From the From the President column of the December 2010 issue of Perspectives on History
Hasta La Vista and Farewell
Barbara D. Metcalf, December 2010
Pillarisetti Sudhir, editor of Perspectives in History, has periodically reminded me of column deadlines over the last few months. This one he refers to as my “valedictory essay.” The last time I wrote something with a title like that, it was in high school and composed in Latin. On that occasion, according to my father, there was an elderly man sitting near him in the audience who kept adjusting his ear trumpet—this was a long time ago—and muttering, “I can’t understand a word she’s saying.” I’m tempted to offer that episode as a metaphor for AHA Council discussions over the past year precisely about how professional historians can make their voices heard—and understood—since even plain English, delivered in the typical ways that most professional historians use, seems so often sidelined by much louder voices in the media and even, at times, in the history texts selected for use in schools.
But it’s gratifying, too, to see the opposite, of historians bringing their expertise and perspective to bear in public debate. This past week (as I write at the end of October), AHA Council members have corresponded about the revelation in the Washington Post that a history book being distributed in Virginia schools made wholly unsubstantiated claims about the participation of southern blacks fighting in the Confederate ranks.1 These implausible claims serve those who would minimize the cruelty slavery entailed, as well as its role in causing the Civil War at all. The text utilized a partisan web site that provided no appropriate source for its allegations, ones that would have raised obvious flags to any professional historian. Alas none was involved in vetting the text. But it was a historian at the College of William and Mary, Carol Sheriff, who brought the text to light when she saw her own daughter’s copy, and both she and two other historians, David Blight and James McPherson, were quoted in the Post article. Several other historians have subsequently weighed in publicly on the story, including Jim Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, who discussed the issue in a blog post on AHA Today (and in a slightly revised form, in this issue on page 7).2
There are many such efforts on the part of historians. One useful way to keep up with these efforts is George Mason University’s History News Network, which brings many of us frequent e-mails alerting readers to historians and historical issues in the news. Discussion of the Virginia text stimulated Council members to discuss our own Association blog (AHA Today) and its presence in the electronic world, since its creative use offers great potential for professional historians to reach a larger audience in consistent and constructive ways. A related matter of ongoing effort for the AHA is our web site, whose redesign is in the offing. One ambition, whose need the Virginia text makes clear, is to make “www.historians.org” a portal for more critical use of the all-engulfing world of historical materials on the web. What the AHA and individual historians can do in relation to Virginia school books—or our concern earlier in the year, schoolbooks in Texas, where again professional historians were sidelined—may seem modest.3 But in Virginia, the fate of the problematic textbook is in fact now under discussion by those empowered to decide whether to use it or not
Historians keep up the good fight everywhere. These past few weeks in India, for example, have reawakened the issue of the history of the Babri Masjid and uses to which that history has been put. A full 18 years ago, Hindu nationalists, with some degree of official and organizational complicity, orchestrated the complete destruction of a historic 16th-century mosque on the presumed grounds that it had been built on the site of a Hindu temple marking the birthplace of Lord Ram. The aftermath included a campaign of horrific anti-Muslim violence. On September 30, 2010, the Allahabad High Court decreed that the land now should be divided among three claimants who had filed cases, two Hindu organizations and one Muslim, a judgment no doubt intended to be Solomonic and put the issue to rest.
There was in fact a widespread reaction that any decision that got the issue over with was welcome. But many historians have insisted—rightly in my view—that the decision set a dangerous precedent of misusing history. The misuse was not only the invocation of faulty history, namely that there had been a temple and that it was located on a known birthplace. But misuse also extended to adducing history at all when a society governed by a rule of law needed both to deal with criminal acts as such and to invoke relevant law—not history, let alone myth—in a legal case. A statement issued shortly after the judgment by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), whose first among many signatories was the AHA Honorary Foreign Member, Romila Thapar, is notable not only for making these points but also for calling for the release of relevant documents from the Archaeological Survey of India. The lifting of the veil of secrecy from relevant government documents is crucial for the history of this important episode in India’s democracy.4
The real “front line” for historians, of course is in the classrooms and other settings where the everyday work of helping shape a historical perspective takes place, whether contributing specifically to concerns in public life or not. A recent issue of this publication, which focused on the theme, “Controversy in the Classroom” was simply inspirational in the originality with which colleagues in classroom, museum, and national park settings found ways to help participants think afresh and do so by critical use of historical methods.5 I experienced that kind of expertise earlier this year when I toured Lowell National Historical Park (near Boston) with a park ranger who, I was delighted to hear, had both an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in history. The ranger on this occasion gracefully presented a wealth of considerations relevant to issues like the environment, inequality, cultural difference, and global interdependence. National parks, like classrooms, are extraordinary places for contributing, one can only hope, to richer lives and more informed citizenship for those who pass through them.
And since this is indeed a valedictory word, let me say how much I’m enjoying this three-year term as a chance to see more closely what our committed members, with the support of the remarkable AHA staff, do to support the core work that makes all this possible. It’s easy to judge the glass half-full, not least in recent weeks when Glenn Beck, charismatic and persuasive and proclaimed as “America’s history professor,” is so often in the news.6 But serious professional work and effective communication are out there, and in so many ways ever better.
This column is not “farewell” at all, but hasta la vista. The particular vista ahead, I hope, is the Boston annual meeting where professional history will shine. We all owe a particular debt to Michael Fisher, co-chair Barbara Rosenwein, and the Program Committee for coordinating an excellent array of sessions. Our appreciation, too, to David Quigley and the Local Arrangements Committee, thanks to whom some of you, at least, will even have a chance to tour Lowell yourselves
Barbara D. Metcalf (professor emerita, University of California, Davis; and Andrew W. Mellon Emeritus Fellow, University of Michigan) is president of the AHA.
1. The book is Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present (Five Ponds Press, 2010). See “Virginia 4th-grade textbook criticized over claims on black Confederate soldiers” by Kevin Sieff, Washington Post, October 20, 2010, found at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/19/AR2010101907974.html? hpid=topnews. The web site quoted in the text book was that maintained by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
3. The AHA Statement is posted at http://blog.historians.org/news/1050/american-historical-association-calls-on-the-texas-state-board-of-education-to-reconsider-amendments-to-the-texas-essential-knowledge-and-skills-for-social-studies.
4. See coverage in the respected Indian newspaper, The Hindu, “Ayodhya Verdict Yet Another Blow to Secularism: SAHMAT,” 3 October 2010, at www.thehindu.com/news/national/article809521.ece. SAHMAT is the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, an organization named for a playwright and activist, who was especially known for his contributions to socially engaged street theater; he was assassinated in 1989. SAHMAT was founded in order to further Hashmi’s commitment to human rights, Indian democracy, and artistic creativity and freedom. See also Romila Thapar’s article, “The Verdict on Ayodhya: A Historian’s Perspective,” The Hindu, October 2, 2010 (online at www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article807232.ece).
5. Perspectives in History 48:5, May 2010, available at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1005.
6. Apart from earlier news coverage of his rally in Washington, there was an 8,000 word profile, “Being Glenn Beck” by Mark Liebovich in The New York Times Magazine, September 29, 2010; these past weeks there also has been coverage of a new biography on Beck—Dana Milbank, Tears of a Clown: Glenn Beck and the Teabagging of America (New York: Doubleday, 2010).