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September 2000

Volume II, Number 1

By President Eugene Genovese

00000The response to the program that Paul Rahe, Miriam Levin, and Lou Ferleger put together for our June national conference exceeded all expectations. Members and friends showered us with accolades, and if there were dissenters, we did not hear from them—from, that is, people not normally shy and unwilling to howl. Certainly, those who attended the conference and expressed an opinion, as many did, signaled their pleasure at the high quality of the sessions. For myself, I heard fine papers at every session I attended—that is, a session in every time slot—the best of which were superb. We are especially grateful to our host, Boston University, and the outstanding efforts of its conference services department.

00000 We owe special thanks to Robert W. Fogel, who delivered our first Christopher Lasch Lecture and turned in a vintage Fogel performance—richly informative, provocative, and masterfully argued. At the risk of self-indulgence, may I quote from my introduction to Professor Fogel’s lecture:

00000The Historical Society appropriately named this series of lectures by distinguished scholars in memory of Christopher Lasch, whose untimely death deprived American letters of a powerful voice of reason, moral responsibility, and intellectual integrity. In maintaining that political passion complemented, rather than subverted, high standards of scholarship, Kit Lasch understood what the practitioners of ideologically 0driven history do not—that political commitment heightens scholarship only to the extent that it responds fairly to the challenges posed by honest opponents and submits its hypotheses to open debate and empirical verification. Kit lived and died a fighter, who upheld the glory of Western civilization while he ruthlessly criticized its failings. America is a better country for his having lived. It has become a poorer place since he left us.

00000The introduction of a Nobel Prize winner, a great scholar, and one of the finest men it has been my privilege to know was not the easiest task ever assigned me. After the customary recital of his many achievements and honors, I concluded with remarks, for which I again ask your indulgence:

00000A commitment to the search for objective truth has marked Bob Fogel’s life’s work. Bob and I go back together some fifty years, when, as young communists, we imbibed the totalitarian doctrine of “class 00truth,” which today has been broadened into “situational” or “positional” truth—euphemisms for the notion that since we cannot hope to attain absolute truth in the study of history, we are free to abandon the quest for the limited truth we can attain; free to reduce truth and morals to whatever serves our interests; free, that is, to become crooks, not to say monsters. In the current war against nihilism in and out of the academy, Bob Fogel, like Christopher Lasch, has stood fast. I am sure that Bob knows Dante, but even if not, he surely noticed Dante’s great dictum as quoted in the opening pages of Marx’s Capital: “Segui il tuo corso,e lascia dir’ le genti,” which, at the risk of sending Dante spinning in his grave, I shall render inelegantly as, “Do what you know to be right, and leave windbags to run their mouths.” Bob Fogel stands as testimony to Dante’s admonition. He stands as a personification of the spirit of critical inquiry conducted in accordance with the highest demands of scholarship and moral and intellectual integrity. If, as we hope and expect, our Society proves worthy of his example, we may expect a bright future.

00000Our conference once again demonstrated our intellectual and ideological breadth as conflicting voices rose from Left, Right, and Center without a murmur of incivility or lack of appreciation for the contributions to scholarship made by adversaries. I suppose, however, that I should be embarrassed to say as much,since, after all, this is what scholarly meetings are supposed to be for. On second thought, I overcome my embarrassment by reflecting that academia has been living under the Chinese curse—in interesting times.
00000We have good reason to know that most of our members and not a few nonmembers wanted to attend the conference, whose audience, as expected, numbered in the hundreds. Most could not do so. Despite the best efforts to keep costs low, they proved too high in an era in which fewer and fewer departments offer assistance. Then, too, many of our members teach at small colleges, which have never been able to offer such assistance, and others are independent scholars who are struggling to keep their heads above water. These considerations, as we made clear when we launched The Historical Society, led us to project national conferences only every two years or more and to concentrate on regional conferences and local meetings. Other considerations dictated this decision, for we all know that large conventions are not suitable for serious intellectual exchanges. In any case, we planned from the beginning not to hold a national meeting next year but to concentrate on the initiation of regional conferences that people would be able to attend in numbers large enough to promote scholarly discussions and get to know each other.

