Making History Matter: The Past, Present, and Future of the NHC
We as historians know that a knowledge of history matters. All of us can cite instances, both in our personal lives and in the public arena, when an ignorance of the past or its willful neglect has caused unhappy if not disastrous consequences. An understanding of history and appreciation of the insights it offers would seem especially helpful in policy debates and the public arena more generally. Yet historians rarely have much of an opportunity to provide their professional expertise in these contexts. This has been one of the objectives of the National History Center since its inception nearly a decade ago. An offshoot of the American Historical Association, the center has established a visible and vigorous presence in Washington DC and across the country.
The programs sponsored by the National History Center include the Washington History Seminar, Congressional Briefings on Capitol Hill, a foreign affairs lecture series in New York City, the Reinterpreting History book series, and the International Decolonization Seminar, which is entering its ninth and penultimate year. The center has established partnerships with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Library of Congress, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Senate and House Historical Offices, Oxford University Press, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Many of the events it sponsors are available by podcast, and some have been broadcast on C-SPAN.
The Washington History Seminar, held weekly during the academic year, meets at the Woodrow Wilson Center and attracts audiences of policy makers, government historians, and academic historians. One recent seminar, presented by Mark Atwood Lawrence of the University of Texas at Austin, featured a lively discussion of how politicians and government officials have used historical analogies about the Vietnam War in their policy making. Participants commented on how important it is to move beyond historical thinking by analogy, encouraging deeper historical understanding of contemporary issues.
The Congressional Briefings series provides another opportunity for historians to talk with policy makers. Last year, for example, the National History Center presented a briefing on the historical role of Congress in the formulation of immigration policy. Professors Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University, Alan Kraut of American University, and Mae Ngai of Columbia University discussed immigration from the early days of the Republic to today, with AHA Executive Director James Grossman moderating. C-SPAN 3’s American History TV aired the briefing, bringing these historians’ insights to a broader audience.
With the generous financial support of the Mellon Foundation, the center has for each of the past eight years brought 15 early-career scholars to Washington, DC for the International Decolonization Seminar. Participants from Australia, Britain, France, India, Italy, Singapore, the United States, and a number of other countries have spent the steamy month of July engaged in individual research projects and group discussions under the direction of a team of faculty led by Wm. Roger Louis. The seminar has helped establish the history of decolonization as a distinct and vibrant field of study, evidenced both by the flood of scholarship that its participants have produced and by the development of the H-Decol Listserv to support the broader exchange of ideas.
Our purpose in providing a few examples of the various programs and activities of the National History Center is threefold. The first is to remind all members of the AHA that the center exists to encourage the dissemination of historical knowledge and insights to the broader public and to establish collaborations with those institutions that share our interest in promoting history as a means of making sense of the world we inhabit. We encourage all of you to share your expertise, volunteer your efforts, and contribute your resources to the advancement of these aims.
Our second purpose is to recognize the remarkable record of achievement by the center’s original leaders. The center would not exist without the vision and enterprise of Wm. Roger Louis, the founding director of the center, and James Banner, who originally proposed the center and served as its first treasurer. It also took the hard work and patience of Miriam Cunningham and Marian Barber, the center’s first two administrators, to make it such an active and successful institution.
Finally, we write to introduce ourselves, the new director and assistant director of the center. Dane Kennedy, who assumes the role of director, has been involved in various aspects of the center’s activities. He has been a member of the Decolonization Seminar’s faculty since it was founded. He has attended many of the Washington History Seminar presentations over the years and has even given a presentation himself. And he has edited a volume for the center’s Reinterpreting History series with Oxford University Press. Amanda Moniz brings broad experience in the history profession to her new position. A historian of humanitarianism in the Age of Revolution, she has taught at area universities and also pursues a public history project exploring the American past through food history. Both of us are pleased and honored to have this opportunity to oversee the operations of the center. We hope in future columns to have more to say about its current activities and future direction. You can learn more at www.nationalhistorycenter.org. We welcome your suggestions, advice, and offers of assistance.
Dane Kennedy, the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History and International Affairs at the George Washington University, is the new director of the National History Center. Amanda Moniz is the new assistant director of the National History Center.
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