A paper read before the American Historical Association at its meeting in San Francisco, December 28, 1989. Published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 95, No. 1. (Feb., 1990), pp. 1-8.

The Future of the American Historical Association

I ask all members of the American Historical Association tonight and in the days ahead to give serious thought to the needs of the historical profession in the 1990s and to how well the AHA, as the umbrella organization for all historians in the United States, fulfills its obligation to lead the profession. How well does it serve its broad and changing constituency, and how call it command the loyalty, interest, and participation of the entire historical profession? How can members, as well as elected leaders, help to strengthen the AHA and the historical profession? These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. In part, the answers depend on what happens in the near future, and historians have no special license to predict or determine the future. Nevertheless, I propose to open the discussion by suggesting some changes in the way we conduct our business to meet the shifting needs of our profession. The changes I shall propose are not so much structural as functional and attitudinal.

The greatest risk the AHA faces, it seems to me, is that involved in drifting and dawdling at the usual pace of a learned society. Such a course risks the danger that an increasingly specialized and compartmentalized profession will pass by the AHA and declare it obsolete. I raise this specter not out of any spirit of disloyalty. I have been a member for forty years, and you have just honored me with the office of president. I simply want to convey to you a sense of urgency. I could speak all night on the good works of the AHA, past and present, and I hope to do so on some future occasion. Tonight, however, I want to disturb the after-dinner nap that perhaps you thought came with the price of admission. My theme will be the ways in which the AHA is falling short of its potential and. how it call correct its course by certain changes. If my judgment seems fallible or you disagree with my assessment of the needs of the historical profession, at least I shall stimulate debate on the direction and future of the AHA.

Let us first consider the present state of the history profession, as a prolegomenon to a discussion of how the AHA might meet the profession’s needs. There is considerable recent evidence that the historical profession, and academia in general, is climbing out of a depression that began with the job market crash of the early 1970s. In that period, we had a large pool of unemployed young historians, newly minted Ph.D.s, many of whom became discouraged by the competition for ever fewer positions and left for other occupations. At the same time, history departments shrank in size, and an aging faculty became tenured in. The pathology spread to other aspects of the profession. Our most creative scholars found that productivity did not create mobility; the discontented could not move; doctoral training programs were demoralized by the difficulty or even the impossibility of placing their doctoral students. Perhaps they shared the ebbing faith in their discipline, for historians generally stood by as many institutions removed history courses from core requirements. During this same period, the AHA underwent a financial and constitutional crisis, emerging stronger internally and fiscally, though reduced in membership. The Constitution of 1974 made all the major offices and the three divisional committees elective, and wise fiscal management has kept us in the black.

Having survived the critical 1970s and muddled through the 1980s, the historical profession and the AHA face in the 1990s another turn of the historical kaleidoscope. The problem now is not too few jobs for too many historians but the reverse. According to a recent article in Perspectives by Richard Kohn, the number of history undergraduate majors graduating from American colleges declined 62 percent between 1970 and 1986, and in the same period Ph.D.s in history declined by almost 50 percent. Thus both our numbers and our academic audience have been sharply reduced in the past two decades.1 Historians and history departments have now adjusted to a future of lowered status and lowered expectations within the academic community. But a study just completed by William Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa for the Mellon Foundation concludes that, in the humanities, including history, by the year 2000, the academic market will demand twice the number of Ph.D.s we are now preparing.2 The dedicated scholars will get their deserved reward, but the profession seems destined to face a new crisis of lowered standards as we will be forced to put less qualified faculty into the classrooms.

