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end of voting

March 9, 2007

This evening will see the end of voting on the controversial measure that was “passed” at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Atlanta. (of course, on that issue, a separate and largely ignored controversy has erupted). Voting has been taking place since March 1 following a period in which comments were posted on the AHA website. Reading over these comments reveals to me a profession split along fairly serious fault lines. There are 1) those who oppose the measure because they support the war (very little representation in the AHA), 2) those who oppose the measure but also oppose the war and 3) those who support the measure and oppose the war. 99% (a non-scientific number) of the discussion is between groups 2 and 3.

Fundamentally, it seems, historians (like the general public at this point) oppose the war. But there is no consensus as to what the role of historians as historians should be. Many posters suggest that it is critical that historians take stand and that the AHA be remembered for supporting the rights of Americans; they suggest that those rights are under attack as a result of the war. Let’s call them the Resolvers. Other posters believe that, while the war is wrong, historians have no particular reason to act as historians but should rather act as individuals following their consciences. Let’s call them the Devolvers These are two radically opposing views of the profession, and it’s not clear that there is any particular way to resolve them.

What is not known is what the other correlations are in this divide. Where do Resolvers teach? What is their institutional affiliation? Geographic location? What is the ratio of public activity between resolvers and devolvers? Is there a correlation between teaching loads and interest in shaping public debate? Do both groups make TV, Radio, and print appearances with equal regularity? Do they both receive roughly the same amount of research support, travel funding, and administrative assistance?

I’m committing an historical faux pas and taking the rhetoric at face value; in a sense, I’m believing that these posters mean what they say. But I’m getting the sense that the divide isn’t really about the war. It’s about the profession–a struggle, if you will, for what it means to be an historian. I’m wondering if this split, between Resolvers and Devolvers, isn’t just one more example of class in academia, with the research-oriented and course-released Resolvers scorning the pragmatism of their teaching-burdened Devolver relatives. Of course, this is simply speculation on my part, but our utter lack of firm data about issues like these strikes me as important.

Can the AHA get Robert Townshend to do some surveys and write another of his fantastic analytical articles about this issue? Can we start to get a better picture of the average class load across institutions, average salary, etc? Lately, we’ve been concerned with the places of women and minorities in the profession, but I’ve heard precious little discussion about just what it means to be an historian, whether you are a woman or man, black or white, rich or poor. In all the concern about who is an historian, I fear we’ve lost the sense of what is an historian.

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2 Comments
  1. Robert Townsend permalink

    I'm not sure enough people responded to the blog to make for a good statistical analysis. Just glancing down the list, I see people on both sides of the issue at different ranks, in public and private institutions, and even inside and outside of academia. It is an interesting question though. I did do some general analysis of the class load issue in an article published last year at http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2006/0604/0604new3.cfm though the data is a few years old. Definitely something I want to develop a bit further in the future. Thanks!

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  2. CM: I think I'm a “devolver,” but I'm not sure it has anything to do with class issues within the profession. I think I'm a devolver because I don't want my beliefs – my conscience and my objections about the war – to be imposed on those within the profession who don't agree with me. And since there does seem to be a split even between those opposed, as you noted, a fair number of historians seem to agree with me.

    It's not at all the case that I believe historians should “above” moral or political issues. Some of the best historical work originates in the moral imposition an individual historian feels about correcting or adding to “the record.”

    But there seem to be plenty of other outlets for those with active, strong opposition to the war – such as the Democratic party and MoveOn.org. Why aren't the activities of those organizations enough? And hasn't the profession struggled enough, in the past 25 years, with political issues? Do we need more Arthur Schlesingers, more that seem to attach the profession to a particular political alignment? Or is it that we need “balance” within the profession? – TL

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