days its inclination was to deal with prominent public men. Ex-president Rutherford B. Hayes was one of the forty-one persons who founded the Association at Saratoga in 1884; Theodore Roosevelt was elected president of the Association in 1912, though he laughed at it as a little circle of pedants; and Woodrow Wilson was chosen in the last year of his life. The demand for more contact with the public was heard again in the 1930s, when Conyers Read wished to use the radio to bring history to a wider audience, and Allan Nevins urged the Association to sponsor a popular historical magazine. In each case the more purely professional or professorial party prevailed, and the magazine American Heritage now flourishes without connection with the American Historical Association.
Today the demand for public involvement takes a different form, with political activists who think the Association too exclusively academic and certain members of the New Left for whom it is too conservative. The Vietnam War has kept the issue alive; black studies and urban studies will do the same. My own belief is that historians, as individuals, should deal with the most inflammatory issues if they wish to; but that the Association, as an organization representing all forms of history, should remain more neutral and indeed academic. Let me remark that W. E. B. Du Bois, Herbert Aptheker, and Howard Fast have all belonged to our Association; and I hope that activists who can produce such history as they did will always be among us. The presence of these three and others on our membership list, in the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy, caused trouble for the Association, which in 1953 was denounced as the "second most subversive" scholarly group in the country. The Association and its members were successfully defended against congressional investigation by our then executive secretary, Boyd Shafer, at considerable and then unknown tribulation to himself.
Two other kinds of persons may be alienated from the Association as it now exists. There are those who are interested primarily in the teaching of history and for whom the AHA is too much oriented to research, publication, or professional specialization. Second, there is the large category of the young. Though we lack vital statistics it seems likely that since well over ten thousand persons have joined the Association in little more than a decade, we must have a higher proportion of relatively younger persons among our members than we used to. In this as in other respects, the problems of the Association reflect the changes in the academic world and the surrounding society.
"Young" is a relative expression, but with apologies to both the young and the middle-aged, it may sometimes mean to be under forty. In its early days our profession had more of a place for youth than it apparently has today. Frederick Jackson Turner was only thirty-two when he delivered his memorable paper on the frontier in 1893. Charles Beard was thirty-nine when he published his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. The main founder of the American Historical Association, Herbert Baxter Adams, was thirty-four at the time of the founding. The forty-one persons who organized the Association in 1884 have already been mentioned. Not all their ages can now be ascertained. But at least twelve were under forty. Four were under thirty. The youngest of all was John Franklin Jameson, then twenty-five, who had just acquired that new and exciting title, the Ph.D., and was an assistant in history at Johns Hopkins. That Jameson was attacked as the ringleader of the old guard thirty years later may incline the youth to feel some charity toward their elders. And note that Frederic Bancroft was fifty-five at the time of the 1915 explosion. Not everyone over forty is unduly conservative.
So much having been said, I think that the Council of the Association should be enlarged. It should be made more representative of the views and interests that exist in the actual membership. Something will be lost in convenience of doing business, and new difficulties can be expected. It is not easy to say what representation really is, or to get representatives that their own constituents will accept as such. There will be ticklish questions if we try to establish categories or draw boundaries between age groups, or between regional districts, or between kinds of institutions, such as small colleges and great universities. If the Council is to be larger and less homogeneous the work of the nominating committee will become far more complex. If our operating organs become larger and more complex, the cost to the Association will increase, and the dues may have to be raised. Nevertheless, I still favor some measures to enlarge the Council.
There remains the second general category of problems before the Association in 1970, the question of what functions it ought to perform. These functions, let it be said now only in passing, are subject to two serious limits, money and people. The need for money is obvious. As for people, we neither can nor wish to turn everything over to our central office, and there are limits beyond which we cannot expect our members to devote their time and energy voluntarily to the affairs of the AHA.