00000Our regional organizations are developing well, with outstanding coordinators in place, although we must confess to being behind in some sections of the country, in which we are nonetheless recruiting well. No less fortunately, we now have the services of Sheldon Avery to assist the coordinators. Don, as he is known to his friends, is a fine scholar who has been chairing his community college’s history department, and he has done a superb job as coordinator for the Chesapeake Region. He brings to his new responsibility a combination of experience and energy, with an integrity that inspires confidence in all who 
know him.

00000Plans for regional conferences are proceeding apace. Plans, however, are no better than the people who participate in them. To accomplish what we hope, our members will have to contribute suggestions, contribute some time, and stand ready to be called upon to provide papers and participate in panels. This bulletin contains a list of regional coordinators. Please get in touch with them and offer your services. 

00000Recent developments have made clear that we were right to believe that the worst ramification of the mounting crisis in the Establishment’s historical associations has been the growing retreat of historians into a passivity fueled by a sense that organized professional efforts are a waste of time, that nothing much is possible, that everyone may as well cultivate his own garden. The answer to all such defeatism lies not in protests and polemics but in the demonstration that our profession can in fact be revitalized through collective effort.

00000We are well ahead of the timetable we originally projected—and light years ahead of the point that our critics ever dreamed we would reach. We are poised for what economists used to call “a take-off into sustained growth.” Led by Lou Ferleger, who is putting together a strong central office, and armed with our new journal and our book, Reconstructing History, we have excellent prospects. But no amount of publicity and appeals will do the job. Recruitment, above all, depends upon one-on-one personal contacts and upon the initiation of attractive local projects, no matter how modest. In short, the realization of our prospects is in your hands. 

Eugene Genovese is president of The Historical Society.


by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

00000For those of us with the most immediate responsibilities for the Journal, especially Laura Crawley and myself, the appearance of the first issue seems little short of miraculous, in part because we frequently doubted that we could meet Lou Ferleger’s deadlines, in part because we were so amazed to see it actually taking shape in the successive drafts of the cover and the layout. We have a special debt to the authors (Darryl Hart, Victor Hanson, Mark Smith, and Robert Wiebe) who entrusted their work to us and then met the stringent deadlines the production schedule imposed. That schedule kept us all hopping, but it more than justified the pain, for Marie Weisgerber and Hy Zhitnik of Boston University’s Office of Publications Production exceeded our highest expectations in producing a journal that is a pleasure to look at and to read.

00000The second issue is taking shape, and we are assembling materials for those to follow. Thanks to the generous response of colleagues, the second issue will inaugurate discussion of some of the questions introduced in the first. Beginning with the second issue, we shall also inaugurate a section that will include papers from sessions at the national or regional meetings. And beginning with this issue or the next, we shall regularly publish a review essay per issue. In time, we also hope to feature a column that will review a specialized journal, published here or abroad, as a way of alerting our readers to engaging scholarship they could easily miss. During the first year or two, we shall, inevitably, experiment with the balance among different historical subjects and different genres of historical writing, including historical perspectives from other disciplines, notably literature, sociology, politics, and religion. And of course, pace Lou, economic history—on condition that our economists are willing to translate their numbers and equations into English.

00000From the outset, we have been committed to fostering different kinds of historical work by scholars of varied historical subjects and perspectives, as well as at different stages of their careers. Initially, we had planned to promote these commitments through two journals, one primarily devoted to articles, the other primarily devoted to reviews, and to publish the review journal primarily, if not exclusively, on-line. We have discovered that we still lack the technological capability to produce the kind of high-quality, on-line review journal we envisioned. But what initially seemed a disappointment seems to be metamorphosing into the proverbial blessing in disguise. The confrontation with our inability to field a full-scale review journal at this point brought home to us that we neither need nor want to take responsibility for reviewing all of the books that are published each year. Indeed, by cheerfully leaving this responsibility to the more specialized historical journals, we free ourselves to review the books that seem of special interest or importance to our members. We will inevitably miss some—and initially we may miss many—books that we would have wanted to review, and for this I apologize in advance. Here, as in every other aspect of this adventure, we shall need to get our sea legs.

