January 12, 2007
By Robert Townsend
In addition to the resolutions adopted at the annual business meeting, the governing Council of the American Historical Association adopted a number of other policy and professional resolutions at its meeting this past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. The Council adopted new policy guidelines on when the AHA should take a public position, endorsed the idea of including history in the No Child Left Behind Act, and rejected some of the underlying assumptions about history in Florida’s A++ Plan for Education .
The new “Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance” may seem the most timely, given the discussions at the annual business meeting, but the AHA Professional Divsion drafted them over the past twelve months. These new principles lay out five areas requiring “public interventions” to protect the “rights and careers” of historians, including occasions where, public or private authorities “threaten the preservation of or free access to historical sources;” “censor the writing, exhibition, or teaching of history;” “limit or forbid freedom of movement to historians;” or “compromise the mission of historical assets.” According to Anthony Grafton (Princeton University), this “is an effort to state the central principles that guide, and should guide, the AHA in deciding when to take action in the public sphere.”
In keeping with these principles, the Council adopted two new statements on public policy related to history teaching in the schools. The first, on Adding History to No Child Left Behind Act, places the Association on record as supporting “the addition of history (both U.S. and world history) to the areas of assessment and accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act and calls for systematic efforts, including professional development of in-service teachers, to improve the quality of history teaching at elementary and secondary levels.” While many in the history community view No Child Left Behind with ambivalence, since high stakes testing undermines many of the best practices of history teaching, the AHA Teaching Division concluded that, “if history is to be a high-priority subject in the public-school curriculum, then it must be assessed and evaluated.”
In a related Statement on the 2006 Florida Education Bill, the Council challenges language in the A++ Plan for Education signed by Florida Governor Jeb Bush in June 2006, which declared, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” This statement reviews why history has been and will be more than just an assembly of facts, concluding that, “professional historians still recognize that no account of the past is ever perfect or complete, any more than any given scientific hypothesis.” The statement notes that, “The recent demotion of Pluto from its status as a planet reminds us that even natural scientists revise their conclusions periodicially. Historians do exactly the same. It is right to teach students that every historian must work as accurately and honestly as he or she can. But it is simply wrong to tell them that any single account of history is simply ‘factual.’”
In addition to these policy statements, the Council also adopted two statements on significant professional issues for the field—the training of history teachers and the hiring of new history faculty at colleges and universities.
At the behest of the Teaching Division, the Council formally endorsed a white paper prepared by Edward L. Ayers (University of Virginia), on The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities. The Division found the document to be a thoughtful and thorough statement that gave excellent suggestions to History Departments on the training of history teachers.
Finally, upon recommendation from the Professional Division, the Council also adopted a new set of Guidelines for Job Offers in History. Responding to a number of complaints from job applicants who felt they were receiving undue pressure to accept a position based on vague and sometimes misleading promises from a department, these Guidelines articulate a set of good practices that departments should follow in making job offers. This is part of a series of “best practices” documents the Professional Division has prepared over the past two years, as part of a renewal of the Division’s work after it gave up adjudication to turn to more practical and public activities.