Advocacy and the Historian at Home

Sandria B. Freitag, January 1997

As reported in articles published in this newsletter in the past two months by the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), the Coalition of Social Science Associations (COSSA), and the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC), we are entering the season of political activism: decisions made in January and thereafter over allocations and reauthorizations will profoundly affect the ability of this nation to encourage research and circulate national resources (an embarrassingly modest amount of them) to support scholarship and the humanities. National recognition of the importance of encouraging intellectual contributions to civic life is under challenge for virtually all venues—the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), campus-based Title VI international studies centers, and Fulbright fellowships overseas.

In terms of emerging technologies, commercial emphases in the development of the Internet and the drafting of new electronic copyright legislation threatens the fundamentals of scholarly communication. At the same time, the increasing tendency of state governments and university administrations to view distance learning as the way to reduce education costs by downsizing the teaching work force imperils our ability to protect quality learning environments. Even more fundamental, congressmen Ernest J. Istook (R-Okla.), David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), and their allies continue their relentless attempts to insert legislative language into various bills in order to privilege commercial operations receiving contracts from the federal government, while also trying to silence nonprofit organizations that receive grants.

The Context

None of this, alas, is news. But studies suggest just why these federal developments have such a devastating impact at home, in the districts, and (for many of our members) in departments of history. The State Fiscal Brief for December 1995 (published by the Center for the Study of the States, Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government) has tracked profound changes in the composition of state spending between 1990 and 1994. The big gainers in this period have been Medicaid and corrections; the big loser has been higher education. "Share of state spending" is the measure used in these studies, and higher education's share declined nationwide from 14 to 12.5 percent of the total (Medicaid rose from 9.1 to 12.8 percent; corrections from 5.2 to 5.9 percent of total outlays). Only seven states departed from this pattern. Indeed, the report notes, "Higher education was the 'cash cow' of state budgets during this period. The shift of state dollars away from higher education was accompanied by the dramatic increase in tuition and fees paid by students. The average tuition and required fees for undergraduates at public four-year institutions jumped 36.6 percent between the 1989-90 and 1992-93 academic years." (See page 3 of State Fiscal Brief.)

The years under study, of course, were those in which the states suffered most from the effects of the recession. What now, when signs point to significant improvements in most state economies? This is where federal politics and state realities converge, and where the developments in the new Congress will bear most directly on the life of scholars at home. As we saw in the last Congress, a significant shift has been under way to move the cost of social welfare programs from Washington to the states; assuming this pattern continues and that public willingness to spend on corrections continues, the Center for the Study of the States predicts continuation especially of the pattern of the "shrinking share of the budget for higher education. Since tuition and fee increases can compensate for part of state budget reductions, state colleges and universities will probably receive a less than proportionate share of budget increases." (See pages 3 and 6 of State Fiscal Brief.)

Effects for Historians and Other Scholars

This, then, is the local context for the federal developments we cover so often in Perspectives and on the AHA home page ( (Be sure to check the home page regularly for updates.) Moreover, many of the departmental issues identified in AHA planning discussions over the past 18 months regarding "doing history in the 21st century" have arisen directly from this context. Many participants in these discussions were already preoccupied with the institutional impact on their campuses of downsizing and the way that it is affecting the number of available tenure lines, the increasing reliance on part-time and adjunct faculty, the need to reconceptualize curricular programs, relationships between undergraduate and graduate training, and support for research. They have been grappling as well with changing employment realities and the implications of change for the size and content of graduate training programs. (Indeed, one of the most consistent calls has been for efforts by Ph.D.-granting institutions to present a much broader range of options as legitimate careers for those earning history degrees.) They have noted, as well, that our discipline cannot count on benefiting from new intellectual trends and new voices or viewpoints as it has in the past. As teaching loads increase (often quite explicitly justified in rhetoric that poses teaching against research as a public good), and as research support atrophies both within the academy and from external funders, the scale and character of these diverse contributions seem very likely to shrink.

