The Possibilities of American History
Edward L. Ayers
Historians worry about our discipline. Graphs and tables confirm what we all feel—that we are losing students and majors, that jobs are declining in number and security, that our relative position within colleges and universities is waning.
Despite these challenges, ironically, the writing and interpreting of American history has never been richer, broader, or more vibrant. Our crisis is not an intellectual crisis, a failure of imagination, creativity, or compelling ideas. Powerful new books and interpretations continually appear, museums and public historians present exciting interpretations, people seek out podcasts and videos inspired by history, and various forms of digital history weave their way into classrooms and scholarship. Historians are often among the most influential teachers at all kinds of institutions and engage as citizens and advocates.
Our challenge, then, as we worry about fading importance, is not one of content or creativity but of connection. History needs, more than anything, to find ways to get its work, in all its forms, before more people.
Our largest potential audiences are those to which we already have the most direct access: students. Students’ lives are changed by what they discover in a history classroom, sometimes in ways they recognize at the time and sometimes in ways they discover later. Thousands of historians, in all kinds of institutions, teach exciting, memorable, and popular courses to students of all ages and backgrounds. Superb lecturers and skilled discussion leaders, some tenure-track and some not, animate community colleges, liberal arts schools, regional universities, and elite institutions. Public historians teach hundreds of students that arrive on memorable field trips and people who spend their vacations to learn about the past.
Such an active and creative field need not dwell on a romanticized vision of what we once had. The era of plentiful tenure-track jobs hardly knew the vastly more inclusive profession we've built and the increasingly diverse students we've met in the years of narrowing job prospects. We have seen crucial gains as well as disheartening losses. Our goal now should be to create new opportunities within a more democratic profession. Teachers who are graduate students, visitors, or adjuncts need to be welcomed and supported as the colleagues they are. Hard-pressed colleges and schools deserve a more prominent place in our conception of what history is and can do.
College-level historians can collaborate more effectively with our colleagues in secondary schools. Those who teach juniors in high school and those who teach freshmen in college see their work increasingly overlap as dual enrollment and the Advanced Placement tests displace the United States survey class in college. That survey remains important, though, for the John N. Gardner Institute has discovered that a significant number of first-generation students drop out of higher education altogether after they receive a low or failing grade in introductory history courses. Survey and other introductory courses need to consider their influence beyond the classroom, for they reach large numbers of first-generation and part-time students. Fortunately, we have help in thinking about these issues, from organizations such as the National Council for History Education, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and the National Humanities Center’s Education Programs work to bridge secondary and post-secondary teaching.
While our classrooms offer uniquely powerful possibilities, we can also think more creatively about ways to reach audiences beyond our institutions. Here, as in imagining a time when history was more powerful within our institutions, there is no use in longing for a mythical golden age of public intellectuals when a few white men in elite institutions spoke for the discipline. Just as we are not likely to secure significant new funding for our departments or institutions by repeating familiar—if true—refrains about the importance of the liberal arts, neither we are likely to persuade mass market magazines and newspapers to review more works of history or to persuade producers of talk shows to introduce unfamiliar authors or topics because at some time in the past they did.
Instead, we need to recognize that we live in much more promising environment than we did in the era of little magazines and a few television networks. Today we can create new channels of connection and discovery for ourselves. Historians can build our own audiences with our own ingenuity and passion. We can be more active advocates for ourselves and for each other, promoting and sharing our work more broadly. We can take responsibility for making the most of what we have to offer.
Historians have a record of such forward-looking action. H-Net has long provided thoughtful book reviews and places for collaboration on scholarship and teaching. The History News Network connects and publicizes work in the field. The Process blog of the Organization of American Historians offers a new platform for disciplinary conversation. Black Perspectives, curated by the African American Intellectual History Society, has become a vibrant place of exchange and new scholarship. I am involved in two projects that reach out: Bunk shares articles, blogs, podcasts, visualizations, objects, and other representations of the American past and BackStory, a podcast about American history, introduces a broad audience to the voices of historians of many backgrounds and specializations. New history blogs and podcasts are continually being created, finding and making new audiences.
One of the most effective new platforms for connecting historians with broad and immediate audiences is Made by History, sponsored by the Washington Post. More than 75 historians from a broad range of institutions contribute to the collaborative, edited by Brian Rosenwald of the University of Pennsylvania and Nicole Hemmer of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, joined by Kathryn Brownell of Purdue University. Launched in June 2017, articles from Made by History have already been read by over three million people. Its purpose is to show that “in order to make history, we first have to understand how history has made us.” As the editors write, sometimes “that will mean explaining the origins of policy battles; sometimes, it will involve illuminating the social and cultural pathways that led our society to fracture in just this way; other times, it will mean grappling with parallels between the past and present.” In other words, Made by History demonstrates the broad range of ways that history matters. The effort, a model of the kind of partnerships that historians can build, is cosponsored by Purdue, Oregon State, and Villanova as well as by Cambridge University Press, the University of North Carolina Press, and the American Political History Institute.
The Organization of American Historians itself holds great promise for mobilizing the strength of historians of the United States. The OAH is flourishing. The Journal of American History publishes groundbreaking work, The American Historian reaches out to new audiences, and the Annual Meeting promotes the diversity and vitality of our profession every year.
In my time on the board, I have developed an appreciation for what the Organization of American Historians is doing and can do. I have seen the creativity, commitment, and skill the staff of the OAH bring to their work every day. I have seen the investment that colleagues from across the profession, in all its variety, make in our shared enterprise by serving on committees, helping to build membership, reviewing manuscripts and books, and making local arrangements for the Annual Meeting. The amount of work and creativity involved in assembling the program for that meeting each year is enormous but heartening, revealing the energy within our profession.
The OAH is positioned to take on ambitious new efforts. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities is allowing us to take stock of the strengths and possibilities of the Organization, to think about ways we can best focus our energies. Two grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are permitting us to think in fresh ways about to share the intellectual resources of American historians. The Amplified Initiative at the Annual Meeting in Sacramento will give us a chance to collaborate in more concrete ways with the public historians and secondary teachers among us, while a new database will share our expertise more broadly with journalists looking for historical perspective. The Organization of American Historians works as a partner with the American Historical Association, the National Humanities Alliance, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the other groups that advocate for history.
The OAH occupies a crucial position between the global reach of the American Historical Association and the regional, period, or topical focus of smaller groups that play an important role in fostering the work of Americanists. The Organization gathers over 7,000 historians who share a common passion and purpose. Whether they work in colleges or universities, high schools or museums, government or business, on their own or with others, all historians of the United States have a place in the OAH. This broad and diverse alliance can be a unique voice for history in our nation.
Even as we work to expand our other capacities, the members of the OAH produce the most rigorous and original explorations of the American past. History is better because it is a discipline, building on the work of those who came before and posing new questions for those who follow. Working within our discipline’s best traditions, the OAH advances knowledge, generates innovation, fosters work in progress, provides venues for sharing new ideas, trains aspiring historians, supports emerging scholars, encourages diversity, supports independent scholars, and builds commonality among writers, teachers, and public historians.
The Organization of American Historians, in short, plays an indispensable and irreplaceable role. Our traditional virtues will grow stronger as we connect with new allies and audiences, as we find new ways to speak to and listen to the nation whose history we explore. Each of us, in our own way, can take advantage of those possibilities.