History as a discipline has also recently experienced self-doubt and division. As the veteran historian Theodore S. Hamerow warns us in a recent, searching study, to society at large “the methodology of historical scholarship appears inadequate for an understanding of the world in which we live.”3 Within the academic arena, historians are challenged by social-science disciplines less plagued by self-doubt. In Professor Hamerow’s rather pessimistic analysis, however, the chief source of history’s present vulnerability is internal. He contends that history, once dominated by gifted amateurs, has lost much of its audience and much of its touch with common human experience by going academic, retreating to the ivory tower, divorcing itself from the everyday realities that history is supposed to explain. Simultaneously, research has become narrower, more technical and specialized. The unity of history, the synoptic view of human experience, has been sacrificed to the compartmentalization of the discipline into geographical and topical subspecialties. The social historian has little to say to the economic, political, or diplomatic historian, and vice versa. History never spoke in a single tongue, but now it speaks in a babble of tongues.

Perhaps Hamerow’s view of the state of the historical discipline is too negative. Research not only in history but in all scholarly disciplines has always proceeded by dividing large subjects into manageable segments. Nevertheless, whether we perceive of history as being segmented into increasingly narrow sub-specialties or as divided into two warring camps, the New History and the Old,4 internal divisions are clearly taking a toll of the common purposes and interests of historians and are weakening its hold on the general reading public.

While academic history is plagued by self-doubt and division, we are told that the nation’s youth is growing up ignorant of history. The teaching of social studies is falling on deaf ears. The educational historian Diane Ravitch and a collaborator, Chester E. Finn, Jr., conducted a national survey of 8,000 seventeen-year-olds, testing their knowledge of history and literature. The sample was representative of both sexes, different races, and all regions, and was drawn from both public and private schools. The seventeen-year-olds could answer correctly only 54 percent of the history questions and 52 percent of the literature questions. Only 32 percent knew that the Civil War occurred between 1850 and 1900, and 70 percent could not identify the Magna Carta. What these students knew, according to the survey, was mostly derived from reinforcement of school instruction by movies, television, and other media of popular culture. They remembered very little of what they were taught only in school.5

Others have also sounded the alarm. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., in his recent best seller, Cultural Literacy, concludes that the framework of knowledge required to make sense of particular bits of information is not being conveyed to our high school graduates.6 He recommends that schools abandon the learning-skills approach and begin teaching substantive knowledge in history, literature, mathematics, and science. Lynne Cheney, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaks of a “generation at risk” of losing its memory of the past.7

There have been a number of earlier cries of alarm that have not resulted in any serious reforms, but that fact should not be allowed to minimize present public ignorance of our cultural heritage. This ignorance and indifference has alarming implications for the future of our nation and our historical profession. We must not have been doing our work very well. While we engage in academic trivial pursuits, there is a crying need for, and even occasionally a cry for, our presence in the struggle for reform of social studies teaching in the schools.

Amid all this gloom and doom, there is a ray of sunshine. The adult American public has, over the past decade or so, shown increased interest in the history being offered not in the classroom but through various public media. The public cannot get enough of the historical documentaries shown on television. As Richard Kohn says, “Interest in historical museums and in collecting historical objects, in genealogical research, reconstructions, the preservation of historic buildings and sites, has skyrocketed.”8 Public historians have generally done more than academic historians to serve and promote this popular interest in history.

The question we must now consider is how well the American Historical Association is prepared to lead the historical profession through the pitfalls and into the opportunities that lie ahead in the 1990s. The AHA is the oldest and largest institution in the profession, but there are historians who are ready to abandon the A HA as an anachronism. They say we are trying to cast too wide a net over an expanded and fragmented profession, that the sessions at our annual meeting do not adequately serve the need for dialogue within their topical and regional specialties, and that AHR reviews are too brief and selective to treat adequately the specialized literature that matters most to them. In other words, perhaps the profession has outgrown the AHA.

I do not believe that the AHA has been giving adequate answers to these doubters and skeptics, but I believe there are adequate answers. For example, anyone who reads the AHR regularly cannot help admiring the imaginative efforts of the editors to highlight central controversies within the profession. Our program committees for the past several years have been emphasizing comparative sessions that promote dialogue between specialties. And our various working committees perform an essential role in maintaining professional standards and protecting the interests of historians in such matters as access to documents, investigations of charges of plagiarism, and promotion of international and interdisciplinary scholarly interchange.

