Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Tale of Two History Conferences

May 25, 2004 7:49 pm

A Tale of Two History Conferences

I just returned from the annual Policy History Conference in St. Louis. The sponsors were the Institute for Political History and the Journal of Policy History. It was the first time I attended this conference but it will not be the last.

I can't think of a time when I so thoroughly enjoyed a history gathering. Paper after paper revealed a highly level of intellectual curiousity, enthusiasm, wit, mental dexterity, and creativity. More than once, brilliance (I do not exaggerate) was on display. Nearly everyone concerned seemed to truly enjoy and be fully engaged in what they were doing. The quality of many of the questions and comments from the floor was at the highest level. It was great fun to watch the free wheeling give and take between speakers, discussants, and the audience.

Readers of Liberty and Power may remember that I had a much more negative assessment of the recent annual conference of the Organization of American Historians in Boston.

All too often, the papers, comments, and discussion at the OAH seemed unable to break free from the iron triangle of race, class, gender or were constrained by stale quasi post-modernist jargon and priorities. As a result, much of the"discourse" had a formulaic and lifeless quality. As I mentioned, the result was often a strange disconnect with the"real world" and its concerns.

Why the difference? Part of the answer is that the participants at the Policy History Conference came from a variety of fields including political science and economics. This created an incentive for people to check their discipline's jargon at the door.

Frankly, the research into primary documents and thoughtul analysis by some of the"untrained" and younger political scientists would outclass the work of many experienced historians. A case in point was Ann-Marie Szymanski's wonderful paper on the history of private policing (more on this later for L and P readers).

Another reason the comparative superiority of the Policy History Conference was that the focus was on policy history. This served out to screen out possible participants who were inclined to the arcane and trendy.

Most of the credit, however, is due to the careful planning of the organizers, most especially Don Critchlow. They seem to have made an extra effort to seek out panelists who are pushing back intellectual frontiers but, thankfully, have not yet been cowed or constrained by academic fads or code words.

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