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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 2

Subject:

Occupy and Historians - Demand a WPA Federal Writers' Project

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Date:

Thu, 8 Dec 2011 21:49:07 -0500

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Occupy and Historians - Demand a WPA Federal Writers' Project

Occupy the American Historical Association: Demand a WPA
Federal Writers' Project

by Jesse Lemisch
submitted by the author to Portside, with an updated
introduction

History News Network
November 28, 2011

http://hnn.us/articles/occupy-american-historical-association-demand-wpa-federal-writers-project

[Update: December 6, 2011 My "Occupy the American Historical
Association: Demand a WPA Federal Writers' Project" is
available on History News Network
http://hnn.us/articles/occupy-american-historical-association-demand-wpa-federal-writers-project 
and on Truthout
http://www.truth-out.org/occupy-american-historical-association-demand-wpa-federal-writers-project/1322689827

Earlier related exchanges between me and the AHA have just
come out in the December issue of AHA's Perspectives on
History including my "History is Worth Fighting For: Where
is the AHA?" "
http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2011/1112/Letter-History-is-Worth-Fighting-For.cfm (published earlier on
HNN); and the AHA's "Plan B: The Debate Continues..." with a
rebuttal by Lemisch
http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2011/1112/Letter-Plan-B-The-Debate-Continues.cfm (also published earlier
on HNN).

I will advocate a WPA for History as an invited panelist in
a special AHA annual meeting session in Chicago on "Jobs for
Historians," organized and chaired by AHA President Anthony
T. Grafton on January 6.]

===

As part of his program to deal with America's economic
catastrophe, economist Robert Reich has proposed a revival
of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration and Civilian
Conservation Corps.  Reich is hardly alone in putting forth
such notions - I advocated a new WPA Federal Writers'
Project ("History is Worth Fighting for, But Where is the
AHA?") - and it is so obvious an idea that it can hardly be
called ingenious.  But the American Historical Association
has responded to such ideas with lectures urging us to get
real:  AHA President Anthony T. Grafton and Executive
Director Jim Grossman have written in the AHA magazine
Perspectives that their goal is limited "to train[ing] fewer
historians or to find[ing] a more diverse array of
employment opportunities...,"  and they present us with what
they themselves deem "a very modest proposal."  They want to
limit the AHA's activities to "working within an existing
framework" and functioning as a "clearinghouse."  Mired in
the "pragmatic" politics of the Obama era, which have gotten
us into the deep hole that we are in, the AHA has not begun
to face the reality of the crisis in history.

Historians of the future will look back on this period in
the way that we now see the reassuring words offered in the
early stages of the Great Depression.  What can they have
been thinking, these historians of the future will ask.
What planet were they on?  With commendable intentions, the
best the AHA has thus far come up with is an exhortation to
prepare graduate students, fewer in number, for careers
outside of academe.  They seem to want to challenge a
hierarchical academic culture  which ranks non-academic
employment of historians as merely a "Plan B."  This is a
worthy endeavor.  But as a solution to the problem, it is
peeing in the wind:  finding it cruel to prepare students
for academic jobs which do not exist, they seek to prepare
them for non-academic jobs which also do not exist.  The
economic collapse that limits employment in academe also
limits employment in museums, archives, editorial fields,
governments on all levels, and private corporations.  So,
although we should certainly support the upsetting of
traditional snobberies which see academe as the only place
for historians,  it's cruel to urge graduate students to
look for non-academic jobs which  exist in fewer and fewer
numbers.  In short, what has been proposed by the AHA is
deck-chair stuff, while the society and the profession steam
ahead towards the iceberg.

Perhaps these issues will come to a head at the annual
meeting of the AHA in Chicago, January 5-8, 2012.  But the
weighty program booklet which members have received shows
almost no indication that it is a time of crisis.  Just
about all the AHA has come up with is to cut back,
suggesting that "American research universities are
overproducing overspecialized Ph.Ds for the existing
market." (For a presentation of such accommodationist
thinking as somehow heroic, see "More Universities Break the
Taboo and Talk to PhDs  About Jobs Outside Academe").  In
the meantime, the organization's president, Anthony Grafton,
has recently written "Our Universities: Why Are They
Failing?" in the New York Review of Books, with hardly a
word about the role of the collapse of public funding for
higher education. (Jeesus, just take a look at the wreckage
of the University of California - and the wonderful rising
student protests, which provide such a contrast to the AHA's
passivity.)  When I pointed out the crisis and proposed a
Federal Writers' Project, the AHA replied that it was
unrealistic.  This supposedly pragmatic centrism, which
deems reasonable solutions to hideous problems to be
utopian, is a sad mark of the Obama era, a time when many
liberal intellectuals are reverting to the conservatism of
what was called end of ideology.

We need a concrete program to face the crisis in history.
As a limited, practical and pragmatic solution for a
significant piece of the problem, we need a Federal Writers'
Project.  The WPA's FWP (1935-1943) employed 6,600 people,
and employment was its primary purpose.  They came from a
variety of fields, including but not limited to history.
The FWP's historical product was simply magnificent:  the
classic American Guide Series of the forty-eight states;
the slave narrative collection, consisting of more than
10,000 pages of interviews with former slaves; and the
Historical Records Survey.  The AHA should call for a new
federally-funded Federal Writers' Project, adapted to the
changed times, needs and technologies of today.  (The
original was  great, but not beyond criticism and
improvement.)  This idea has been kicking around in, around,
and in spite of, the AHA at least since the 1970s, when what
was then also described as an "oversupply" of PhDs led to
calls to shut down the innovative new PhD programs (e.g.
Northern Illinois University).  The answer that bubbled up
from the debate at the time was that history is a positive
good, important for society and civilization, and so the way
forward was to expand employment rather than to cut back.
This is truer than ever today - and history, with its
reasoned understanding of causality,  is more important than
ever at a time when irrationality is rampant in the society
and in its leadership.

Implementation

The American Historical Association has a duty to see the
crisis and to devise concrete plans to deal with it.
Between now and the opening of the annual meeting, the AHA's
Council should endorse the need for a Federal Writers'
Project.  (Try a conference call, folks.)  It should
implement this at the meeting itself with an emergency
plenary session to announce this endorsement and to present
for discussion by the membership a rough and preliminary
description of such a program.  It should publicize this and
move towards drafting legislation.  And it should begin the
important work of collaboration on this with other relevant
professional societies - including in particular the
Organization of American Historians.  The times are too
serious to allow further evasion of the grim reality. The
AHA was chartered by Congress to promote history. Let's do
it.

Note: My earlier essay, "History is Worth Fighting For," was
accepted by the AHA's Perspectives On History for
publication (albeit as a letter to the editor).  It has not
yet been published, while the magazine has moved ahead and
published Grafton and Grossman's "Plan C" (November 2011).
Author:

[Jesse Lemisch, author of "On Active Service in War and
Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical
Profession," is a Fifty-Year Member of the American
Historical Association. Contact the author at:
[log in to unmask] ]

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