I was late to the field of history, returning to academe after a long career in journalism. It was challenging to absorb so much new information, to pass comprehensive exams without notes, and to withstand the scrutiny of a dissertation committee, when the calendar suggested retirement might have been a more logical preoccupation. In fact, upon my graduation with a PhD in history from American University in 2016, I quipped that I was the only student who had matriculated directly from the student health care plan to Medicare.
But my six years as a doctoral student were instrumental in convincing me that scholars were the guardians of critical thinking. Journalists, and I was no exception, tend to flit from topic to topic with little understanding of the rich, complex, and nuanced soil on which those issues stand. Historians prize archival research that illuminates and sometimes topples the earthly foundation of known history. I was proud to sign up as a member of the American Historical Association. My father, a financial planner and amateur historian, had been a member of the AHA for many years, often taking the whole family to annual meetings to absorb the latest in scholarly thinking. His favorite aspect of the annual meetings was the Book Hall. For days he would stalk the hall, searching out the books he wanted to buy. And on the convention’s last day, when all books were 50% off, he made the rounds in tennis shoes, collecting his favorites and shipping home over the years perhaps a ton of books.
Now my own books were on those tables. In the years after graduation, I published several books of history — Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought For Women’s Right to Vote (NYU Press, 2017) and And Yet They Persisted: How American Women Won the Right to Vote (Wiley Press, 2019) — wrote journal articles, gave speeches, and was invited to become a scholar in residence at American University. I felt part of the historians’ inner circle.
Then 2020 happened. It happened to all of us, in ways shocking and reassuring. For me, this was the year that changed my view of the historian’s creed. I no longer see the field as promoting the hard task of critical thinking or of deep archival research. Instead, I see the discipline as succumbing to the gods of political correctness.
In 2020, when history most needed defenders, the AHA was silent.
When anarchists defaced as a “colonizer” Matthias Baldwin in Philadelphia, an abolitionist who funded a school for black children, the AHA was silent.
When statues of Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant, and Abraham Lincoln were threatened, the AHA was silent.
And when the New York Times promulgated a theory that the United States was founded not in 1776 but in 1619, founded not for religious freedom and economic opportunity but for the perpetuation of slavery, it fell to a group of senior historians — Gordon S. Wood, James H. McPherson, Sean Wilentz, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes — to object. Because again, the AHA was silent.
During this same period, the AHA spent its editorial muscle on matters that might be better left to political commentators — criticizing President Trump for his convention acceptance speech at the White House, blasting him for predicting that mail-in ballots might lead to fraud, deploring the White House conference that targeted critical race theory. These issues are controversies of contemporary moment. In 2020, meanwhile, the substance of historic memory was playing out on the streets of America’s major cities. And on these, the AHA was silent.
The National Association of Scholars, meanwhile, was issuing substantive reports on contemporary dangers to the art of critical thinking. The most telling to me, The Lost History of Western Civilization by Stanley Kurtz, documents how academic activists castigated as warmongers and imperialists the great thinkers of Western Civilization — among them Plato, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, and Milton — in the process dumbing down their teaching and endangering the future of an educated public.
These days I am writing a book of historical fiction, listening to Peter W. Wood’s 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project (Encounter Books, 2020), and joining the National Association of Scholars. It is here I feel at home, at last.
Johanna Neuman holds a PhD in history from American University. She is the author of two books, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought For Women’s Right to Vote (NYU Press, 2017) and And Yet They Persisted: How American Women Won the Right to Vote (Wiley Press, 2019).
Image: Chris McKenna, Public Domain