Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2007 OAH Convention: Day 2


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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Day 2: Friday, March 30, 2007

It rained today. But thanks to the skywalks you didn't have to brave the elements unless you wanted to.

As the hours went by it seemed that more and more people showed up. The official tally of registered convention attendees by mid-afternoon came to about 1,900; it was a respectable total for an event held in the somewhat out-of-the-way Minneapolis. (OAH conventions in the big coastal cities usually draw about 2,500.)

Eight-month old Baby Jane, the child of historians Nicolas Rosenthal and Lauren Cole, presumably was not included in the official count. But she helped the OAH with its demographics, which are, shall we say, skewed toward the upper end of the age scale.

So did this fellow ... Samuel Redman. Wait for him to turn around in the video. You'll see what we mean. Samuel, who accelerated through college, is a first-year graduate student at Berkeley. He doesn't just look young. He is young. Twenty-one.

There were several signs today that we are not in fact on a holiday from history, to borrow George Will's potent description of the 1990s, though it had sorta seemed so yesterday. The antiwar historians manned a table.

And several panels dealt with controversial subjects in the news.

In the morning there was a panel at which Yeshiva University's Ellen Schrecker declared, "Political repression is as American as apple pie." She said that if you don't feel oppressed it may be because you are so used to it you can't recognize it when you see it.

Click here to watch Part 2.

Her comments were echoed by labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who told a revealing story about Wal-Mart. After labor unions won the right to force the company to post a notice to its employees about their rights the unions discovered that the employees didn't realize the notice was meant for them. Why? The notice explicitly referred to them as "employees." They had been trained to think of themselves as "associates."

Click here to watch Part 2

Columbia University's Alice Kessler Harris, a member of the same panel, spoke about the oppression women historians now often suffer.

In the afternoon there was a panel on Florida's new history law. This is the law which requires that "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Both the AHA and the OAH have registered their disapproval of the law.

Ray Arsenault, who teaches in Florida, reviewed the terms of the law.

Gary Nash, who famously feuded with Lynne Cheney a few years ago about the national history standards, said he's not alarmed by the Florida law--he compared it to an outbreak of intellectual shingles, which would hurt but not kill the patient--though he finds it outrageous.

Peter Charles Hoffer, on the other hand, believes the law is dangerous and represents a trend in higher education in which the freedom of people to teach is compromised.

Click here to watch Part 2

Late in the afternoon there was the biggest event of the convention thus far, a panel debate about the impact of evangelical Christianity on American politics in the last century. Some 250 people attended. (We'd show you a picture, but this page is already loading slowly enough as is!)

The panel was chaired by Yale's Jon Butler, who started off the debate by pointing out that we are unaccustomed as historians to thinking about religion once the Puritans pass from the scene. Later he added that we had better address the subject of evangelical Christianity with the same hard-nosed approach we apply to every other important subject. He warned us not to be intimidated simply because the subject is religion. (Click here to listen to Professor Butler's commentary.)

Notre Dame's George Marsden, whose book on Jonathan Edwards has won an astonishingly long list of awards, which Professor Butler delighted in reciting, argued that there are many reasons for liberals not to be overly worried about the political power of evangelicals. Evangelicals by and large, he contended, are more interested in saving souls than playing politics. And they are so splintered that they only rarely can achieve political change on a broad scale.

Click here to watch Part 2

Harvard's Lisa McGirr sounded a more cautious note, laying Prohibition, one of the great political changes in American history, at the evangelicals' doorstep.

Saturday awaits!


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More Comments:

adam richard schrepfer - 4/3/2007

wahhhhh you must be kidding.....

"institutionalized discouragement"????? ohh so sorry that administrators are not as excited as she is about 'women's studies' ...I'm sure that university admins are soo sexist..right? They are the most PC people on the popularity...