As the inflammatory title suggests, Lemisch was spoiling for a fight. His targets were Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman, respectively president and executive director of the AHA. Their solution, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History” had been published in the October 2011 issue of Perspectives on History. Lemisch’s withering response was: “What they propose is indeed too modest, almost tragically so. What we need is not cutbacks and accommodations but rather vastly expanded funding for higher education, plus a program for historians like the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project, which produced so much of value, including the slave narrative collection and the 48 volumes of the American Guide Series to the states.”
Lemisch’s own view of history’s place undoubtedly will resonate with readers here, but I wonder how many Americans accept these precepts: “What’s lost in this is the high value that we place on history and a complex that connects history to civilization itself. History is worth fighting for, and its importance goes far beyond the current vogue for saleable skills and narrow vocational justifications for education.” He ended his blog which was written at the time of Occupy Wall Street with: “It appears that those druggies, drummers, sex addicts and student debtors down there in Zuccotti Square are doing more for civilization, history and education than is the AHA. It’s time for the AHA to catch up with them, and start fighting for history.” One may question whether that comparison has more to do with Lemisch feeling good in writing a zinger than in gaining support from the AHA on his proposal.
The AHA did have a session entitled
According to a commentator, the discussion became more heated in the follow-up session “
The various comments about public history as a possible career option attests the traditional second-place status of public historians in the field of history to the historians who do research and train graduate students to replace them. This also leads to the distinction between popular history and scholarly history.
The commentator covering the event for HNN concluded with: “Considering that the room was packed nearly to the gills, the comments from the audience were a true highlight. Indeed, Grafton tried vainly to keep the session going after the allotted time expired, but alas, the room was reserved for another panel. And indeed, the comments were wide-ranging, from a former department chair who decried the bevy of unqualified applicants he waded through while making his latest hire, to an adjunct who, if anything, felt Lemisch’s proposals didn’t go far enough.”
Obviously the story is far from over. Perhaps the OAH conference in April in Milwaukee will provided another chapter to this tale.
On a local note, one should realize that although New York State requires historians at all municipal levels there are no requirements regarding the education and training of such people nor is there funding sufficient for the jobholders to make a living (and pay off student loans) unless the job is part of a larger job such as managing the archives. Is it even possible to imagine a world where town, village, city, and county historians routinely were full-time jobs attractive to history professionals? How about high school history teachers having a masters in history? The fact that these two suggestions are laughable reflects on the true value we the people place on history as part of the way to develop a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community as citizens of this country.