Some members have told me that there are only two basic activities of the Association in which they are interested, the publication of the American Historical Review, and the holding of an annual meeting. These are indeed basic, but I shall dispose of them briefly. Our Review is one of the great historical periodicals of the world, perhaps the most catholic and comprehensive. If much of it seems dry and very specialized, one can only reply that no one is expected to read all of it, that the editor is well aware of the problems, that it is by definition a learned journal, and that in any case it cannot rise above its source, which is, in general, what members of our Association will write. The annual meeting, or convention, is the subject of a good deal of dissatisfaction. Of its unpleasant adjunct, the "slave market," I shall speak later. Of its business meeting I have spoken already.
As to its substantive content, the eighty-odd sessions that we hold each year, the program committee is experimenting with ways for loosening up the traditional forms of presentation. Some people feel that it is out of date for us to have subject matter sessions at all; that these are best handled in smaller organizations, such as the Conference on British Studies; and that at the annual meeting we should have only a few sessions on matters of broad professional interest. I would not go so far, but we might well move in this direction, as the American Political Science Association has done, with room made on its program for reports of the committee on the status of women, the committee on the status of blacks, for discussion of graduate education, or the role of the department chairman. Personally, I wish also that, in an age subject to the uncertainties of air travel, we could meet at some other time than midwinter, cramped between Christmas and New Years. If we did, we might also extend the meeting beyond the traditional three days. In a recent referendum, however, the membership voted in favor of the traditional time of year, with those who had most recently joined the Association, that is, presumably the youngest, being most heavily in favor of the Christmas season. It is said also that our convention has become too large. That pillar of the establishment, John Franklin Jameson, rejected the same criticism long ago. "It would be hard," he said in 1909 "to persuade anyone who has attended a meeting of the American Historical Association and carefully watched what goes on, in and out of the formal sessions, that a gathering from which nine-tenths of the present attendants were absent would do as much good for the common cause." In 1970, as in 1909, the value of the annual meeting lies in bringing together people of different ages, interest, academic position, and geographical regions. It is a professionally enlightening experience, and they do not have to approve of everything that they see.
It is an old function of the Association to represent history in dealing with government agencies, foundations, and learned bodies, such as the American Council of Learned Societies or the International Committee on the Historical Sciences, which is now beginning to plan for the international congress to be held in the United States in 1975. Another ancient function is the award of prizes, a commendable if not central activity, very time-consuming for those who serve in this capacity. We have six prize committees at present. One such committee, for an award of $300 established sixty-six years ago, is expected this year to examine no less than seventy printed books that are cheerfully submitted by their publishers. This is more than we should ask of our members; the whole problem of prizes should be reviewed. We have twenty other standing committees, whose names can be found in the Newsletter of last February, and which suggest the present range of operations of the Association. We are at present being asked to do something for oral history, and to take steps to preserve, assemble, and systematize the mass of television, film, and other documentary material beyond the written word. This would follow normally from the old function of the Association, incorporated in its charter long before the establishment of the National Archives, for the preservation of manuscript sources. As archival work has become more professionalized, the role of our Association has become more marginal. It may be that we should assist in the gestation of a similar profession for the custody of nonwritten sources. As for existing archives, we remain profoundly concerned with their availability to all qualified historians on a fair basis. For the past two years the Association has been involved in a particularly complicated case of alleged malpractice in this connection.
There are two broad areas to which, as I see it, the Association should address itself in the future. One has to do with conditions of employment, the other with everything suggested by the word "teaching." I assume that the Association will continue in its older activities, that it will remain an association of scholars, try to maintain quality in historical work, uphold professional standards, and favor research and publication. As usual in the academic world, we add without taking away. It is the new problems that require most attention. They are the ones that reflect the changes in the Association to which we must adjust. These in turn reflect the changes, and indeed the crisis, in higher education as a whole and in the society in which the American Historical Association is inevitably impacted.
