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Towers of Babel: New York’s Historical Enterprise

History’s Babel: Scholarship, Professionalization, and Historical Enterprise in the United States, 1880-1940, by Robert B. Townsend was just reviewed on H-Net. While I will not be purchasing the book (I have enough to read already!), the review struck home. .

The author was the deputy director of the American Historical Association (AHA) and much of the book is through the prism of that organization. As one might expect from the title, Townsend’s concern is the fragmentation of the historical enterprise into bunch of organizations that do not speak to each other. Does that sound at all like the New York historical enterprise today?

According to reviewer Brian M. Ingrassia, Townsend states on the first page that professional historians once saw their enterprises “as a vast panorama of activity [encompassing] popular history making, school teaching, and the work of historical societies.” In other words, once upon a time, the history profession extended beyond the realm of academia. The holy grail for historians today is research, but according to Townsend that was not originally true. At some point during the period 1880-1940 the historical enterprise splintered into separate professions representing research, pedagogy, and archival practice. Is it possible to imagine that in New York State there would be separate organizations and conferences for scholars, social studies teachers, and archivists?  Is it possible to imagine that once they were part of the same historical enterprise?.

Ingrassia’s review reports Townsend’s argument that the professional enterprise began to disintegrate during 1911-1925 and then scattered from 1926 to 1940. According to Townsend, the AHA “gradually paired its ambit of responsibility down to the interests of college professors and monograph writers” and that by 1940 “teachers at the secondary and collegiate levels and specialists in the archives and historical societies were essentially defined out of the larger project and voted with their feet by leaving the organization” (p. 8). They then created their own organizations. Townsend mentions the Society of American Archivists (1935) and the National Council for the Social Studies (1939) as examples of the splintering. He bemoans the fact that after 1940 “it was hard to find anyone actively trying to articulate a common vision of the historical enterprise that embraced all areas of work in the discipline” (p. 181).

This development represented a reversal from the earlier days. Back then professional historians often held non-academic jobs including in state historical societies and archives. This condition puts into context not only the creation of the municipal historian positions under New York State law, but the requirements/job description that called for academic writings by appointed historians. What is now considered to be a huge gap between what municipal historians do and/or should do,  was not true early in the 20th century – they were expected to be professional historians in the academic sense. This golden era in municipal historians was short-lived.

In his review, Ingrassia says Townsend’s focus is somewhat narrowly based on the AHA and related institutions. It is not an intellectual history. Still as one considers the fractured and impotent state of the historical enterprise in New York State today, we should also recognize that the state story is part of a national story. Knowing that doesn’t change the problems that the historical community in New York State faces today; it just helps us to understand how it happened. So while it remains theoretically possible to end the babel, it’s just not likely.


2 thoughts on “Towers of Babel: New York’s Historical Enterprise

  1. Do the “Yorkers” still exist?

    They’d been “junior members of the New York State Historical Association”; from an issue of The Yorker: “any young person, interested in history, is eligible for membership. Most Yorkers are members of a local Yorker Club, usually (but not necessarily) formed in their junior or senior high school. Club members participate in a variety of community-oriented activities which help stimulate an interest in and an awareness of local history. The range of club activities is limited only by the imagination and vigor of its members and advisers.”

    There’d also been this, but possibly it no longer exists:
    “The State History Interest Project (SHIP) was formed in 1999 by former members of the New York State Historical Association’s Yorker program.
    “Yorkers began in 1942 and SHIP is following in its fine tradition of providing students with opportunities to study, explore, serve in, compete in and enjoy history-related and heritage-related activities.
    “SHIP’s program provides opportunities for students to investigate all aspects of history and heritage with a special focus on New York State and local history and a particular emphasis on hands-on activities that relate directly to the standards-based history curriculum offered by the New York State Department of Education.”

  2. Peter –

    Sort of like imagining the Western Front in 1918 as all foxholes and no connecting trenches. That would have been an avenue of even more hideous disasters. The foxholes in which we fight now, whatever they may be, keep us fragmented. I’ve been in the public history business for 43 years as of today and teaching at the college level for 32; I wish I could say I have seen signal improvement in the general, mucky, historical situation.

    Bob Arnold

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