We have had several interesting discussions about the views of former Williams visiting professor David Kaiser. Consider his 2000 article (pdf): “My War with the AHA.”

Essentially, a trend has developed over the last three decades not merely in favor of writing the history of hitherto neglected groups, including the poor, minorities, and women, but actively against writing the history of governments and their role in society or abroad. Exactly why this has happened is a complex question. Professional humanists are, alas, always eager for new approaches, since they help provide new generations of graduate students with dissertation topics. The new areas of study matched the political interests of a new generation of historians who sympathized instinctively with the disadvantaged, as, indeed, I always have myself. More recently, as shall see, the new emphasis has become connected to a new methodology which explicitly militates against studying white males, who, for better or for worse, have dominated modern western governments. And lastly, traditional but liberal historians like myself took a sympathetic view of the new history as a means of rounding out the profession, not realizing that it was instead likely to transform it entirely from the discipline to which we had decided to devote our lives.

Far from supporting the kind of history which I and others like me do–the kind of history which, since Thucydides, has helped western men and women to understand themselves and the political systems within which they have to live–the AHA actively opposes it and is progressively working to eliminate it. Council members will undoubtedly deny that that is their goal, and some of them will undoubtedly do so sincerely, but my story, I think–and many others besides–show very clearly that that is the effect of their policies. The organization is not worth saving, and with many of America’s finest historians joining the new, rival Historical Society–as I plan to do myself–it cannot be changed from within, the course that would have been my preference. I am sure the kind of history that the AHA now encourages is destined to wither and die, largely because it has nothing to contribute to society at large, and it seems quite possible that the AHA itself will wither and die along with it. If it does, so be it. History is, after all, a cycle of birth and death, and it is replete with stories of institutions which, like this one, have gone off the track and outlived their usefulness. I surrender, confident that time will vindicate my decision, and my fidelity to history of a different kind.

Comments:

1) Read the whole article for full context. I would be interested to read what Derek’s take is on Kaiser’s specific examples.

2) My central proposal/pipe-dream is that the next two historians that Williams hires be, first, an expert in US diplomatic history and, second, an expert in military history. The College has not had the former (except as visitors) since KC Johnson left more than a decade ago. Professor James Wood will be retiring soon. I do not expect that the College will do this because the people who run Williams do not think it is important to have such historians on the faculty. Anyone want to take the other side of that bet?

3) Kaiser wrote these words a decade ago. How is the “Historical Society” doing now?

UPDATE: Thanks to Professor McAllister for pointing out that Williams hired a US diplomatic historian, Jessica Chapman, 18 months ago. I am very glad to be wrong about that!

Facebooktwitter
Print  •  Email