00000At present, we plan to handle book reviews in several different ways, each of which, we hope, will contribute to the sense of continuing conversation that we want the Journal to foster. Within the next issue or two, we shall publish a review essay in each regular issue of the Journal. By next year, we shall add a fourth annual issue that will consist entirely of review essays. In addition, within the next issue or two of Historically Speaking, we will introduce a section, “Catching My Fancy,” in which we will publish “reviews” of about 100 words. These pieces are not intended to provide reviews of record or even responsible coverage of the contents of a book. Rather, they are intended to call a book to the attention of our members and to say briefly—compellingly, insightfully, even seductively—why it is worth reading. Teasers rather than conventional reviews, the short entries will offer our members a way to tell others something about a book they consider especially thought-provoking or worthy of attention. And the books they select may not only be general syntheses but also specialized monographs that would escape the attention of nonspecialists. 

00000Since we expected to publish a regular review journal, we assigned reviews, and a number of our colleagues have responded promptly. These reviews, which we have in hand or are expecting shortly, will be published in Historically Speaking, but at least for now, we do not plan to commission others. We warmly invite members of The Historical Society and readers of the Journal to propose topics for review essays and specific books for mention in “Catching My Fancy,” and we will do our best to make sure they receive copies of the books they need in timely fashion. And if the issue of review essays proves successful and the number of subscribers justifies the expense, we will add a second issue of review essays each year.

00000Our goal now, as at the beginning, remains to engage the interests of our readers and to cultivate a climate of conversation about large historical questions. In this spirit, we welcome unsolicited responses to essays and reviews. For the moment, we do not foresee a “letters to the editor” 
column, although this may change. But we would welcome unsolicited contributions to a column, “Second Thoughts, Third Thoughts, and Beyond.” The purpose of such contributions would be to draw out the implications of some aspect of an article or a review essay or to lodge a quarrel with it. We shall not expect to publish ad hominem or ad feminam attacks on authors, lists of minor errors, or personal quarrels with an author. We shall, however, welcome interventions of 500–1,500 words that promote further thought or robust debate. 

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese is editor of the Journal of The Historical Society and the Eleanore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University


by William W. Freehling

00000I believe that the historical profession faces an employment as well as an intellectual crisis. In 1999, when I spoke at a breakfast at The Historical Society’s national conference, I argued that older generations of historians must no longer allow deans to foist an impossible job situation on younger generations. I urged that, with full professors allowing administrators a free hand to establish the hiring environment, a horrendous plight confronts most fresh PhDs. Few aspiring teachers start with tenure track positions, replete with the traditional benefits, salaries, and research support. Most endure part-time employment, at least for several years. Many have to cobble together a course at one institution, a course at another, and more courses at others, just to earn a subsistence wage. The exhausting work yields no medical insurance, no travel grants, and no opportunity to write history. And the older professors, having suffered none of this, have done little to fight the travesty.

00000I emphasized that currently employed faculty could forge an alliance between have and have-not professors, against irresponsible administrators. Professors could use their moment of retirement as a weapon against deans’ preference for part-time replacements. If every healthy professor refused to retire until the dean agreed to spend 75 percent of the salary savings on full-time replacements, administrators would have little choice but to give many more of our younger colleagues the initial job conditions that furthered our careers. I also argued that PhD-granting departments have the obligation to establish postdoctoral three-to-five-year instructorships for the best of their own new PhDs (with decent salaries, benefits, and research/writing opportunities). And I suggested that every graduate department of history must base its admissions on the number of PhDs that it could reasonably hope to place in academic tenure track jobs.

00000A year later I have some second thoughts about this last suggestion. My limited-admission concept was based on a Neanderthal view: that job opportunities only exist in the universities. The profession badly needs an expanded professional education to seize advantage of the expanding opportunities for historians beyond the academy.

00000The old graduate education presumed that the jobs were in the universities and that “publish or perish” was the condition of employment. Thus, criticizing and producing scholarly monographs monopolized the training of historians. PhDs became expert in writing for each other, especially for fellow specialists who might offer them the only job on the horizon.