It is partly a question of numbers. The present is a time, if not of mass higher education, at least of an expansion of schooling after the high-school age corresponding to the rise of the public high school itself in the early years of the Association. College enrollments, including junior colleges, have tripled in two decades. Enrollment in history courses, though recently declining, as noted by C. Vann Woodward on this occasion a year ago, has nevertheless greatly increased over the long run. Production of new Ph.D.'s in history, which rose for over a decade at about the same rate as the enrollment in the undergraduate courses that they were to teach, has in the last few years risen far more rapidly. The result is a crisis in the employment of new teachers of history. This problem of numbers of teachers merges into the problem of teaching itself, since undergraduate enrollments might be enlarged if teaching could be improved, or if the content of the history curriculum could be made more interesting to a larger number of students. Our trade-union interests here touch upon more philosophical problems of the value and nature of history itself.
The question is what the Association can or should do. The power in employment and in curriculum lies with individual departments in over two thousand colleges and universities. The Association can recommend and advise, it can gather and publicize statistics and make projections of future needs, it can survey the present state of affairs, and it can provide the means of intercommunication for historians in the two thousand different institutions.
As for conditions of employment, one thinks first of all of the famous "slave market." This refers primarily to the job-seeking and interviewing that go on at the annual meeting and more generally to the catch-as-catch-can methods by which persons completing their Ph.D.'s receive their first positions. In the hope of organizing this chaos the Job Register, now called the Professional Register, was introduced about fifteen years ago. The idea was to set up a clearinghouse that both candidates and employing institutions could use. It was to get away from the private, friendly, and even mysterious arrangements by which new Ph.D.'s were placed, to create more equality of opportunity so that people would obtain jobs according to their actual abilities, and not because they did their graduate work at a big or eminent university or had studied with some particular professor. The Professional Register has only partly fulfilled these aims, and indeed has become tainted with the old atmosphere of the slave market itself, an atmosphere of confusion, anxiety, rivalry, humiliation, disappointment, and contempt for the system that is the most unfavorable possible introduction for a young person to his chosen profession. Various alternatives have been suggested, but none that I think would work. The Professional Register, or something like it, is the price we pay for the great size of the country, the huge numbers of candidates and of employing institutions, and the geographical and social mobility that we all prize. Probably it produces results more acceptable to Americans than any system now practiced in Europe. It is one of the problems that we must continue to work on.
The difficulty is not only in the mechanism but in the conditions of demand and supply. The Association should compile regular, annual, up-to-date, and comprehensive statistics on trends in college course enrollments, on admissions to the graduate schools, and on output of Ph.D.'s, broken down by fields--American, European, African, Latin American, and so on. If effective, this operation will mean more work for departmental chairmen in filling out annual questionnaires. Its real usefulness may be debatable. Eight years ago Dexter Perkins and John Snell, working with a committee of the American Historical Association, issued a report on graduate programs in which they made projections for the future. For 1969 they estimated that about 500 new Ph.D.'s would be needed. Actual production for 1969 was almost twice as many; it was about 880. If graduate schools had conformed to the Snell-Perkins projections we would have no problem of overproduction today. But it is hard, merely with a table of statistics, to discourage real people who want to do advanced work in history. It has been especially hard under conditions of the draft for a war whose necessity many of us have refused to accept. It is hard to persuade particular departments to limit their ambitions. If graduate schools are cutting back on admissions today, it is not only because of planning, but because federal money is less abundant.
