A Century of Vision, a Time to Act: A Mission Statement for the National History Center
AHA Staff, October 2002
From the AHA Activities column in the October 2002 Perspectives
Fulfilling a century-old vision, the American Historical Association takes pride in creating the National History Center, a public trust devoted equally to the professional study and teaching of history and to the advancement of historical knowledge in government, business, and the public at large. The center, a nonprofit corporation with an independent board of directors, will be located near the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, and the branches and agencies of the federal government. A new national resource, the National History Center will differ from comparable institutions by its exclusive dedication to history. It will stimulate scholars and those concerned with public affairs to reflect on what the past can teach us and to utilize the unparalleled historical resources of the nation's capital. The center will embrace the history of all times and of all parts of the world. It will strengthen the discipline of history in schools, colleges, universities, and civic life internationally as well as nationally.
A Century of Vision
History is to a nation what memory is to an individual. A nation denied a knowledge of its past cannot effectively confront its present and its future. The historical profession in the United States is prepared to meet the challenge of helping the country preserve its collective memory and understand America's place in world history. This vision originated over a hundred years ago with J. Franklin Jameson, one of the early leaders of the American Historical Association. Over the years many distinguished historians have renewed his call for a new national institution to develop effective teaching methods and increase historical understanding among the public both in the United States and abroad. These needs were compelling in the early 20th century when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson served as presidents of both the American Historical Association and the nation. They remain compelling today. In the 21st century, historical insight is crucial to maintaining our national heritage and moral strength.
As the founders of the American Historical Association might have said, the center will be a beacon casting light on the best practices in education and historical scholarship.
A Place for Scholarly Excellence
The National History Center will be a national center with a global vision. Historians in the United States lack an institution that directly encourages teaching, research, and writing. At present, scholars from throughout the country and abroad converge on Washington to make use of the capital's vast resources of books, documents, art, and artifacts. Yet there is no place where they can meet and collaborate in the common endeavor of teaching and studying history. By providing a base of operations, and a place to share perspectives and work-in-progress, the center will support scholars and teachers across the spectrum of the historical profession. It will sponsor public lectures, seminars, workshops, conferences, publications, and programs designed to enhance research and improve teaching in schools and universities. Visiting scholars will have the opportunity to exploit not only the resources of the National Archives and Library of Congress but also those of many other institutions in fields such as architecture, science and technology, medicine, popular culture, the fine arts, film, and photography.
The center will offer resident fellowships not only to established scholars but also to others for whom such support is generally less available. It will extend fellowships to independent scholars, community college faculty, public historians, and others who are underrepresented in the historical profession. They will benefit from a building fully equipped with digital technology, reading rooms, and a reference library providing a quiet environment conducive to scholarship and reflection.
A Place for Teaching Excellence
There is no place in the nation's capital dedicated to fostering collaboration among teachers of history at all levels of the educational system. The National History Center will fill this gap by offering summer workshops and institutes for school teachers and community college faculty as well as university instructors. Focused on effective teaching, these programs will link historians across the divide of institutions and subjects. Teachers will therefore be able to increase their knowledge and pedagogical skills while working together to develop classroom material reflecting recent scholarship and innovative teaching methods.
The center will further education on a national level by providing common ground for public discussion on the teaching of history. It will benefit not only teachers but also others who wish to deepen their knowledge of history and work with leading scholars and distinguished instructors. Another of the center's aims will be to provide opportunities for teachers coming from other nations and cultures to exchange ideas and experiences with their American peers. Special efforts will also be made to assist those who teach American studies abroad. The scope of teaching and research, however, will include all fields of history. The center will thus encourage the exchange of ideas among teachers of diverse backgrounds trained in a broad range of specialties. It will provide a forum for historians to debate all stages of education, from kindergarten through high school and beyond, and to discuss the role of history in the education of our nation's citizenry—a crucial mission since the teaching of history has increasingly become the subject of local pressures and parochial lobbies.
A Place for Vital Public Debate
The center will assist journalists, members of the business community, government officials, and the public at large to acquire a better understanding of historical issues. It will host lectures, seminars, and conversations among historians to be electronically transmitted to the nation and the world. It will thereby bring historical discussion to a large public audience and ensure that historical perspectives are not lost in the deliberations of our leaders at the local, state, and national levels. Since contemporary public affairs should be understood in their historical setting, the National History Center will benefit not only historians but also the American people and the world at large.
A Time to Act
After the events of September 11, the vision of a National History Center must appeal to all who regard the study of history-including public debate about its meaning in present-day circumstances-as an essential part of our democracy. The National History Center will help to shape history yet to be recorded.
Since an understanding of history is directly related to the preservation of an open, democratic society, inadequacy of historical knowledge has become a public concern. By addressing this problem now we can uphold our nation's ideals and can try to dispel misperceptions about the United States as well as about other nations. By welcoming all approaches to history, and by drawing upon the resources of the nation's capital, the National History Center will meet our need for a firmer grasp of the past. The American Historical Association calls on public-spirited Americans committed to the study and teaching of history to advance the cause of the National History Center.