Publication Date

October 21, 2019

Perspectives Section

From the Executive Director

Post Type



Current Events in Historical Context

The American Historical Association has issued 23 letters and statements in 2019, and signed onto three amicus curiae briefs—more than in any previous year. Historians, ever observant and aware of change over time, have noticed, and asked what led to the upsurge. How do we decide when to speak, and what to say? And why spend time and energy on activity that might be dismissed as merely political, or marginal to the AHA’s mission?

As we’ve emphasized in recent initiatives on history education, the starting point for effective work is often a reflection on purpose. Like everything else, the AHA’s mission has a history, beginning with incorporation by congressional charter in 1889, “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts, and for kindred purposes in the interest of American history, and of history in America.” The Association no longer collects or preserves manuscripts, and has translated that clause into work that supports such activity. Currently, the AHA promotes historical work and thinking by providing leadership to the discipline on such issues as professional standards, academic freedom, access to archives, history education, and the centrality of history to public culture. These issues provide a framework for determining when we have a responsibility to speak.

So, how does it actually work?

Requests for AHA commentary come from members, Council, committees, staff, even prompts from peer associations. We are particularly attentive to members’ queries, all of which receive individual responses. Every suggestion generates an exploration of the circumstances, generally beginning with a conversation between the executive director and the president or the vice president for the relevant AHA division, often with preliminary staff discussion. Unless it clearly falls outside the boundaries of the AHA’s Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance, the first question is whether the issue lies within the purview of the Professional, Teaching, or Research Division of the Council. An amicus brief relating to reclassification of confidential records would go first to the Research Division; an academic freedom issue relating to a historian’s social media post, to the Professional Division. In collaboration with AHA staff, the relevant division ascertains the facts as best it can and decides whether to recommend intervention. That final determination is made by the Council, taking into consideration the guiding principles, facts, and occasionally precedent.

How do we decide when to speak, and what to say? And why spend time and energy on activity that could be dismissed as merely political, or marginal to the AHA’s mission?

This chronology can vary. If an issue doesn’t fall clearly within a divisional purview, then it goes directly to the Council, with research led by staff or a Council member, who often consult former AHA officers with the necessary subject expertise. When time is of the essence—if we learn at the last minute, for instance, that a state university system is about to eliminate history from its general education framework—divisions can be bypassed. For the most extreme deadlines, the Council’s executive committee can exercise full authority.

Whatever the pathway of decision making, and even when time is tight, the AHA always begins by confirming the facts and establishing relevant context. When facts are murky, we reply to the request with a set of questions intended to help us locate the information necessary to proceed. Even more frequently, the context is complicated—hardly surprising to an organization of historians. An archivist thousands of miles away is fired for granting access to scholars whom the authorities don’t like. Surely the AHA must object. A bit of consultation yields context: the archive is owned by the national security apparatus; the archivist is a member of a hypernationalist, anti-Semitic political fringe. The AHA takes a pass.

Facts and context provide a foundation for whatever letter or statement the Council approves. These are typically short, often a paragraph or two, and never more than two pages. Authorship is generally collaborative, with the initial draft drawing on the email conversation that began the process as well as the information provided by field specialists consulted during it. Occasionally, one of these colleagues will draft a specific paragraph. In most cases, conversation leads to knowledgeable members of the Council and a staff member generating a draft together. Each stage of discussion generates revision. One reason the AHA has developed a reputation for the quality of its letters and statements is the readiness of the small drafting committee to seek criticism and incorporate multiple perspectives. We have found that the quest for consensus leads not to squishy prose or lowest-common-denominator reasoning. Instead, it enforces precision, evidence-based argument, and breadth of perspective. We especially strive for text that is discipline-specific. Our recent statement on domestic terrorism, endorsed by 49 peer associations, is notable both for its historical analysis and for the influence of historical thinking on its structure, argument, and vocabulary.

We write our statements that way because the centrality of historical thinking to all aspects of public culture and policy is why we are speaking out in the first place. Our statements that bear no relationship to policy or culture—statements on history education, on research, professional issues, or academic freedom—are important precisely because history is important. We must know and teach history if we are to use history. So one substantial category of advocacy must lie in that area of promoting historical work, historical thinking, and historical literacy, which traditionally have constituted the bulk of our activity in the public sphere. And, as historians, we should call out egregious and unethical invocations of “history” that undermine democratic practices and peaceful congregation.

I would like to see our advocacy documents have an even more direct function, one that requires the assistance of AHA members and readers of Perspectives on History.

I would like to see our advocacy documents have an even more direct function, one that requires the assistance of AHA members and readers of Perspectives on History. Conversation following recent statements suggested the possibility of their utility in classrooms, religious institutions, and other relevant arenas of dialogue and exchange. The AHA’s statement on Confederate monuments was invoked in city council meetings, discussed in high school and community college classrooms, and quoted by journalists. We welcome such use. We publicized the link to the domestic terrorism statement to history teachers with a suggestion that the text might be used in their classrooms to frame and encourage talk about the uses of history. We also sent it to religious institutions and have heard of it stimulating interesting discussion elsewhere.

Perhaps we can do this with more of our advocacy documents. Two recent examples: A brief letter defending academic freedom thousands of miles away might interest those who study that country. A commentary on a National Labor Relations Board proposal related to graduate student unionization might be useful at next year’s orientation or a department meeting. We’ll work harder to publicize these documents in the right places, and we need you to think about using them or recommending them to colleagues.

The current moment presents an unusual landscape of responsibility, perhaps emphasized by the close proximity of the US Capitol and Supreme Court to my residence and workplace. Like the media, the infrastructure of scholarship is a bulwark of a free society. I have not been among those who see fascism creeping into our political processes, but I do see something happening that differs from anything I’ve seen before. If a clear and present danger does exist—and I recognize the legitimacy and imperative of debate here—then we must recognize the obligations of institutions of civil society when the rule of law itself comes under threat from those sworn to enforce it. Under such circumstances, the AHA has a responsibility to participate beyond its normal conventions.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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