The American Historical Association’s fight over the present

A panel at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association addressed a controversial column, which accused historians of leveraging history for present-day social justice initiatives.

For the AHA, one of these initiatives included writing a Supreme Court brief, which asserted a constitutional right for abortion based on the historic legality of abortion in the U.S.

The American Historical Association (AHA) is fixated on the present. 

At its recent annual meeting in Philadelphia, former AHA President James Sweet referenced his criticism of “presentism,” according to a report in The New York Times. Presentism, Sweet suggested in the August 2022 edition of AHA's news magazine, leverages history to serve present-day social justice initiatives.

Though Sweet received swift backlash from fellow historians for his “white gaze” and “violence,” his criticism revealed how the discipline is responding to incentives. As funding becomes scarce, and as history departments persuade students concerned about their degrees’ return on investment (ROI), scholars have discovered that it pays to study the present. 

As “the largest membership association of professional historians in the world,” the AHA is a window into what methodologies historians use, how historians shape K-12 and college curricula, and which historians receive funding for their research. The New York Times said that the annual meeting convened “nearly 3,000 scholars,” and AHA’s website boasts a membership of 11,000. 

An ongoing conversation within the AHA is what “counts” as history. A panel at the annual meeting responded to Sweet’s column, The New York Times reported, by considering the question “Are the traditional methodologies extolled by Sweet an effective tool of justice and truth, or are they too enmeshed in their own racist past?” 

Other panels at the meeting seemed to support the latter. Presentations argued that early Christians saw gender as non-binary and that scientific practice can become anti-racist, inclusive, and radically feminist.” 

[A]s marginalized Americans know well, they can’t always trust the science–at least not without questioning the gendered, racialized, and ableist assumptions that undergird it,” a description of the panel, “Race, Gender, and Science in US History,” reads. 

During the annual meeting, the AHA Council also adopted guidelines that depart from the traditional notion of what it means to be an academic historian.  

“Despite this multiplicity of scholarly forms, most history departments remain wedded to narrow conventions defining how historical scholarship is packaged and circulated, as well as what ‘counts’ toward elevations to tenure,” the guidelines read. The guidelines imagine history as a more public-facing discipline with scholarship made “accessible” through public policy advocacy and op-eds.

The AHA has even turned its examination inward, asking how its present-day members can grapple with its proclaimed racist past. For this undertaking, AHA enlisted the help of other historians at the University of Michigan, according to a description of the project. 

Historians analyzed the demographic data of AHA leadership, considered which marginalized communities were excluded from producing historical work, and described how their exclusion shaped historical narratives. 

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Other statements from the AHA suggest that the phenomenon observed in Sweet’s column–the widening gap between pre-1800 and post-1800 dissertation topics–is no accident. 

As The Atlantic noted in an article about the so-called “History Wars,” humanities programs have experienced declining enrollment since the 2008 financial crisis. 

“Consequently, academic jobs in the humanities and especially in history have become radically more precarious for younger faculty—even as universities have sought to meet diversity goals in their next-generation hiring by expanding offerings in history-adjacent specialties, such as gender and ethnic studies,” the article continued. 

History-adjacent projects offer funding opportunities for historians who worry that major foundations such as Mellon and Ford “‘have gotten out of the history business,'" The New York Times reported.  

A $1.65 million grant from the Mellon foundation enables the AHA to revisit the curriculum taught in introductory college history classes. Introductory courses, a description of the initiative says, "unfortunately are directly linked with a significant proportion of attrition among first-generation, Black, Native American, Latinx, Pell-eligible, and male college students." 

AHA partnered with the Gardner Institute, an organization "dedicated to advancing higher education's larger goal of achieving equity and social justice," according to the description. 

At the annual meeting, AHA members learned about funding opportunities from another major foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), “one of the largest funders of humanities programs and history projects in the United States.” In 2021, NEH funded AHA members' diversity, equity, and social justice projects as the Mellon Foundation funded social justice fellowships in the millions, according to a Campus Reform report

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AHA Executive Director James Grossman seemed to describe how present-day social justice issues belong to the AHA’s “value proposition” in the December 2022 edition of its news magazine.  

Members should pay dues, Grossman suggested, because “the AHA has expanded its role in public life and culture, dramatically increasing its advocacy efforts, as well as the visibility of that work,” which it “cannot do without members.” He continued that AHA has the “ability to invoke [its] membership numbers in conversation with public officials.”

statement on the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade described one of AHA’s advocacy efforts: an amicus curiae brief submitted to protect abortion rights. AHA’s statement reveals how historians might attempt to justify their work by “continu[ing] to correct the court’s misinterpretation about the history of legalized abortion in the US."

Within its statement is an implied accusation of presentism in the conservative-majority Supreme Court’s decision. The Supreme Court’s alleged misinterpretation, the statement suggests, conflicts with the AHA’s own presentism, which supports the constitutional protection for abortion by reading U.S. history as pro-abortion. 

Historians might note that the court’s majority opinion refers to ‘history’ 67 times, claiming that ‘an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973,’” the statement reads. 

“In so doing the court denies the strong presence in US ‘history and traditions’ at least from the Revolution to the Civil War of women’s ability to terminate pregnancy before the third to fourth month without intervention by the state.”

Campus Reform contacted the American Historical Association, the University of Michigan, Sweet, and the National Endowment for the Humanities for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.