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From the Letters to the Editor column of the December 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

History Is Worth Fighting For: Where Is the AHA?

Jesse Lemisch, December 2011

Editor's Note: Perspectives on History welcomes letters to the editor on issues discussed in its pages or which are relevant to the profession. Letters should ideally be brief and should be e-mailed (or mailed to Letters to the Editor, Perspectives on History, AHA, 400 A Street SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889) along with full contact information. Letters selected for publication may be edited for style, length, and content. Publication of letters does not signify endorsement by the AHA of the views expressed by the authors, who alone are responsible for ensuring accuracy of the letters' contents. Institutional affiliations are provided only for identification purposes.

To the Editor:

Liberals in the Obama era are accommodating to the unacceptable and turning their backs on traditional liberal values. Once again, the job of defending those values is left to radicals. Now history itself needs defense.

Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman, respectively president and executive director of the American Historical Association, offer "No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History," Perspectives on History, October 2011.

What they propose is indeed too modest, almost tragically so. What we need is not cutbacks and accommodations to them but rather vastly expanded funding for higher education, plus a Works Progress Administration program for historians, like the New Deal Federal Writers' Project that produced so much of value, including the the Slave Narrative collection and the 48 volumes of the State American Guide Series.

But listen to Grafton and Grossman. They outline the continuing grim employment situation for historians, and present it as almost God given, beyond human control:

"As public contributions to higher education shrink, state budgets contract, and a lagging economy takes its toll on endowments and family incomes, there is little reason to expect the demand for tenure track faculty to expand… It's not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets… it's unrealistic…"

I hesitate to use so snarky a term as C. Wright Mills's "crackpot realism," but I find myself at odds with what G & G take to be realism. With the best of intentions, these AHA officers have nonetheless accepted as a given the collapse of public support for the public good, and they seek to accommodate to it. What's lost in this is the high value that we place on History and a complex that connects History to civilization itself. History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.

Grafton and Grossman are certainly not in the same boat as the worst of the right-wing critics of higher education (like Florida Governor Rick Scott, who says "We don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state"). Nor, I think, would they agree with the kinds of anti-tenure retrenchment arguments offered by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (see Lemisch,"Professors as Welfare Queens? Long-Time Liberals Join Neocons in Attack on Professors and Colleges: Hacker and Dreifus' Higher Education?)

But what these critics from various points on the ideological spectrum have in common is an acceptance of things as they are, a failure of vision, and an unwillingness to embark on a battle to defend learning and what used to be called "liberal education."

As I write this, some five miles to the south of me on Manhattan Island people are in the streets trying to change, not accept, the current economic catastrophe, greed and increasing inequality. Their slogan might be, "Expand, Don't Contract." The day's email brings a draft of a demand to be debated by Occupy Wall Street: "Jobs for all—a Massive Public Works and Public Service Program." It appears that those druggies, drummers, sex addicts and student debtors down there in Zuccotti Square are doing more for civilization, History and education than is the AHA. It's time for the AHA to catch up with them, and start fighting for History.

—Jesse Lemisch
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY (emeritus)