From the President's column in the April 2000 Perspectives

On Diversity in History

Eric Foner, April 2000

It is difficult to discuss the historical profession, or American life, for very long nowadays without encountering references to "diversity"—its history, current status, and future prospects. In schools, places of employment, and associations like the AHA, "diversity" has become a shorthand for ensuring that participation adequately reflects the heterogeneous makeup of our society, especially with regard to race and gender. The AHA has numerous rules to ensure that committees and program sessions at the annual meeting adequately reflect diversity thus defined. It is a truism, moreover, that today's scholarship takes much more cognizance than in the past of the diversity of the historical experience.

There is another kind of diversity, however, that some historians feel has been sacrificed in the transformation of our profession during the past two generations—a mutual respect for the disparate subjects, methods, and interpretations that make up the discipline of history. In my first column as AHA president, I suggested that both the organization and the study of history itself were in a "healthy" condition. The first response I received, from a recently retired colleague at a prominent university, begged to differ. I am taking the liberty of quoting from his letter:

"Sorry, but the state of history is very, very unhealthy. The problem is the contempt that people in cultural and social history routinely display for everyone else in other fields which would include foreign policy, mainstream political history, intellectual history, and business history. . . . Contrary to what the social and cultural types who rule the roost believe, there are no irrelevant fields in history. All fields are legitimate and provide a balance that all students need at all levels."

There is no question that scholarship revolving around historical categories like gender and race and the methods and concerns of social history occupy a far more prominent place in historical scholarship than when I was in graduate school. But is it really true that "traditional" fields of study are ignored or held in contempt today? My first response on receiving this letter was to think of my own department at Columbia, where political and intellectual history once reigned supreme in the hands of such giants of the profession as Richard Hofstadter, Allan Nevins, and William Leuchtenberg.

Today, fields like African American history, women's history, cultural history, and social history occupy a central place in our curriculum. Yet numerous courses still focus on politics, the nation state, and foreign relations. Even military history is not entirely neglected (although I have to admit that business and economic history seem, for the moment, to have fallen by the wayside). More important, my colleagues and I fully embrace the sentiment emphasized by the letter-writer—that so long as it is conducted at a high level of scholarship, no area of historical study is alien or irrelevant. At Columbia, political historians, intellectual historians, social historians, and cultural historians share a mutual respect and common commitment to advancing historical knowledge.

Nor is it true, as is sometimes claimed, that "traditional fields" are ignored on the AHA's annual program. After receiving the above letter, I tried to categorize by field the 151 sessions at last January's annual meeting. Sessions that can be subsumed under the broad umbrella of gender, race, and "identity" were well represented (comprising 42 sessions by my count). Forty-six sessions, however, dealt with such "traditional" subjects as war, politics, nationhood, empire, public policy, and intellectual history. Another 31 focused on issues of teaching, research, historiography, and professional issues. Actually, the fields most neglected, and unfortunately so, were the history of religion, and economic and labor history, each of them represented by only a handful of sessions. Of course, these numbers are quite arbitrary, since many sessions fall into more than one category. More to the point, the rise of the "new" histories has fundamentally redefined political and intellectual history so as to include analysis based on the categories of race and gender. But I cannot believe that "traditional" historians were hard-pressed to find sessions that served their needs and interests.

Nonetheless, the sense of exclusion so evident in the above letter cannot be refuted or wished away by the marshaling of statistics. Nor should it be dismissed by recalling the adage that each generation writes its own history, a process that often leaves older colleagues feeling neglected or unfairly marginalized. The continual infusion of new ideas is both inevitable and indispensable to the pursuit of historical understanding.

If a significant number of historians feel unappreciated by their own colleagues or by professional associations, this is a cause for serious concern. There is not much that the president of the AHA can do to influence how historians treat one another, except to urge that all of us cultivate a spirit of collegiality, open-mindedness, and respect for all those engaged in the common project of advancing knowledge of the past. No matter how committed we are to the value of a particular field or point of view, we must recognize that historical study cannot and should not be confined to any one set of methods or approaches. It is especially incumbent on younger scholars to recognize and appreciate the contributions made by previous generations, even in the face of pressures, to highlight one's own originality by refuting earlier interpretations.

More concretely, the AHA is moving to expand the number of sessions at the annual meeting so as to maximize the representation of fields and types of history. Moreover, the Program Committee for the 2000 meeting, chaired by Michael Bernstein and Barbara Hanawalt, made a concerted effort to encourage the participation of "older" scholars and more "traditional" fields. The program committee has no hidden agenda, no systematic policy of favoring some approaches to history over others. The committee, however, is largely dependent on session proposals submitted by members. In the future, if diplomatic, intellectual, and political historians desire more representation on the program, they need to mobilize themselves to submit more proposals. Such submissions will receive the same consideration as those in more au courant fields (and perhaps even a bit of affirmative action to compensate for any past neglect).

I can assure all AHA members that the organization values intellectual and methodological heterogeneity as strongly as the more familiar kind of diversity. No field or approach is alien to the forever unfinished project of expanding our understanding of history.

—Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) is president of the AHA.