Response to Jesse Lemisch: It's Not Enough to Just Wish for Change





11-7-11

Anthony Grafton is president of the American Historical Association and Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University. James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.

Editor's Note: This article was written in response to Jesse Lemisch's "History is Worth Fighting For, But Where is the AHA?"

Professor Jesse Lemisch has raised important and thoughtful objections to our recent essay, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History,” and we assume he would offer a similarly trenchant critique of our follow-up column, “Plan C.”  The essence of his argument rests here

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. . . .  [Grossman and Grafton] . . . 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.

As historians who are accustomed to writing narrative, we will take the liberty of abandoning our normal style, in the interest of brevity, since as usual Professor Lemisch’s points are clear and straightforward:

1)  We have not advocated cutbacks.

2)  “Accommodation” is a slippery term.  It can mean accepting an unacceptable status quo; it also can mean advocating change while working within an existing framework to accomplish things that ought to be accomplished.  Yes, we need vastly expanded funding for higher education.  AHA advocates for such funding where it has leverage.  Yes, the first “Obama stimulus” should have included money to the NEH for projects to employ humanists (more realistic than “a program for historians like” FWP).  Many of us pushed for such a program.  But it didn’t happen and now we are here.

3)  But the reality is what it is, at least in the near future:  for decades colleges and universities have not offered enough tenure track positions to provide work for more than two-thirds of those who take doctorates in history, and now they are offering fewer of them than they did two or three years ago.  Our choice—which is not new—is to train fewer historians or to find a more diverse array of employment opportunities.  Like many AHA members, we as individuals wish the occupiers Godspeed, but as officers of a membership association, we also have a duty to serve the needs of the many members of our profession who need jobs now and will need them in the next several years.

4)  Like Professor Lemisch we insist on the “high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself.”  This is why we disagree with his assumption that broadening employment opportunities for historians is somehow wrong.  History should be part of public discourse, and historians should produce some of that discourse.  They can do this if they find employment across a wide variety of institutional environments, including government and business.  Trained historians bring to their work a set of professional ethics, we hope, rooted in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, which emphasizes the importance of evidence, civil and open debate, and freedom of inquiry.  We want the values and insights of historians to work their way into every corner of American public life.  To increase our influence, we must broaden our perspective on employment.

Jesse Lemisch's Rebuttal:

I’m glad that Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman support a break with the hierarchalism that has marked our profession’s view of non-academic employment, and I wish that the AHA, together with other professional organizations, would really get behind a new WPA.  But once again Grafton and Grossman invoke “reality” to justify their accommodation to cutbacks in higher education and in history, at a time when the national and international mood is, “enough is enough!”  Their goal is limited “to train[ing] fewer historians or to find[ing] a more diverse array of employment opportunities…” 

Finding that the profession is cruelly preparing graduate students for jobs that do not exist, Grafton and Grossman propose to solve the problem by preparing graduate students for other jobs that also, unhappily, do not exist!  This (as we say in New York) is reality?  Indeed, in their “Plan C" in November's edition of Perspectives, they cite William and Mary College’s apprenticeships in archival and museum management which, according to James Axtell “have disappeared for budgetary reasons.”  Not only can the College not support them, but, those of us who are indeed concerned with reality must ask which archive and which museum has the money to hire such people amidst the general collapse?  How can you advocate “public history” in the absence of public funding?  Reality, indeed.

Like many, I avidly leaf through the AHA program as soon as it arrives, mark it up, and fold back pages.  In the content of papers to be presented at the Chicago meeting, I see a thriving historical enterprise (as they used to call it).  But I see no sense of crisis.  That crisis is the reality that we must face, and I see precious little evidence that this has dawned on the AHA.  Grafton and Grossman want to limit the AHA’s activities to “working within an existing framework” and functioning as a “clearinghouse.”  I live a couple of miles north of Zuccotti Park.  More and more people, here and around the world are finding that a sense of reality dictates that we refuse to work within the diseased existing frameworks and refuse to simply adjust, as Grossman and Grafton advocate, to shrinking budgets.  Enough of this deck-chair stuff while the historical enterprise steams ahead towards the iceberg.


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