Nevertheless, those historians who have refused to join the AHA or allowed their membership to lapse have, in effect, voted no on the question of its survival and prosperity. When I sought as president-elect, in conjunction with the AHA committee on committees, to appoint the James H. Breasted Prize committee in ancient history, I was shocked to find how few of the eminent scholars our committee approached were AHA members. Similarly, too few East Asian historians or Africanists bother to join the AHA, and there are many other such gaps in our membership.

Not only narrow specialists but several other large groups are “staying away in droves” from the AHA, those who feel that the AHA speaks neither for them nor to them. These include public historians, both those in government agencies and in state and local historical societies, professors in four-year colleges and community colleges, and high school teachers of history and social studies. They tend to see the AHA as an elite organization of the professoriate, in which too large a share of the attention, recognition, and reward goes to professors in Ivy League schools and the most prestigious graduate schools. In many respects, this is not a fair indictment. After all, our principal offices are elective, and the committees that write the slates of committee assignments are themselves elective. Furthermore, my recent close acquaintance with the executive director and his staff and with the many committees of the AHA convinces me that their concerns and their efforts are those of the entire historical profession, not just an elite part of it.

Still, even if I do not see evidence of a deliberate or conspiratorial elitism in its recent history, the AHA tends to reflect the views of that part of the profession identified most strongly with the professoriate. Professors achieve status, tenure, promotion, and movement to more elite universities through the writing of monographs, most of them so narrow in scope, so technical in treatment, that only other professors appreciate them. Historians have made the monograph the sine qua non of professional recognition and reward. This leaves out in the cold all of those historians whose primary work is teaching undergraduates, informing the general public, or helping social studies teachers do a better job of enlightening the young.

Even though the picture I have painted of the historical profession and the AHA is mostly from the darker side of the palette, it is not my purpose to urge abandonment of the AHA. It has been an unsatisfactory association for some historians, but it is the only organization capable of leading and unifying a fragmented profession. What I propose instead, and it is not an original thought, is to urge a movement of the AHA from the learned society model I have been describing to a professional association model. We do not need to abandon the learned society aspects of the AHA, its maintenance of standards and promotion of scholarship, but we need to go further in the direction of serving the cause of history and interests of historians in a more comprehensive way.

Three years ago, the AHA began a self-study by appointing the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the American Historical Association. Meeting under the joint chairmanship of Richard Kohn and myself, this committee recommended twenty changes intended to strengthen the AHA and make it a more effective instrument of the will and interests of the historical profession.9 These recommendations are the basis of five goals to which I shall urge you, the members of the AHA, to give priority in the next few years.

In the first place, the AHA needs to carry on a membership campaign. Alone of all the professional associations to which I belong, the AHA until this week has had no membership committee, no group of volunteers among its membership engaged in actively recruiting among their colleagues for new members or the renewal of lapsed memberships. Two staff members, not themselves historians, have done all the work of solicitation and recruitment. They do their work efficiently, and our numbers have grown slightly in recent years to about 13,000 individual members. But think of the missed potential membership. There are at least twice that number of historians with doctorates in the United States, and five times as many with masters’ degrees, not to mention high school teachers and history buffs whom we might attract. Unless the AHA takes positive action, it may suffer a drastic loss of membership such as the American Medical Association has suffered in recent decades. Simply appointing a membership committee will not automatically bring results, of course. Nevertheless, it is worth trying and could make a difference. With a budget for mailing costs, with an imaginative program for soliciting among well-chosen target groups, and with the help of our eighty affiliated historical societies, we might be able to increase our ranks considerably and thus enhance our influence on the profession, on government, the school system, and society in general. Two days ago, the AHA Council took action to establish the machinery for a membership campaign, but it will require strong support from AHA members to be effective.

