Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Perspectives Section


The National History Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will celebrate the third birthday of their collaborative effort, the Washington History Seminar, with a presentation by Eric Foner, a leading scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction, on Monday, January 28, 2013, at 4 p.m., at the Wilson Center in downtown Washington, D.C.

Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a past president of the AHA, will discuss the American Civil War and its legacies. His seminar will be the 79th in a series that began on January 25, 2010, with Woodrow Wilson Fellow Martin J. Sherwin of George Mason University discussing the Cuban missile crisis.

The seminar, which has met regularly since then on virtually every Monday afternoon during the academic year, grew out of conversations between Wm. Roger Louis, the director of the National History Center, and Christian Ostermann, the director of European studies and head of the history and public policy program at the Wilson Center. "We looked around and saw that Washington did not have a regularly scheduled event aimed at helping those involved in setting national policy see and understand the role history could play in their day to day activities. The Wilson Center had the venue and the access to policy makers, and the History Center had the links to working historians," Louis said. Soon after the series began, it also attracted the invaluable support of the Society of the Historians of American Foreign Relations, which continues to sustain the seminar in various ways.

The Smithsonian Institution as well as area universities offer colloquia and lecture series on historical themes to audiences mostly composed of historians. The Washington History Seminar aims at reaching a broader audience while more sharply focusing on historical topics with contemporary policy resonances. "We are trying to provide a forum in the heart of Washington at which historians can share their findings and engage with the Washington public policy community," Ostermann explained. "We make a point of drawing out our historian colleagues on the policy implications of their work. That question may not always get asked in a university setting."

Some had misgivings early on about whether the seminar could be sustained in the long term. But Louis and Ostermann, the codirectors of the seminar, now find that they have more difficulty finding slots for all the scholars who would like to participate than in finding suitable presenters. . The series is particularly popular among Wilson Center Fellows and Senior Scholars. The fellows come from around the world for nine-month residencies, while senior scholars have longer-term connections to the center. Some have backgrounds in history, but many have closer ties to the worlds of policy development and implementation. "Packed seminar rooms demonstrate that there is a need for a place where historians from outside D.C. can engage with Washington's policy and scholarly community," Ostermann pointed out.

Louis was particularly interested in creating a true seminar rather than a lecture series. His hope was that the "audience" would come to play as important a role as the presenters. Each speaker is asked to prepare a talk of about 45 minutes, with an equal time set aside for questions and comments, moderated by Ostermann. The sessions invariably draw an informed and engaged audience, and the discussions following the presentation can be lively, to say the least. The excitement of the discussion often spills over into the conversations carried on during the wine and cheese reception that follows every seminar.

"We have seen the Washington History Seminar become an increasingly important resource, both for the policy community in Washington and for historians and other scholars interested in policy research. It is unique," said Arnita Jones, executive director emerita of the AHA (and a regular participant). Even those unable to attend in person can take advantage of the seminar by viewing the webcasts of most sessions.

The subject matter varies widely, as do the presenters. War, both hot and cold, has been a recurrent topic, as have the Arab Spring and the American Civil Rights Movement. The seminar has hosted numerous international scholars as well as a number of senior women historians, including Joan Wallach Scott, Linda Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Phyllis Leffler. And it keeps going, no matter what happens. Only twice have the organizers canceled meetings: once during "Snowmageddon," in February 2010, just three weeks into the series, and recently, in October 2012, during "Superstorm" Sandy.

"One of our goals was to create a community bound by history and public policy," Louis concluded. "I think we have succeeded.

Marian Barber is the associate director of the National History Center.

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