Stan Katz wonders how AHA will handle challenges of the future





I am about to head into New York City for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. So far as I can recall, the first AHA annual meeting I attended was in Chicago in December, 1961. At the time I was completing my Ph.D. dissertation, and having my first (unsuccessful) job interview (with the University of Toronto). The 1961 meeting was “highlighted” by the anti-Semitic presidential address of the early American urban historian from Brown University, Carl Bridenbaugh, who suggested that only boys raised on American farms could understand the culture of early America. His comment was widely viewed as an attempt to discredit my mentor Bernard Bailyn, who had just been appointed to succeed Samuel Eliot Morison at Harvard. All of that seems long ago, and the AHA has since opened itself in a wonderful way to a highly diverse historical profession.

But the profession has changed markedly over the years I have been teaching, and so has the function of its disciplinary organization. For one thing, there are now a plethora of subdisciplinary historical associations, ranging from the large Organization of American Historians to the small American Society for Legal History (over both of which I have presided). For many historians it is the subdisciplinary association that is most meaningful, since their meetings are more intimate and their members more closely share research interests. There was a time when the AHA functioned as a club for a relatively small historical profession, but the profession is now huge and geographically dispersed — this week’s meeting has 5,000 attendees signed up, it is spread over several New York hotels, and it will be anything but chummy.

Another way in which the function of the AHA has changed is that its sheer size creates problems for the organization. It has a complicated governing structure, and yet a quite small professional staff, and a hugely complex series of mandates from the membership. Indeed its membership, although quite large, constitutes only a tiny fraction of the national historical profession. The AHA therefore struggles valiantly to keep in touch with public historians, history teachers in the schools, historians in community colleges — and with professional historians at the incredible range of four-year institutions of higher education in this country. The historical world of 1961 was smaller and simpler....

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