There are other conditions that affect an individual for many years, and not merely in the finding of a first job. The Association could, for example, publish guidelines for salaries and for hours of classroom teaching, though with our multiplicity and independence of institutions I doubt if they would have any effect. We have begun to do something to improve the status of women in the profession, and could do the same for blacks or any others who have a special problem. Here again it is individual departments, their chairmen, and members who have the power to act; the Association can only assemble facts and recognize or dramatize the inequities that may exist. We have been asked to look into cases where the academic freedom of historians may have been violated, or where departments of history have been prevented from making appointments by the action of administrative officers or trustees. My impression is that fewer people are acutely concerned with this question, as an item of AHA business, than with most of the others that I am reviewing. I would think that, if we were to go into such matters, we would run into duplication or conflict with the AAUP, would have difficulty in setting up committees for fact-finding and visitation, or in gaining access to college officials; and that, in the present state of the world, we would have to redefine the kinds of academic freedom that the Association would be prepared to defend, on the spectrum from pure expression of opinion to violent and disruptive militancy on or off the campus. On these matters I doubt if our membership could be brought to agree.
Finally, under conditions of employment, there is the problem of finding the second or later job, and the whole system of qualifications for reappointment, promotion, and achievement of tenure. On the whole, I think that too much is made of research and publication for these purposes and that those are right who say that more attention should be paid to teaching in matters of appointment and promotion. But generalization is to be avoided; in the diversity of the American system there should be some universities and colleges in which serious publication is expected of their faculties and others in which classroom performance, or relations with students, are more highly regarded. The difficulty lies in the self-definition of the individual institution, which in turn goes back to a less admirable feature of the American system, that is, the race for status or prestige, by which an institution cannot be comfortable in doing what it can best do, or ought to do, but must try to work itself up to a presumably more eminent place on the academic ladder. But what I am really touching on is the problem of teaching.
Too little time remains to deal properly with this subject. I am convinced that it lies at the heart of our difficulties, although in my own case it was not the desire to teach, but a desire to engage in research and writing, that attracted me to the academic profession. The fact is that many join our ranks because they want to teach history. Probably this has always been so; the new thing is that more people are announcing it openly. There are not two mutually exclusive groups; the distinction, if any, is between those who accept teaching, and may even excel at it, as a means of supporting a life of research and writing, and those who accept the need for research or writing, and may be good at it, yet are mainly devoted to their own students and to education.
There is supposed to be no contradiction. We have all heard, and in part believe, that teaching and research mutually strengthen each other. Yet there are undeniable tensions. One is in our Ph.D. programs, where young people who want to be teachers must go through a protracted training in research. Like others, I think that the program is too long; dissertations are now three times longer, and more complex, than when the American Ph.D. was invented. After the Ph.D. and the job are acquired there is tension in the allocation of one's time, whether it be the interruption of an afternoon at the desk or the taking of a year's leave of absence for further research, which can be very inconvenient for one's students. There is tension in the fact that the historian wants to teach his own specialty, whether or not it is useful for the student's education. And there is tension in the reward system, already mentioned, so far as appointment and promotion depend not on teaching effectiveness, which is hard to measure, but on publication, which can at least be seen.
What can or should the Association do? It can begin by remembering its own history. The Association originated in that great wave of the closing years of the last century in which the whole modern university as we have known it took form. There was a great to-do about science, method, professional rigor, contributions to knowledge, and all that came to be known as research. Yet from the beginning the Association was also concerned with teaching. Among its forty-one founders were two United States commissioners of education and the principal of the Hyde Park High School in Chicago. In 1896 it appointed a Committee of Seven, which did a great deal to codify the teaching of history in the high schools. These seven, who in 1896 were a youthful group from twenty-six to forty-six in age, included, in addition to the headmaster of the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, five men and one woman who all became luminaries of our profession. In 1897 a whole day in the three-day annual meeting was set aside for the subject. In 1898, according to the record, there was no topic "regarded with so general interest as that of the Committee of Seven on the teaching of history in secondary schools." In 1907 the subject was reviewed by a Committee of Five, and there were various other inquiries and planning groups in the following decades.