Secondly, the AHA needs to make itself more attractive to talented amateurs and public historians. These are not only the most rapidly growing sectors of our profession but the ones doing the most to interest the general reading and viewing public in our field of study. It is museum exhibitors, park rangers, historical filmmakers, and popular historians like Barbara Tuchman and David McCullough who keep history alive in the public mind. And how has the historical profession responded to their contributions? With a few exceptions, we have kept them outside the magic circle of office and honor. They serve on few committees, seldom are nominated for elective office in our professional organizations, and compete every year for a single book prize. We academic historians who control the profession have become, like the Chinese mandarins, increasingly out of touch with the real world.

This divorcement of academic historians from popular history has not always prevailed. In the first half-century of the AHA, such distinguished nonacademic historians as James Ford Rhodes, Alfred T. Mahan, and Theodore Roosevelt served as president. In the second half-century of our organization, however, no nonacademic historian has been president of the AHA. I can even think of a few academic historians who had the bad taste to write best sellers and have ever since been banished from the profession’s roll of honor. We need to remedy this second-class citizenship for public historians and other nonacademic historians. We already give them a token amount of recognition and reward, but we need to extend this and break down the barriers between academic and nonacademic history. We do not need to lower our vaunted standards as a learned society. We simply need to recognize that the research monograph is not the only way to “do” history, nor is the scholarly audience the only appropriate audience.

The third change I urge is a deeper involvement by members of the American Historical Association in the present crisis of social studies in the schools. The association is already officially involved through its teaching division committee and through the service of several of its members on the Bradley Commission10 and on the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools.11 Moreover, for the past year, the AHA and the Organization of American Historians have sponsored a joint conference on social studies in the schools, meeting twice a year with representatives of seven or eight groups active in the effort to improve the social studies curriculum and certification standards of social studies teachers. What we need now is to involve more of our rank-and-file members in this chancy but important work. It is not that we need to teach teachers how to teach. The social studies teacher does more teaching by ten o’clock in the morning than the average professor does all day. that is, on his or her teaching day. What social studies teachers need from us professional historians is access to our knowledge and expertise in subject matter, on an ongoing basis.

Many more historians need to be willing to spend a little time with elementary and high school teachers, talking about the latest and most interesting scholarship in their fields. The problem is neither lack of such expertise nor lack of an appreciative audience of teachers. As David Van Tassel, the founder and president of National History Day, explained at a meeting of the AHA. OAH joint committee on social studies, the problem is that, under the present rules of academic history, professors are rewarded by tenure and promotion for scholarly research and writing but not for efforts to help history teachers in the schools or any other form of public service. For their labor in preparing and delivering speeches to schoolteachers, they get nothing, except perhaps a raised eyebrow of doubt about their professional priorities. This leaves the work of trying to help schoolteachers to those who are willing to do it without reward, as a labor of love. Unfortunately, there are not enough great lovers to go around. Now, this is obviously a problem without an easy solution. We cannot expect the solution to come from the academic community, which already has a different set of standards and rewards. The leadership must come, if it does come, from professional associations such as the AHA. As the organizational guardian of the historical profession, we ought to be able to see that we have a stake in how well history is taught in our schools. Then we need to persuade our membership and the history departments in our colleges and universities that our presence is needed in the public debate now going on about the curricular content and character of our schools. The officers of the AHA cannot bring this about, but the members can.

This brings me to the fourth step I believe the AHA should take to place itself in a leadership role in our profession. We need to broaden our commitment to the advocacy of history as a discipline and as a profession. As most of you know, the AHA is the largest of forty-eight historical and archival groups that support the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Its office is at the AHA headquarters in Washington, and, although it has state coordinating committees in twenty-eight states, it largely consists of a single lobbyist, plus such volunteers as she is able to muster, and confines its limited resources to lobbying the federal government. The National Coordinating Committee does an excellent job in its limited sphere, and history now has a presence when government decisions are made about archival access, historical museums, government agency history programs, and the public funding of historical research projects. There are other arenas, however, where key decisions are being made without the organized presence of the historical community, out beyond the Beltway in the state and local governments. If we are to have a real impact as professional historians on the way the schools present history, we need a network scattered across many states, ready to present the case for accurate, well-informed, exciting history to school boards, state legislatures, departments of education, and textbook commissions. Similarly, if we have a network, we can join with archivists in shaping the decisions of state and local governments about record-keeping and record-preserving, key decisions about the future availability of historical evidence. This network in the states can consist of volunteers, but we need at least one full-time staff member coordinating their efforts and sharing information.

