Who's the Oldest of Them All?

James Turner, September 2003

This letter is in response to the report of the Committee on Graduate Education that appeared in the May 2003 issue of Perspectives.

To the Editor:

The article in the May, 2003 Perspectives treating the history of graduate education—"We Historians: The Golden Age and Beyond"—asserts that the AHA is the second oldest disciplinary organization in the United States. Its founding in 1884 allegedly "was preceded only by that of the Modern Language Association in 1883."

This claim is untenable. Several disciplinary organizations antedate the AHA, including the American Chemical Society, the Archaeological Institute of America, and the Society of Biblical Literature. In terms of currently recognized disciplines, the American Philological Association (founded in 1869) probably has the strongest claim to being the oldest such group. I incline (probably most other historians would disagree) to regard the American Oriental Society (organized 1842) as the first disciplinary organization, even though the exfoliation of academic disciplines after 1850 soon left it looking, as it does now, like an interdisciplinary ("area studies") organization.

One hopes that in future, when the AHA publishes official accounts of the history of the profession, it will get basic facts right.

—James Turner
University of Notre Dame

Editor's Note: The authors of the report wish to thank Professor Turner for pointing out this error. They have taken steps to correct the text in the final version of the report, which is currently in production at the University of Illinois Press.