Anthony Grafton, president of the AHA in 2011, wrote in his inaugural column in Perspectives on History that “Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed.”
In that spirit, with the firm belief that we best understand the present when we more fully comprehend the past, the AHA is continuing its series of Roundtables on the presidential debates of 2012.
Do vice presidential debates matter? That seemed to be the question of the day, the one that dominated the airwaves before and after last night’s debate. From our perspective as historians, we are certain that they do matter, even if they don’t generate a bump in the polls or a defining moment in the campaign. For the historian, they are responses to long-standing trends and further evidence of the importance of understanding the past.
Our Roundtable on the vice presidential debate features historians responding as historians.
As a community of historians the AHA believes that public discourse on any topic benefits from historical context and historical thinking. In that vein we have asked a group of historians to comment on last night’s presidential debate as historians. We leave the punditry to the pundits; the partisanship to the politicians. Our role is to offer the benefit of historical thinking and historical context.
After listening to the first half hour of the debate, I began to wonder whether this forum might be more effective on the web site of the American Mathematical Society. But the end, however, it did indeed become clear that from the principles of nation’s founding documents to the use of evidence, and the ways in which we construct historical narratives of the recent past, the debate was indeed rooted in context. As Gwen Ifill observed afterwards, “They spent an awful lot of time talking about the past.”
—James Grossman, Executive Director, American Historical Association
“Both candidates should feel ashamed. If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they’ll be mortified at the contrast. On the other hand, both doubtless realize that these 2012 debates are exercises in pure wishful thinking. They are premised on the idea that a new president can decide what to do on entering the White House.
The AHA announces a series of online forums featuring prominent historians commenting on the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential debates. This conversation is part of an ongoing AHA Roundtable, arising from the Association’s commitment to injecting historical thinking into public culture. For each debate we have assembled approximately four to five historians working in fields likely to be covered, and asked them to provide us with their responses by the following morning.
The AHA Roundtable series brings together professional historians to offer historically informed commentary on current events.
Last week, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced that he had received instructions from the governor’s office to reduce his department’s budget, declaring in a statement:
To meet the required cuts, it is with great remorse that I have to announce, effective November 1, 2012, the Georgia Archives located in Morrow, GA will be closed to the public. The decision to reduce public access to the historical records of this state was not arrived at without great consternation. To my knowledge, Georgia will be the only state in the country that will not have a central location in which the public can visit to research and review the historical records of their government and state.
If it’s budget season on Capitol Hill, it’s time, it appears, for attacks on academic research. As early as next week, the U.S. Senate will consider, among many other issues, a gauntlet thrown down by the House on political science funding.
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit the National Science Foundation (NSF) from using any of its 2013 funds on its political science program. The budget amendment, introduced by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), passed the House 218–208.
The recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, on the struggles of Ph.D. students and graduates on public assistance, raises a vitally important issue, one that deserves the full discussion now taking place online. I was glad to provide comments for the article, but, no doubt, space constraints made a fuller quotation of my longer replies to the Chronicle impossible. So here, to help continue the conversation, are two additional follow-up questions submitted to me via email on March 30, 2012, and my complete, unedited replies.
The AHA Council has passed the following statement on recently proposed legislation in Michigan:
Academic freedom is indispensable to the educational enterprise. The AHA deplores efforts of legislators and other public officials to override the professional judgment of college and university faculty in curricular matters broadly defined. Faculty must remain in control of decisions such as establishing curriculum, creating syllabi, choosing reading material and making other kinds of assignments, and providing research opportunities for their students. Partisan political meddling is bad both for the educational development of students and for the pursuit of knowledge.