00000Whether or not this educational situation fostered good history, it temporarily fostered a golden age of academic employment for my generation. That is now a world we have lost. Most Americans no longer learn their history in the university classroom, much less from the scholars’ monographs. Our public—and we must remake it ours—relishes history as never before, but it is history taught in community colleges, on television, in movie houses, inside museums, at historical sites, in magazines, and in nonmonographic books written for popular consumption. So huge a demand—exactly the demand lacking in the academic marketplace—has generated rich employment opportunities for those properly trained. Training devoted exclusively to publishing monographs can be the wrong training, except maybe to perish before you publish.

00000Some may respond that training in how to make history popular is too antischolarly to be part of a scholar’s highest education. But what is unscholarly about teaching the most sophisticated history where those who want to learn happen to be located? It is, after all, sophisticated teaching that most of our graduate students have always considered their highest calling. Fewer than 10 percent of history PhD theses are ever published, and fewer than 10 percent of the published authors ever write a second book. Instead, the vast majority of history PhDs have always spent a happy, highly productive professional life bringing their insights and knowledge to students. The only difference now is that most of the booming number of interested students are not located in the tenure-granting universities. Easing the employment woes of our PhDs is partly a matter of applying the traditional capitalist remedy: go where the action is.

00000By failing to train our students to educate beyond the university, we indirectly consign that supposedly “lesser” education to teachers without a sophisticated knowledge of history. Then we complain about superficial TV documentaries, museum installations that do not indicate the material objects’ revealing depth, placards at historical sites that indicate little about the widest importance of the landscape seen—in short, we complain of a botched job of education. We would better serve our culture if our PhDs were trained to direct this popular education, using nonverbal source materials that our graduate students have come to relish as much as the written word. Visual and aural materials are, after all, rich historical artifacts, too—sources that will deepen our monograph writing as well as our popular education.

00000It is accordingly becoming more and more professionally necessary that we incorporate such subjects as filmmaking, photography, museum connoisseurship, historical editing, period houses, and historical sites deep into our graduate curriculums. This hardly means the elimination of scholarly training in analyzing texts. There will always be a need for monograph-writing professors who stress the written word. But we must realize that this is now only one path, maybe no longer even the widest path, and assuredly not the only noble path. To jam all the travelers onto a shrinking path—to fail to train all our students for widening paths—is to intensify what we have: a job crisis at the very time historians’ jobs are increasing.

00000Just as I was coming to belated awareness of what could be done inside the graduate schools, I made a startling discovery: one university is already doing it. The University of South Carolina’s history department has lately enjoyed that rarity in these scarce academic times: the opportunity to hire many new scholars. It has added not just fine monograph writers (Daniel and Valinda Littlefield) but also authors who reach a more general audience (Paul E. Johnson, Dan Carter), an expert in museums and material culture (Katherine C. Grier), and one of the nation’s leaders in public history (Page Putnam Miller). What a varied feast these scholars will offer to graduate students, in all the ways to practice history. With students prepared for a variety of historical jobs, unemployment or exploited employment will likely shrink.

00000While enthusiastically endorsing South Carolina’s thoughts on how to shrink the job crisis, I still think that professors’ control over retirement can be a weapon against turning our next generation into a suffering proletariat. I still think that departments should offer their own best students a period of full-time post-PhD employment.

00000 One final thought for now: historians face closely related job and intellectual crises. The Historical Society includes historians of all persuasions, all races, all genders, all ages, many of whom are convinced that the present climate in the academy, often bearing the misleading label “political correctness,” is damaging historians’ work. One problem with “politically correct” history, as it is now usually written, transcends “correctness.” The monographs are usually written in a jargonish style that makes them politically (and economically) irrelevant. Whatever the limitations of the old history of dead white males in politics, diplomacy, and warfare, at least its leading practitioners were often vivid, arresting writers who aimed at and reached a wide audience beyond the academy. We need some hard thought about how to train graduate students to write the new cultural history in ways that will be equally exciting beyond a tiny coterie of specialists, just as we need hard thought about how to train our students to exploit historical employment beyond the academy. Let us make the new cultural history—and the old forms of history—count in our fellow citizens’awareness of their past. And—who would have thought this conclusion viable in the year of the Confederate flag controversy—may South Carolina lead the way! 

William W. Freehling is a professor of history at the University of Kentucky and the coholder of the Singletary Endowed Chair in the Humanities.
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