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Open Discourse and Academic Freedom

Alan Kraut

From the OAH President

Alan M. Kraut
February, 2014

Historians must possess the right to speak freely on any subject they choose, to engage in free and open scholarly discourse with each other on any subject, and to travel without barriers for conferences and research, with rights of entry and exit wherever and whenever they choose. Without such academic freedom we cannot do our work. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has always advocated such freedom. Indeed, our mission statement in the OAH Constitution says that we encourage “wide discussion of historical questions and equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.”

The very diversity of perspectives that enriches academic disciplines complicates issues when a professional organization considers taking a public stand on issues not directly related to how its members do their work, especially divisive issues. “Ripped from the headlines,” a successful formula for television programs and movie scripts, is far more problematic when it comes to the agendas of professional organizations of scholars and teachers of American history.

During the past year the OAH confronted issues requiring serious consideration of the criteria applicable in deciding when and how an academic association might weigh in on public issues of the day.

In the spring of 2012, the OAH was asked by several of its members to support an amicus curiae brief in Windsor v. United States, one of the cases that successfully challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The OAH Executive Board engaged in considerable debate over whether it should lend its support to the brief. In the end, the decision was made to support the brief, the historical analysis largely framed by an OAH member, George Chauncey. The reason was best expressed in the language the OAH crafted for the brief: “The OAH strongly recommends that prior to its decision this Court avail itself of the rich and extensive historical scholarship that exists to understand the history of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” The brief quoted former OAH president Kenneth M. Stampp who wrote, “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” In the Windsor case, American history could illuminate the issue and the OAH could support offering Chauncey’s historical expertise.

At the next OAH Executive Board meeting, we discussed the conditions under which the OAH should take a stand on a public issue in the future. OAH past president David A. Hollinger offered thoughtful criteria that were reflected in the motion passed by the board that public policy issues would be considered in the light of two criteria: “1) The case should be one of which the relevance of knowledge claims about American history is extremely high, and 2) the degree of consensus among professional historians about knowledge claims at issue is extremely high.” As the board considered the matter, its members came to believe that the amicus brief offered a remarkable professionally informed history of antigay discrimination in the United States representing a high degree of consensus among American historians on important historical patterns.

A different kind of challenge emerged in the summer of 2013. A number of e-mails from 2010 written by then Indiana governor Mitch Daniels were made public in which he described historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History as “a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” In one e-mail Daniels also asked, “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” No evidence emerged that Daniels pressed the case or that Zinn’s work was ordered excluded from all K–12 syllabi, but the revelation was chilling because it came from a sitting governor and because Daniels subsequently became president of Purdue University. (Zinn had passed away in 2010.)

While scholars might honestly disagree over the quality of Zinn’s work, there could be little disagreement over the academic freedom officially embraced by the OAH. As president of the OAH, I issued a statement saying that the “OAH supports the academic and intellectual freedom of all faculty members.” I then requested that the OAH staff post on our Web site a letter from several Purdue faculty members as well as all subsequent communications from any parties who wished to discuss the issue. It was the duty of the OAH, it seemed to me, to serve as a free and open forum for all those who wished to discuss any aspect of the controversy concerning censorship and the quality of the work of one of its members. Respect for diversity of opinion by establishing a forum for free and open discourse is in my view what responsible academic organizations owe to their members and their discipline in such instances.

More recently, several academic organizations in the United States voted to boycott Israeli universities as an intervention in the complicated politics of the region. Members of the OAH may honestly disagree over those politics, but perhaps we can agree not to advocate academic boycotts as instruments to protest the policies of a foreign government. While boycott supporters claim that they seek to cripple Israeli institutions and the Israeli government, not the scholars whom these institutions employ, the practical effect is likely to prove quite the opposite. Will there be litmus tests on advocacy of Palestinian rights or opposition to the sitting government in Israel to determine which Israelis may join in U.S. historians’ conferences and research projects? And who will judge? Personally, I find institutional boycotts—which necessarily impact fellow historians and dialogue about history—an affront to academic freedom and, therefore, repugnant. More than one hundred university presidents and the American Association of University Professors have condemned such boycotts. It is my hope that those organizations adopting the boycott will rescind their support in the interest of the academic freedom they profess to value. Greater contact, not less, between Israeli and Palestinian historians has never been needed more than at the present. Seminars and conferences in the United States are excellent venues for increased intellectual exchange. Those of us who hope to heal the world by challenging injustice can have no better medicine in our pharmacopeia than the insights derived from history and free, open historical discourse. Boycotts spread the infection.


Alan M. Kraut is OAH President and the University Professor of History at American University. This article appears in OAH Outlook 3 (February 2014). 

Posted: February 18, 2014
Tagged: Advocacy, News of the Organization, News of the Profession