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Perspectives as a Public Forum

Allen Mikaelian, December 2014

In April 2013, I used this column to share a hope that our readers would talk to us. I noted that several public conversations concerning AHA projects or Perspectives articles had taken place away from the magazine, and wondered if such dialogues were becoming too fragmented to be useful. Too many discussions about what the Association was doing or what had been published in the magazine were taking place on blogs or under hashtags that we discovered only by accident.

Realizing that we might be partially responsible, we stopped requiring a member login to comment on Perspectives pages. We started picking up timely comments left on our website for the print version, and we started publishing responses to letters to the editor in the same month, so readers wouldn’t have to wait 30 days or more to see the conversation continue. Our social media presence expanded dramatically during that time, and readers started realizing that if they ask a question or offer a suggestion in a place we can actually find, we will respond.

Jan Goldstein, in her presidential column in this issue, describes a wariness about opening up the taxonomy revision for comment. We were also wary about opening up Perspectives’ message boards. However, like Goldstein, we’ve been impressed with the way readers have responded. We have had to delete only a handful of inappropriate and mean-spirited comments in the first year of this experiment. And we’ve seen certain articles spark great conversations—see the comments on Stephen Campbell’s article on Wikipedia, for example (bit.ly/1jpDAml).

Even better, conversations have turned into new articles. In this issue, Lerna Ekmekcioglu works toward new understanding after reading a respectful debate that took place in these pages about how to teach Middle East history. Ekmekcioglu offers a way to further complicate the debate with historical thinking (while referencing yet another Perspectives article). Having worked with both authors in the original exchange, I sense they will be pleased that their efforts have generated a thoughtful response, even if they don’t completely agree.

This fall, the AHA and Perspectives used a decent amount of ink and burned a respectable number of pixels covering the Advanced Placement US history revision. We started back in the summer, working on an article by Brenda Santos that was written at a time when no one suspected the revision would become a political football (bit.ly/1poDhHf). After the topic emerged as a controversial one, the AHA issued a statement supporting the broader goals of the revision, and James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, penned an op-ed for the New York Times that was widely shared and discussed.

After all this, however, it seems there is still more to say, and I’m glad the discussion can continue in Perspectives. In this issue, Jonathan Burack levels a critique at the revision the AHA has publicly supported. Yes, we will gladly publish thoughtful essays that are far removed from the AHA’s stated position, or contrary to that position. In fact we would like to see more of them.

Burack, like Ekmekcioglu, believes that one way to turn down the heat in an impassioned debate is to bring it back to historical thinking. Will the AP revision achieve its goal of deepening historical thinking among students? Brenda Santos’s article enthusiastically answered in the affirmative. Burack, on the other hand, feels the revision doesn’t do enough to encourage the exploration of alternative interpretations. This is a much more meaningful disagreement than the one over whether the revision is anti-American by virtue of including (some say emphasizing) dark trends in the nation’s past.

From my vantage point as an editor who to some extent has to referee these exchanges, I’m amazed at the way historical thinking can radically shift a debate. Historical facts deployed by one side or the other don’t often win arguments or even move them to a higher plane. But when parties in a disagreement consider their own positions and those of others in light of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, things move along more respectfully, collaboratively, and purposefully. Debates that could easily descend into polemics become instead focused on problem solving, and the desire to win the battle can become replaced by a desire to continue the discussion.

So it should be no surprise that when we open up spaces for comment we get conversation. Still, we are consistently impressed with our readers, and hope that they will continue to view Perspectives as their own public forum.

Allen Mikaelian is the editor of Perspectives on History.


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