Thomas Bender: What's Been Lost in History

Roundup: Talking About History

Thomas Bender is a professor of history and university professor of the humanities at New York University. This essay is adapted from a talk at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

I want to pose a question to historians, as a profession: Did we make a decision in the past that has had consequences, presumably not positive ones, for our present and future? The question invites looking backward as a way to think about the future. Were there possibilities we missed? Did we lose part of ourselves sometime in the past?

The question is related to the plea recently made by the president and the executive director of the American Historical Association to consider nonacademic as well as academic careers as proper outcomes of doctoral education. This issue is forcing serious thinking not just in history, but in the humanities generally. And it affects not just our professional lives, but our lives as citizens.

The cultures of our departments too often discourage open discussion of nonacademic careers. One of the dirty little secrets discovered by the AHA Committee on Graduate Education, which I and others reported in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (2004), was that graduate students from various institutions were afraid to tell their advisers that Plan B, a nonacademic career, was for them Plan A. They preferred to pursue the profession of history in museums, historical societies, filmmaking, and the park service, among other possibilities. But they worried that if their advisers learned of that ambition, they could expect little or no future support from them.

Equally unsettling, the study reported that survey research covering thousands of doctoral students showed that graduate students in history, more than any other discipline except philosophy, entered graduate school to become teachers and left wanting to be researchers with as little teaching responsibility as possible. That really narrows the definition of our profession....

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