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A WPA For History


The highly respected historian and radical Jesse Lemisch has taken the American Historical Association to task for its unwillingness to deal with the field’s employment crisis. Lemisch compares the AHA’s milquetoast market-speak to the lameness of Democratic Party solutions to the modern economic crisis. Both institutions have become infected with centrist market-oriented solutions to problems, a business model that has failed the country, leading to determined unemployment levels, millions of Americans giving up trying to look for work, and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Lemisch has a particular idea in mind that the AHA and other academic institutions like the Modern Language Association should promote–a WPA for academics. How do you put thousands of unemployed historians and others to work? You create work for them, a la the New Deal. Lemisch provides concrete examples of creating digital archives, bringing obscure primary sources to public light, compiling important demographic information from public records, writing biographies, and any number of other interesting projects.

If historians need work, the AHA should promote the creation of work.

Alas, the AHA has done a pathetic job of serving a useful purpose in guiding its unemployed members to a job. The ideas AHA leaders have created–more archivists, more public historians–are almost without value. All are being destroyed by the same broken model of government disinvestment and corporate profiteering that torpedoed the rest of the profession and much of the economy. Several AHA leaders have scoffed at Lemisch’s WPA for historians model, saying that the market will take care of it. Not only does the insistence of smart people to argue that “the market” is an independent entity uncontrolled by human actions bug the living heck out of me, it’s just not true. The market is not an invisible hand, it’s a series of decisions of governments, economists, everyday people, and employers that create policies by which a nation guides its economy. This rhetoric just obscures who is shifting the levers of the economy.

The other problem with promoting the WPA idea is inherent within the AHA. It is an organization of the elite historians, by the elite historians, for the elite historians. The rest of us just pay dues, or not. Leadership within the AHA is controlled by the most senior and respected academic historians at the most elite schools. They see the ultimate goal of a history Ph.D. as one thing only–an academic job. Those who don’t get that job must not be worthy. Those who are getting Ph.Ds at a school like the University of New Mexico are too lowly to count. This elitism is evident:

After the above was completed, new information came in that the reader should have in hand, since it calls into question the whole position that the AHA has taken previously. At the heart of what Grafton and Grossman have been seeking is a claim of anti-hierarchalism: in order to deal with the job crisis, they want to change the culture of the profession so that non-academic work will no longer be seen as “plan B,” but will rather be given dignity and respect equal to that of traditional scholarship and teaching. But in fact, the argument is a stalking horse for a new hierarchy in which PhDs from elite institutions will get what will still be seen as the real jobs as scholars, and the academic proletariat will have to settle for non-academic jobs.

Grafton (University of Chicago AB 1971, AM 1972, PhD 1975) is one of four contributors (three of whom, including Grafton, hold named chairs) to “How Can We Better Prepare PhD Students for Nonacademic Careers?” University of Chicago Magazine, January-February 2012. Grafton argues, as he has previously, for preparing history graduate students for careers outside academe. But he also stresses his agreement with Chicago sociology professor Andrew Abbott, who believes that “we should not at all modify our teaching, our aspirations, and our emphases. We are in the business of perpetuating critical scholarship… we should teach to the top of the market.” Grafton states in response: “I agree with Andy that we have to keep the knowledge machine rolling, and that elite departments should be teaching people to join that machine at the top… [emphasis added].

This is not surprising–top 20 institution historians want to perpetuate their own control of academic knowledge, setting everyone else adrift. That might be slightly more defensible if it was even clear that historians from those schools were doing that much better finding academic positions than those of us who excelled at less prestigious schools. Of course, like law schools, history PhD programs do a terrible job of tracking and publicizing information on the success of their students after they leave the program. You might know of the big star who got the Duke or Brown job, but what about the other 10 students of x professor whom you have never heard of? What are they doing? Who knows.

It’s probably true that a WPA for historians isn’t going to happen. We have to think realistically, we are told. But there are no good easy policy options without a radical change in how we allocate resources. Of course, the WPA isn’t even radical, but a proven success. And even if it’s not going to happen tomorrow, the leading organization of historians needs to commit itself to being a lobbying force to find members jobs. If it doesn’t do that, what good is it? Not much.

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