The Association has always had a committee on teaching, and at present has three, one on Ph.D. programs, one on undergraduate teaching, and one on the teaching of history in the schools. In addition, for two years we have been heavily involved in the History Education Project, financed by the United States Office of Education and sponsored by the American Historical Association. In this enterprise, in a dozen places throughout the country, there are groups at work that are composed of historians from the local college or university, persons from its school of education, and teachers and supervisors in the neighboring public schools. They are now mainly engaged in the rejuvenation of history in the high schools, but it is well understood that problems of teaching interpenetrate at all levels.
In recent years the Association has lagged behind the efforts of its actual and potential members. There are a great many historians in colleges and universities, in many parts of the country, who on their own initiative, or in unrelated group operations, have long been concerned with problems of instruction, experimental courses, new approaches, new devices, new relationships between teachers and students. Not everyone need have such interests, but those who have should be encouraged. The Association can at least give them recognition, a sense of the legitimacy and importance of what they are doing; and it can provide them with means of communication, so that people with new ideas in history education may feel less isolated from one another, or from the profession as a whole.
One useful step would be to found a new journal devoted to the teaching of history, addressed to college teachers as well as to those in the schools. The American Historical Review is overloaded, and in any case has other aims. In England, France, and Germany there are serious journals on the teaching of history, apart from the purely learned journals of those countries. In this country the economists have recently launched a new Journal of Economic Education. Here again our Association has not recently been a pioneer. Textbooks are not reviewed in the American Historical Review, and I have agreed with that policy. But we need a place where textbooks can be described and assessed, where the flood of reading matter that publishers produce for the classroom can be evaluated, where books of the ordinary kind, monographs, special studies, or popular works, can be reviewed and criticized not for their contributions to knowledge, or their place in the general polemics of the subject, but for their real value, readability, or interest to the student and hence to the teacher, whether in college or in the schools. We need a journal that provides information and considered judgment on the use of films, documentaries, visual aids, and all the devices for projection and reproduction that are becoming available if only as a protection against the claims of their sponsors. We need a clearinghouse for reports on new experiments with the curriculum. We need a forum in which larger questions of history, its place in education, its humane values, and its social utility can be explored. And such a journal should be published by the American Historical Association, as a sign of its commitment in these fields.
To conclude, I have tried in these remarks to avoid encroaching unduly on the agenda for the business meeting tomorrow, at which members of the Association will be able to express their own ideas on the topics that I have raised. Not wishing to turn the presidential address into a political speech, I have not claimed to speak for the Council, and I have no wish to cause embarrassment for my successors. I have no reason to suppose, however, that there is any great difference of opinion. The Council has often discussed most of the problems that I have mentioned. Steps have already been taken toward the establishment of a new journal on the teaching of history. The Council will propose, for discussion tomorrow, a constitutional amendment for its own enlargement by the addition of four more elected members. I hope that this amendment will be adopted in the mail ballot to follow; if so, it will go immediately into effect. For the longer run, the Council will also announce a plan for a broad, fundamental, and independent review of the organization and activities of the Association. This, too, should be seriously considered tomorrow night. In a really thorough review every detail of our present arrangements should be carefully scrutinized. We must decide whether we want a wholly new constitution or to amend what we have from year to year. There is a value both in tradition and in innovation. But, while hesitating to deprive others of the pleasures of office, I would suggest that the presidency itself be re-examined, including the grounds and supposed qualifications upon which a president, if any, is to be chosen. And I would wonder, to tell the truth, whether the annual ceremony of a presidential address is anything that the Association really desires to perpetuate.
Finally, if, as I have said, we are in a state of crisis let us resolve it constructively. If there is to be a revolution let it be one of those metaphorical revolutions, a nonrevolution carried out by persuasion and understanding. The issues we face are of a kind that arise only once in a generation, or in a half-century, and I hope that we can deliberate upon them tomorrow in a farsighted spirit, keeping in mind not only the future of our Association, but the future of history itself.
R. R. Palmer (January 11, 1909–June 11, 2002) was a distinguished American historian at Princeton and Yale universities. The first volume of his major work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800 (1959 and 1964), won the Bancroft Prize in History.