Publication Date

December 1, 1997

Editor's Note: We are delighted to note that several of the letters we are publishing below were sent through e-mail, reflecting the increasing use of new technology by our readers. Whatever the mode of communication, we always welcome feedback from our readers, and look forward to hearing from them, discussing the content and style of Perspectives.

To the Editor:

A longtime member of the AHA, I thought I would weigh in on the summer changes to Perspectives. The “ESNW NWSE SWEN NEWS” heading is not particularly attractive or clever, but the content of the News column is really great. I enjoyed reading about the ongoing attacks on the Smithsonian, the artifact debacle at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and especially Karen Sawislak’s tenure case. This is exactly the kind of general news of interest to historians, and I hope we can see more of it in future issues. I think it marks a real improvement to Perspectives.

Amy S. Greenberg
Penn State University

To the Editor:

Major improvements. Well done. I appreciate the current news, but hope you won't duplicate the Chronicle.

Jonathan Coopersmith
Texas A & M University

To the Editor:

I appreciate your new News feature, though I can't say that I enjoyed reading about Karen Sawislak's troubles at Stanford. As a Stanford alumnus, I expect humane and moral behavior from the university. Your feature moved me to write John Shoven, I hope to good effect, and I invite colleagues to add their letters to my own.

John Raby
Warren, N.J.

To the Editor:

Thanks to Joyce Appleby for her presidential thoughts ("Is the Market Too Much With Us?") in the September issue of Perspectives. She managed to say a good deal that needed saying, without growing incident.

That said, where do we go from here? The consensus she's hoping to forge will probably prove elusive, as the better-off members of the profession either hunker down and hope not to be noticed or use some combination of the market and classic professional work-arounds, such as limiting entry into their part of the job market (note the letter from Paul Kennedy of Yale in the same issue). Worse, as Professor Appleby herself points out, historians are less and less in a position to influence hiring and advancement, as those areas are taken over by the People with Money, their heirs and assigns. Hands up, those of you out there who are willing to go to the wall for peer review.

The key (if there is one) may lie in an acknowledgment of what the still fairly privileged clan of historians owes our wider society-among those debts a more energetic resistance to the trends Appleby notes. However, it also seems pretty clear that wider society disagrees. I assume you'd allow that the growth of the university system post-World War II was driven mainly by elite concerns over the Cold War: a perceived need to make better use of our (to use a phrase I detest) "human resources," and lost momentum as the challenge from the Red East came to seem less and less formidable. The pity seems to be that in that time academe never convinced a viable percentage of the voters (a word I greatly prefer to "taxpayers") that university education was in their best interests. Witness the relative quiet (and, I suspect in some cases, quiet satisfaction) With which university cuts are received as distinct from cuts relating to, say, Medicare—at least here in Canada—a service which almost everyone identifies with. I therefore suspect that the question of how we get our arguments to the voters, often and in a convincing form, is prior to the issues raised. The careful and correct arguments that the marketplace really does a bad day's work in the university—even if brought to a wider audience than those who actually read the editorials in Perspectives—will convince almost no one who is not already convinced. If you go to the wall for peer review, who in the media or public would understand? Your average citizen of the 1980s and 1990s seems far more likely to say “It’s the way of the world. You can’t fight the global market.” How do we show that it’s not the only way to run things? How do we convey the joy and value of the university experience to people who have not had it yet and who at the present rate-may never have it? Rather than shutting people out, those of us with time to think of something more than where our next sessional appointment is coming from should be forging alliances with other groups who have some doubts about the appropriateness of the market to their own circumstances. We should be looking for ways of adapting traditional teaching practices to wider needs in the present time: A bad grade was one thing in the West of the late sixties and early seventies. It is a more fearsome beast altogether in a present which does not seem to hesitate in discarding people, or in grinding the less than totally successful into hamburger. When a man’s about to be hanged, it may concentrate his mind wonderfully, but, in my experience, not necessarily on the right things. How do we improve distance education processes (which, whatever their faults, get Higher Education to people who would have little or no access to it otherwise)? Preferably we should also be spreading words like yours with the reading, writing, and arguing skills we were notionally picking up while other people were learning useful trades, and without turning ourselves into Madison Avenue.

Our Situation, like most, is complex and various. I suspect the best way forward lies in some combination of teaching and research done well, a great deal more work at the greasy and unpleasant work of public mobilization, and (since we will almost certainly never get all the resources we think we could use to advantage) in not despising the new tools and advantages of the 1990s. We are already stuck with the disadvantages, like them or not. Now excuse me, I have lectures to rewrite, and next year's jobs to apply for.

Donald G. Wileman
University of York

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