Publication Date

September 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


Editor's Note: This report is based on published documents and e-mail responses to questions sent out to various historians.

A new organization for historians—The Historical Society—was launched in late April by Eugene Genovese, Donald Kagan, and Mark Trachtenberg, among others, to provide “a place in which significant historical subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy.”

The society's founders—and many who joined—cited dissatisfaction with one aspect or another of the two existing umbrella organizations, the AHA and the OAH, as a motivating factor. Some, for instance, referred to the perceived absence of diplomatic and military history in the sessions of the AHA and the OAH or in the pages of their journals. Others lamented what they see as the excessive political correctness of the AHA and the OAH, and even more, the involvement of these organizations in politics, noting the AHA's pronouncements on the war in Vietnam, on civil rights, or on attitudes to sexual orientation. Some saw the new society as a harbinger of a return to a more traditional historiography. As Stephen A. Schuker of the University of Virginia put it, “the society seeks to offer a forum to scholars of all political tendencies and methodological inclinations who still take seriously the study of the past in its own terms—wie es eigentlich gewesen, as Leopold von Ranke expressed the ideal more than a century ago.” Donald Kagan of Yale University, one of the founders of the new society, also emphatically declared that he does “want the good old days.” Eugene Genovese, the society’s president, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that there is “a general revulsion against what is considered to be the dominant fads and trendy stuff that are of significance only to small groups of people with nothing better to do.”

However, some members of the new society said it will perform a complementary role and not supplant the existing organizations. "Let a thousand flowers bloom," Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exclaimed. She does not harbor deep resentments against the AHA or the OAH, she said, but she became a charter member of the new society because she “felt that it was a good and necessary development, and that it might offer a kind of professional comradeship that, with differing degrees of dissatisfaction, many of us have missed in recent years.” She hoped that the new organization “will be more open to keeping alive the study of history in its most capacious sense, including issues and topics and approaches that are not fashionable in the profession today.” Maier said she has no objection to the extension of historical work into new areas—and agreed that it has added to our understanding the past—but she thought that the “opening of new subject matter has resulted not in an expansion but a contraction, even a net impoverishment, of the field.”

Maier asserted, "Let the AHA run a job market; let it speak for the profession in places where it decides that historians' interests are involved; let it publish a Directory of History Departments and perform other similar tasks that a standing professional organization has to perform.”

Among some members of the new society there seems to be the feeling that the AHA and its journal, the American Historical Review, have become deliberately and systematically restrictive, encouraging only one kind of scholarship. Schuker declared that “the American Historical Review rarely publishes articles concerned with fundamental questions of political, economic, diplomatic, or high cultural history in the Western world. It assigns book reviews by quota and often ignores important works on traditional subjects entirely.”

However, not everyone agreed with this formulation. Charles Maier of Harvard University, who declares himself to be an agnostic about the value of the new society, thought that the AHR “has done a remarkable job in recent years of canvassing many specialized topics of general interest.”

AHR‘s editor, Michael Grossberg of Indiana University, said he shares the concern that the journal does not cover contemporary historical scholarship as fully as it should, and recognizes that dissatisfaction with the journal could be one source of discontent. He added that at “the AHR there are no privileged subjects, methods, or fields; no quotas for articles or books in particular fields or on particular subjects.” Grossberg noted that he has been commissioning articles and forums on underrepresented subjects and enlarging contacts with publishers to increase the range of books reviewed. Grossberg urged historians “critical of the journal to submit manuscripts or send letters … suggesting how they think that the journal can improve the way it pursues its fundamental mission.”

The program of the AHA's annual meeting was cited as another source of acute discontent. Charles Maier said that "some of the motivation for the new association is a reaction to the self-image of the discipline derived from the catalogue of the annual meeting," which gives "the impression not just of constant innovation, but of a bazaar in which newer specializations—often cloned in many specialized case studies—not merely appear alongside, but swamp older inquiries." But, he added, "it is also hardly the case that issues such as war and diplomacy have disappeared from the AHA agenda." Schuker took a dimmer view, and stated that "scholars who study what experts formerly regarded as the center of the field are assigned the Sunday morning slot or are excluded from the program altogether at the annual meeting."

However, Sara Evans and Ann Waltner of the University of Minnesota, the cochairs of the 1998 program committee, maintained that “the shape of the program very much reflects the shape of the proposals which are submitted,” and added that sessions were accepted and rejected in roughly the same proportions across fields. As for the scheduling, the program committee was instructed “to be sure that the Sunday schedule included some of the sessions … expected to be particularly popular.” The committee definitely “did not go through the list and decide ‘this is a Saturday session’ or ‘this is a Sunday session—send it to the graveyard.'”

Some members of the profession expressed disappointment with the new society's founding. Sharon Farmer of the University of California at Santa Barbara said that because it is normal and good for historians to disagree with each other, it “seems much healthier if we keep talking to each other rather than splintering off from each other.”

Robert DuPlessis of Swarthmore College stated that from his reading of the published documents of the new society, “it is more covertly politicized; embodies a more hierarchic notion of how intellectual discourse is to be expressed; seeks to delimit more directly and more restrictively what are acceptable topics of historical study, how they are to be approached, and how they are to be interpreted. More generally, the founding of the society has to be understood within the contexts of the resurgence of conservative historiography and politics in the academy (as in the larger society), the reaction against feminism, and the changing of generations.”

But, he added, "the society may well serve as a lightning rod for discontents felt by many historians with the established historical organizations." He criticized the AHA for directing its efforts "overwhelmingly to a narrow constituency, namely the main graduate-school oriented ('research') universities," and thought that "while the all-white male nature of the AHA has changed somewhat in recent years, its profound elitism, entirely unrepresentative of the profession, has not altered in any substantive way." DuPlessis said he has ceased to expect that the AHA will speak to his larger concerns as a historian as opposed to his particular scholarly interests. But he did not think the new society will do anything for him either. "For despite its verbiage, I see it as highly politicized and agenda-driven (because [it is] run by those who claim to have no politics and no agenda). Equally important, it is really speaking from and to the same small circle as the AHA."

To its members, and to those who chose to remain outside, the new society represents many things. And it has stirred up much debate. But, as Joyce Appleby, the immediate past president of the AHA put it, "It's hard to oppose a new scholarly organization that is open to all who want to do serious history and wishes to debate significant subjects in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and common courtesy. Nor could one find fault with the Historical Society's request that participants at its meetings reason logically, appeal to evidence, and share criticism with those who hold different points of view. We should all hail those willing to put their time into forming groups that strengthen thoughtful and productive exchanges among historians."

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