How Relevant Are This Year's AHA Sessions?


Mr. Bosworth is an intern at HNN.

When the American Historical Association meets this Thursday in Seattle, Washington for its 119th annual convention, the AHA will rekindle the old debate over whether historians today pay too much attention to current events or too little.

Many historians feel that studying controversial news topics smudges the line between history and outright journalism. Others argue that avoiding these issues is a form of scholastic cowardice. Most historians are quick to point out that lessons learned from the study of past events can be readily applied to the hot topics of today, no doubt to counter the age-old charge that history is simply not relevant to the average American citizen.

With 167 scheduled sessions ranging in topic from “guns, violence, and belonging in late 20th century America” to “the roles of noble women in early-modern marriage,” the 2005 convention should offer something for every kind of historian.

A handful of this year's AHA sessions address current events.

Two sessions deal directly with issues relevant to the evaluation of Bush administration policies:

One session, "Churching the State: Religious Values Permeating American Law, 1870 to the Present," includes a paper by the University of Chicago's Mary Anne Case on the Defense of Marriage Act. (Sunday, January 9, 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.)

Another hot topic that can be found in this year’s convention program includes: "Norman Podhoretz, the Neoconservatives, and the "Civil Rights Establishment" by Michael Kimmage.

Plagiarism, the subject of three new books, is considered at a Sunday morning session, "Historians, the Media, and the Politics of Academic Scandal," featuring two of the three authors of the books: Jon Wiener and Ron Robin. (Sunday, January 9, 11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.)

Once marginalized groups are the subject of several sessions: women ("Creating an Equitable Work Place"), black intellectuals ("The Dilemma of the African American Intellectual"); and gays ("The Politics of Collecting and Preserving Queer History").

A number of this year’s topics take on new significance in light of current events. A recent Cornell University poll reported that 44 percent of Americans believe the government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslims and 22 percent favor racial profiling for Muslims. How the Muslim minority has fared in China is the discussion topic of one Friday afternoon session.

That same Cornell University poll found that Americans who describe themselves as very religious are more likely to favor the ethnic registration and racial profiling of American Muslims. A Saturday morning session titled “English Christianities and the Shaping of Race in the Atlantic World,” examines this relationship between religion and race in the New England and Chesapeake Bay areas.

The often strained connection between government and religion is the topic of three separate sessions this year: “Christian Morality,“Religion and Democracy in the U.S.,” and the afore mentioned, "Churching the State: Religious Values Permeating American Law, 1870 to the Present."

Another topical paper includes Michael Egan’s study on environmental history, "The Poverty of Power: Energies, Economies, and the Relevance of Environmental History."

There are several issues in the news that are not receiving any attention at the convention: none of the panels are concerned with the recent poll results showing that history departments are dominated by liberals. Nor do any panels deal with the question of the growing gap between the rich and poor in America. (The Center for Budget and Policy announced this year that the divide is the greatest it has been since the Great Depression.)

And despite the obvious importance of the history of Iraq and Iran, no single panel is devoted to either's history.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Daniel C Snell - 1/5/2005

Please note the Presidential session on Mesopotamian archives Sat p.m., in which a number of distinguished colleagues and I will be participating and the current crisis will be addressed from the point of view of antiquities. Best wishes, Dan Snell, University of Oklahoma

Jonathan Dresner - 1/5/2005

I have some hope that the experimental panel forms -- workshops in particular -- could become fora for real theory and disciplinary advances instead of "down from the mountain" pronouncements. And leaving some slack for discussing current issues would be a great thing, as well.

Michael Green - 1/3/2005

At a major conference nearly 20 years ago, a distinguished senior historian commented to me that conferences were losing their relevance and explained this theory as to why. Namely, they tended to feature younger historians presenting more narrowly-focused research than they once did. At one time, he said, major historians went to conferences and made major pronouncements. I think that is another way of saying that we need to do more to stay current--not to do journalism, but to have panels on current events where we can make relevant historical comments. If I may be permitted to sound like I am indulging in sour grapes, I proposed a panel on presidential legitimacy for the 2002 AHA (focusing on several different presidents) and it was rejected on the grounds that it seemed to lack coherence. That may have been true, but it also was an opportunity for the AHA to talk about how earlier presidents dealt with an issue relevant to more recent presidents, especially Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. We are capable as historians of offering measured, intelligent commentary on current events, and the AHA and other organizations need to make it easier for us to do that.