The interaction of negative trends in the federal and state contexts will affect possibilities for support of scholarship (both in the creation of new knowledge and its dissemination in all venues), and will thus become a central issue for scholarly societies. Not surprisingly, then, throughout the AHA discussions historians expressed the need to connect more effectively to the general public, making clear the skills and methods historians bring to a study of the past, skills and methods that distinguish their work from the wishful reconstructions made by public figures. Indeed, in the context of planning for the future, our members have often urged us to support the capacity to communicate with the general public about issues related to student preparation in history and to facilitate contributions by historians to civic debate.

The Education Congress

The Congress just elected to office has already been dubbed "the education Congress," a label that suggests promising prospects, at least in part. The promise can be redeemed if we can successfully convey the components of quality education, the underlying connections between teaching and research, and the contributions that can be made by scholars through such work as partnerships with K–12 teachers. We will, however, have a challenge to overcome, to the extent that legislators come to Washington convinced they already have the answers they need. How can historians work to meet the promises and challenges brought by the new Congress?


A first answer is to work through coalitions. The AHA collaborates with a number of other associations to support advocacy efforts aimed at particular sets of issues. Through the NHA, for instance, we work with the Modern Language Association, the American Political Science Association, the American Association of Museums, the Association of American Research Libraries, and dozens of other societies on issues related to the NEH, electronic copyright, funding for overseas research (e.g., Title VI), and attacks on nonprofits. Through the NCC, we pursue issues of interest particularly to historians, including archival access, preservation and declassification, copyright, and the NEH. Through COSSA, we work with other social science organizations to protect support for research at the NSF and other federal agencies. Perhaps most unique is the coalition for support of work with K–12 teachers—the National History Education Network (NHEN)—created by the AHA, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS), the professional organization for teachers. We can make much more persuasive arguments when we can draw on examples from across the disciplines and when we can demonstrate commitment to shared ideals emanating from the scholarly world.

Local Action

Increasingly, a second answer is emerging to the question of how historians can best work with the new Congress. That answer is to focus on "home"—on the district and the department as centers for political activism. Several of the coalitions I've mentioned are turning their attention to the stories that can be told from congressional district bases, and told best by constituents. The NHA, for instance, is organizing an ambitious district-level strategy that will call on local members of our associations to establish ongoing relationships with district offices of key committee members and leaders. In its quest to promote high-quality history education in the schools, NHEN is monitoring states in which new standards and other documents are being proposed and recruiting assistance from local historians.

As a member of the AHA, then, you will have a number of options to exercise if you wish to become involved in the upcoming season of activism. You can continue to monitor our publications (the newsletter and our home page) for developments in Washington. And you can consult the NCC home page ( for up-to-date information from that organization. In an upcoming newsletter we hope to include a card that you can return to us if you wish to be contacted directly to work on district-level contacts. This work, we hope, will ultimately involve not only concerns relating to history, but also (for those so inclined) the building of district-level teams representing a number of disciplines and educational venues.

Perhaps most ambitious and creative, especially in addressing the issues as they come "home" to historians on campus, are the advocacy models being organized by departments. In the September issue of Perspectives (pp. 23–5), we reprinted an article from the OAH newsletter on the advocacy effort organized by members of the Indiana University history department. Since that article was published, we have heard from faculty in San Diego, who have organized a slightly different model that also sounds promising. The Faculty Coalition for Public Higher Education, San Diego, has pulled together faculty from the public (two- and four-year) colleges and universities in the San Diego area to "advance common political goals." The coalition members estimate that they have two to three years before the next funding crisis hits California, when they will again face public preferences for prisons over schools, as well as unknown factors resulting from distance learning, attacks on tenure, and the overuse of part-time instructors. Committed to exploring policy and funding alternatives for public higher education, the group wants to move beyond lobbying to contribute new options and solutions. Group members offer a newsletter and other organizational activities. (If you would like to examine their model, contact Jonathan McLeod at Mesa College.)

The AHA's advocacy efforts involve a number of different kinds of approaches, ranging from the provision of up-to-date information on which our members may act, to working with other organizations to present policy positions espoused by our Council, to helping to create grassroots structures that can be used by our members at home. These are all aspects of the services we provide to members, and we want to work in partnership with those who care about these issues.