Letters to the Editor

On the Ad Hoc Committee Report

Various Authors, February 1989

I was delighted to read the report on the "Future" of the AHA in the September issue of Perspectives. It bodes well for the future that the Association is taking such efforts. Would that the Association for Asian Studies would do the same.


Timothy Cheek
Assistant Professor
The Colorado College

Bravo for the "Ad Hoc Committee Report," in September 1988 Perspectives, and the broader vision it seeks. As a life-time member of the AHA, with a Yale Ph.D. and high hopes for teaching history, I have seen colleagues and departments drown in minutiae, irrelevant scholarship, and refusal to become interdisciplinary. Note especially Ad Hoc's point number eight, on "Greater diversity of program sessions/formats." Once one has published the dissertation, and realized that his/her small niche is only part of a much greater world, there is dismay that nothing but small niches are displayed year after year, from New York to San Francisco. In twentieth-century America we are still held captive to von Ranke and nineteenth-century German scholarship. Others are not. New disciplines, programs, departments flourish. Like many others, I now share one. Alas, poor Yorik, I knew him well....

Marshall W. Fishwick
Professor of Humanities and Communication Studies
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Editor's Note: The following letters regarding the Ad Hoc Committee report were sent directly to AHA President Louis Harlan and Ad Hoc Committee Co-Chair Richard Kohn. James Banner wrote his letter originally as a private communication to Messrs. Harlan and Kohn, but consented at their request to its publication in Perspectives. These letters represent important commentary on issues affecting the future of the Association and as such have been included in this column.

As a member of the AHA Review Board of the early 1970s, I've been pleased that the Association has undertaken another review of its structure and operations. Dick Kohn and I have been in touch throughout the course of your deliberations, and I have burdened him with my views. Let me set them down here also for you—asking you to understand that in particular, I'm in agreement with the new report on the future of the AHA. My thoughts really have to do with how you and your colleagues on the committee might push ahead a bit further.

In the first place, I don't believe that the report adequately explains why membership in the AHA, the senior learned and professional organization for historians in the country, should be seen as obligatory, as a professional duty of sorts. Relatedly, the report does not explore how the AHA itself might urge and make that obligation effective upon all historians.

Second, in wisely urging more attentiveness to broadening the sources of AHA leadership, the report skirts the question of recruiting leaders from outside colleges and research universities. The spread of historians into other-than-teaching responsibilities in recent years needs no elaboration. They should at least be mentioned in the report.

Third, the case for bringing other organizations under the AHA umbrella seems a strong one prima facie, but it is not clear to me why they would wish to have the Association's mantle thrown over them; the case does not make itself sub silento. What should the AHA do to attract them and, once they are in the fold, do for them? What the report suggests is not, in my view, compelling.

Along these lines, it's about time that the AHA take the lead in setting up a conference group of all historical organizations and that it bring the heads of these groups together once or twice a year. Other fields of endeavor enjoy the existence of such all-points networks. History should, too.

Fourth and finally, the report says nothing about what I believe to be critical—both for it and all nonprofit organizations: the need for a capital fund drive for the AHA. The Association lives principally from dues, grants, and modest gifts to the endowment. It's about time that it accepts the modern world of fiscal management, develops a list of needs, enlists the assistance of fundraising counsel, and builds up its store of capital—both to offset constant draw-downs on limited unrestricted funds and to enable it to embark on new ventures, whatever they might be determined to be. At the very least, such an initiative should be considered, and considered with the help of professionals—even if, in the end, it is not taken. Not to consider it these days is, in my view, a form of irresponsibility.

I hope that these views don't seem too errant and that they're not too late to have some influence on your work.

With every good wish, sincerely,

Jim (James M. Banner, Jr.)

I found your AHA Report most helpful. In particular, I found your emphasis on the need for greater attention in the American Historical Association programs and publications on synthesis and comparative studies very important. Although there have been many benefits from the high degree of specialization in the profession, there have been important costs as well.

Specialization in research has meant that graduate students become teachers without having taken a broad range of subjects in history in graduate school. Thus, their teaching of basic historical courses lacks the enthusiasm and insights which broader knowledge would give them. We have seen the massive decreases in history course enrollments reflecting the lack of broader preparation which currently is common in graduate education. The situation is not helped by the poor preparation in history in the secondary schools. History is often submerged into a general social studies; thus, the students do not have the background to approach introductory history courses in college.

Since history courses require at least a certain amount of reading, the busy undergraduate finds that he or she cannot find the time to place him/herself in the material. As President Eamon M. Kelly, Tulane University, noted, "The problem is the number of students coming in, inadequately prepared, to what is the finest higher-education system in the world." (Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 1988).

With the submerging of secondary school history in social studies, history is suffering much more in college enrollments than other subjects. Your recommendation for greater attention to synthesis and comparative studies is an important contribution to seeking to seeking to solve this problem.


Professor Leonard P. Liggio
President, Institute for Humane Studies
George Mason University