The changes I have recommended so far will require additional funding from the AHA budget, although the cost of an expanded advocacy program might expect to be shared by the forty-seven other groups that sponsor the National Coordinating Committee. The modest increase in dues proposed for next year will only cover present expenses with a correction for inflation. Nearly all of the AHA’s endowed funds are specifically bound by their deeds of gift to particular objects, such as book prizes and research grants. For many years, the AHA has relied on foundation grants. soft money. to fund innovative programs. We should continue to apply for these grants and hope that the membership campaign will bring in additional revenues. These sources, however, are too uncertain to rely on. This brings me to the fifth change I believe the AHA should make, one suggested not by the report of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the AHA but by an AHA member in the Washington, D.C., area, James Banner, Jr. After reading our committee report, Dr. Banner wrote, pointing out an omission. He suggested that the AHA undertake an endowment campaign for the general purposes of the association. I heartily endorse this suggestion. The AHA should solicit its members, and outsiders interested in history, for contributions toward a general endowment that would free the association from complete dependence on foundation grants for initiating and sustaining programs vital to the welfare of the historical profession. This endowment would make it possible to save good initiatives from dying on the vine when foundations refuse to support them or abandon them after two or three years. The chief trouble with this idea is that our sister association, the Organization of American Historians, had the idea first. We have now allowed the OAH a grace period of two years to launch its own Fund for American History. The AHA can now begin, in early 1990, the planning stage for a general endowment campaign to be launched in 1991, and I so recommend.

These five changes, immediately begun, will not radically change the character of the American Historical Association. It will still remain the great learned society of our profession. These changes will, however, move us in the direction of better serving the needs of our broadening and once again growing profession, and they will also begin to serve better than in the past the large literate public that is thirsting for the history we can offer it if we can only punch our way out of our academic paper bag. I repeat my recommendations for emphasis: a membership campaign, a bridging of the gap between academic historians on the one hand and public historians or gifted amateur historians on the other, a deeper involvement with the needs and concerns of teachers of social studies in the schools, a larger advocacy role in the promotion of history’s interests, and an AHA capital fund for general purposes. These may not be the only changes we ought to make in the near future, but I believe they would be a good start in the right direction. They can only come about if you, the members of the American Historical Association, give them your active support.

Louis R. Harlan, historian, former AHA president, and University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, passed away on January 22, 2010, after a long illness.



  1. Richard H. Kohn, “The Future of the Historical Profession,” American Historical Association Perspectives, 27 (November 1989): 8. []
  2. News item, New York Times, September 13, 1989; editorial, Washington Post, September 19, 1989, A26. []
  3. Theodore S. Hamerow, Reflections on History and Historians (Madison, Wis., 1987), 39. 75. []
  4. See Gertrude Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Theodore S. Hamerow, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lawrence W. Levine, Joan Wallach Scott, and John E. Toews, “AHR Forum: The Old History and the New,” AHR, 94 (June 1989): 654. 98. []
  5. Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature (New York, 1987). []
  6. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston, Mass., 1987). []
  7. Lynne V. Cheney, American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation’s Public Schools (Washington, n.d. [1988]), 6. 7, 15. 20. []
  8. Kohn, “Future of the Historical Profession,” 8. []
  9. The committee’s report was published under the title, “We Have Seen the Future and It Needs Work,” in American Historical Association Perspectives, 26 (September 1988): 1, 6, 8. 9. []
  10. See the Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (Washington, 1988), and its fuller statement in Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education (New York, 1989). []
  11. See Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century: A Report of the Curriculum Task Force of the National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools (Washington, D.C., 1989). David Jenness is preparing for the commission a history of the reform movement in social studies teaching. []