A post here on The New York History Blog last December summarized the work of University of Richmond historian Edward Ayers, who has been proactive in getting history out to the public.
Ayers served as president of the Organization of American Historians, 2017-2018, and in April, at the OAH’s annual meeting, delivered his presidential address, “Everyone Their Own Historian.”
You can see a video of his speech at the OAH website. It is useful because it goes into some of the same issues that the historical enterprise here in New York is confronting.
Ayers’ title is a take-off from historian Carl Becker’s presidential address at the 1931 meeting of the American Historical Association, “Everyone His Own Historian“. Becker’s provocative address went into the issues of historical evidence and interpretation, the role of historians, and how history becomes meaningful to people.
Ayers does something similar, but for our own times. He talks about the impact of digital sources, social media, and the dissemination of history via the web. Any person with internet access can now get at historical narratives, but also at a lot of the sources of history.
Ayers analyzes the implications of these developments. But perhaps his most provocative point toward the end, when he proposes that the OAH should become the “Organization For American History” rather than the “Organization of American Historians,” which implies a narrower, more academic focus. OAH should ally with teachers, archivists, curators, and other historians, taking advantage of the multiplicity that grows every day. It should become a hub for all kinds of work in American history.
Ayers does not provide a blueprint for how OAH should do this, but his analysis and proposal are intriguing.
Ironically, one of the factors behind his suggestion is a news item you can also link to on the OAH website cited above, a March 13 post “OAH Responds to UW-Stevens Point Eliminating Humanities Majors.” The University of Wisconsin’s Stevens Point campus, faced with an operational deficit and declining enrollments in some areas, has proposed to eliminate majors in history, English, and several other humanities fields. The official announcement from the university says the reason is that they want to shift resources to expand academic programs “that have demonstrated value and demand in the region” e.g., chemical engineering, computer information systems, finance, and management.
The proposal has attracted national attention, including articles in the Washington Post and Fortune magazine. The Post article suggested that the plan aligns with the philosophy of Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker, who has sought to move the state’s public university’s focus away from liberal arts and more toward acquiring needed job skills.
Fortune just comments that is part of the national debate over how to prepare students for jobs of the future, which have a heavy technology focus. The proposal has met with opposition and criticism. But it may be an alarming prelude of things to come.
Reading Ed Ayers speech alongside UW-Stevens’ proposal reminds us of the need to keep explaining why history is valuable, to get history out to people, and to do it in new and imaginative ways, including on the web, which is where people get much of their information these days. His suggestion for expanding OAH’s mission is a reminder of the need for historians from all sectors to cooperate and work together.
By coincidence, the current (May 2018) issue of the Public Historian, the journal of the National Council on Public History, carries the presidential address by Alexandra Lord, also from April, about the same time as Ed Ayers’s OAH speech, entitled “Finding Connections.” Lord advocates broadening the definition of “public history,” in part because, as she notes, “many people do public history but do not define themselves as public historians.” She refers to academic historians, and also other practitioners, and advocates telling a broader story. Collaboration is one of her central themes, seemingly very close to what Ed Ayers was advocating at OAH. She advocates moving beyond simple views of diversity, and also reaching out to public historians in other nations.
Both Ayers and Lord advocate broadening the arena of history, being more inclusive, being more imaginative, cooperating more, and reaching a broader audience. Their speeches are expansive and optimistic. But the UW-Stevens’ controversy is a reminder of the need for continuing to make the case for why history matters.