Humanists readily understand the “value” of what we teach, study, and write. We too often forget that this is less obvious to many of our neighbors, and have not developed a deep and wide advocacy movement to promote humanistic thinking and work. The AHA, like other scholarly societies, participates in Washington-based coalitions that offer a strong voice on Capitol Hill and relevant agencies, such as the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and even the State Department. But this is not enough at a time when politicians and business leaders across the country have sharply attacked humanistic and social science disciplines as not only frivolous (an old charge as pertaining to the humanities) but also a waste of taxpayers’ money and students’ time.
The discussion that follows is important to all historians: whether or not you teach U.S. history (or teach at all, for that matter), or work for a public institution, in Texas or elsewhere. This is not because the NAS report from which it springs is particularly compelling. Like many of the participants in this discussion, I found the report to have serious methodological problems. It looked only at assigned readings, not at classes as a whole; it ignored the very significant institutional support that the Univ.
President Obama’s second inaugural offers all Americans food for thought, but it has particular valences for historians. Like so many in this genre, it draws on the past to legitimize particular values, to highlight what has been accomplished (and what has not), and to justify a definition of national character and purpose. Anyone who doubts the importance of historical thinking to these sorts of events need only to ponder the president’s frequent use of the past tense. As much as his focus is “this moment, and we will seize it,” as much as he reminds us that we “affirm the promise of our democracy,” he is actually situating us in the past, “recall[ing] what binds this nation together … an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago.” And what matters is what “history tells us,” at which point his verbs become past tense: “resolved … never relinquished … succumbed … have always understood … .”