History is Worth Fighting For, But Where is the AHA?



Jesse Lemisch is Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. He is the author of "On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession."

Liberals in the Obama era are accommodating to the unacceptable and turning their backs on traditional liberal values.  Once again, the job of defending those values is left to radicals.  Now history itself needs defense.

Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman, respectively president and executive director of the American Historical Association, offer “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History” in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History.  What they propose is indeed too modest, almost tragically so.  What we need is not cutbacks and accommodations but rather vastly expanded funding for higher education, plus a program for historians like the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, which produced so much of value, including the the slave narrative collection and the 48 volumes of the American Guide Series to the states

But listen to Grafton and Grossman.  They outline the continuing grim employment situation for historians, and present it as almost God-given, beyond human control:

As public contributions to higher education shrink, state budgets contract, and a lagging economy takes its toll on endowments and family incomes, there is little reason to expect the demand for tenure track faculty to expand… It’s not likely to change for the better, unless someone figures out how to work magic on the university budgets… it’s unrealistic…

I hesitate to use so snarky a term as C. Wright Mills’s “crackpot realism,” but I find myself at odds with what Grafton and Grossman take to be realism.  With the best of intentions, these AHA officers have nonetheless accepted as a given the collapse of public support for the public good, and they seek to accommodate to it.  What’s lost in this is the high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself.  History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.

Grafton and Grossman are certainly not in the same boat as the worst of the right-wing critics of higher education (like Florida governor Rick Scott, who says “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state").  Nor, I think, would they agree with the kinds of anti-tenure retrenchment arguments offered by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus (I wrote about this subject for Truthout).  But what these critics from various points on the ideological spectrum have in common is an acceptance of things as they are, a failure of vision, and an unwillingness to embark on a battle to defend learning and what used to be called “liberal education.”

As I write this, some five miles to the south of me on Manhattan Island people are in the streets trying to change, not accept, the current economic catastrophe, greed and increasing inequality.  Their slogan might be, “Expand, Don’t Contract.”  The day’s email brings a draft of a demand to be debated by Occupy Wall Street : “Jobs for all—a Massive Public Works and Public Service Program.”  It appears that those druggies, drummers, sex addicts and student debtors down there in Zuccotti Square  are doing more for civilization, history and education than is the AHA. It’s time for the AHA to catch up with them, and start fighting for history.

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