Saturday, June 5, 2010

Award Winning Blogger Slams the Organization of American Historians

Larry Cebula, the author of the award winning blog Northwest History, will not be renewing his membership in the Organization of American Historians. Here is his letter to OAH president David Hollinger:

Dear David Hollinger:

I will not be renewing my OAH membership. Here is why:

1. The OAH offers no lobbying or leadership in history-related public policy. When the stimulus bill was being created, the OAH and AHA made no efforts that I am aware of to secure funding for history. I blogged about the opportunity (
1, 2, 3, 4) and also contacted your organization and the American Historical Association. I was told by the executive leadership of both organizations that the National Coalition for History does their lobbying for them--but the NCH did nothing either so far as I know. A once-in-two-lifetimes opportunity passed us by due to a lack of leadership from your organization. Now it looks like the Obama administration is about to eliminate the Teaching American History grants, which have pumped almost a billion dollars into history education. I have received no communication from the OAH about this, and there is not a word about it on your new website.

2. The OAH is largely unresponsive to the changing nature of the profession. I sent a long critique of the OAH Draft Strategic Plan and
posted a version of it here on my blog. After the report was finalized I asked what changes had been made in response to member feedback and was told that there was no record of what had been changed. I can't see that anything was changed.

3. The committee that was supposed to issue guidelines for tenuring public historians (3 years ago?) has not completed its work and even the draft report is no longer available. Some of us are going up for tenure and could use the voice of the OAH to convince our more traditional colleagues that our work should count in this process.

I am sorry if this is all too blunt, but I thought it would be better to explain my departure than just to drift away. When I think of the OAH I think of an uneven annual conference and--well, that is it. The conference is the tail that seems to wag the dog. I don't see where the OAH has any voice at all in the digital history world of blogs and news feeds and such, and I don't see where it does any meaningful advocacy for the profession. If I am not going to the conference, I can't see why I would join.



Cebula has some excellent points. I have also wondered why the OAH did not get involved in saving the Teaching American History grant program. What a loss for the study of American history in this country! If it was not for the Journal of American History, I would probably let my membership lapse as well.


Tom Van Dyke said...

An very interesting quango, a cross between a PC Vatican and a teacher's union.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx again, John. Your blog inspires me, although not exactly in harmony with its sentiments. Comment invited, as always. Keep on keepin' on, JF.

I grew that last remark over at

Mark:I am pretty skeptical of the attempt to paint any "conservative" approach to American history as somehow more ideologically biased than any of the "progressive" history that has been stylish for so long.

Cool. I'm still waiting to find out the true story of the Texas curriculum fight [and I don't expect we ever will]. I don't trust the accounts from the mainstream media, and certainly not blogs who largely took their info from the highly partisan Texas Freedom Network, whatever that is.

I have no doubt the new standards overstep, but I've seen no account of the flaws of the previous regime either, to compare and contrast.

Via John Fea's blog, I found something called The Organization of American Historians, which wrote a letter of protest against the new Texas standards because it

"supports the efforts of the professionally trained educators of Texas to achieve and maintain a history curriculum that reflects the basic consensus of scholarship."

I do not know what this means. Truth is not necessarily scholarly consensus. I won't go into the political leanings of the majority of the scholarly academy [which would compose that consensus] except to say it cannot be accused of leaning to the right.

The OAH continues,

The Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians, an association with nearly 9,000 members, calls upon officials of the state of Texas to adopt a history curriculum that reflects the understanding of history developed by the historians and history teachers of Texas.

Ah. Leave it to the "professionals," leave your kids to us, and shut the hell up.

That's not how we do things in this here USA. Beware "quangos," "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations," which is to say they are democratically unaccountable, and which are on the verge of running the UK.

I mean, at least we can still vote in a new president or governor or school board to ride herd on the bureaucracy. Quangos are untouchable, run by and for their members. You can't vote a quango out.

Well, Texas just did, and good on them. That's my meta-argument.

As for "scholarly" or "professional" consensus, I'm confident that if Texas' standards followed the relatively uncontroversial and roundly respected Gordon S. Wood [who won this blog's poll as favorite historian], that whole showdown and circus in Texas would never have happened.

[Like you, Mark, I prefer a fresh bite on the study of history based on the original sources, so I only come across academic establishment historians in dribs and drabs. If I were forced to put Gordon Wood on the political spectrum, it would be to the right of center, but not unacceptably so, even to the academy at large. Perhaps I'm wrong on this, tho. I don't keep up with the academy.]

Again, I don't want to get into the tall weeds of what actually happened in Texas, since the points of contention would be drawn largely from newspaper and partisan reports, which I frankly don't trust, and I stipulate in advance they overstepped, which surely they did.

My main desire is for epistemological clarity---clarity being more important than agreement---and to repeat my main argument, that if the Texas schools had been teaching American history in the Gordon Wood vein, this mess wouldn't have happened in the first place.