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Should Historians Leave the Ivory Tower and Become Social Advocates?: The Political Consequences


Should historians leave the ivory tower and become social advocates? The question was raised in the current issue of American Historical Review (AHR) in an article by Karlos K. Hill entitled “Community-Engaged History: A Reflection on the 100th Anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.” Much of the article chronicles the author’s own participation in the commission for that anniversary. Those actions are not the subject of this post. Instead, his comments about the role of the historian are.


The first part of the article describes the actions of one hundred years ago and some afterwards. Part II of the article begins with:

THERE IS A GREAT DEAL OF DISAGREEMENT about how historians should best engage with their communities and with the communities impacted by the histories they study.

Hill then refers to an earlier exchange in AHR on “Historians and Native American and Indigenous Studies.” That exchange was the subject of two previous blogs here Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode and Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS). Hills takes issue with historian David Silverman’s criticisms of the other scholars in this exchange and adds:

…his anxiety over what is rigorous, objective history gets to the heart of what I have been mulling. I suggest that as historians we can do legitimate scholarship that advances the field while simultaneously engaging our communities in ways that confront and address the present-day legacies of anti-Black violence and racial injustice. Working on the history of the Tulsa massacre has shown me that community-engaged history is not methodologically dubious; it is substantive and effectual.

Fair enough. Historians disagree on the value of a certain investigative approach and of the potential dangers of bringing personal agendas into community-engaged history particularly if the scholar is a member of the community. However Hill overlooks the consequences if that approach is applied in other communities such as a Confederate one.

Hill then adds a new wrinkle to the debate:

I write this as a scholar whose identity has evolved to be in service to the community. A few years ago, I had reached a point where conferences and papers and books were not enough to keep my passion alive. I found myself asking, How does scholarship live in the world, connected to real-world issues for my community that are complex and unique?

As I read this, Hill is stating that a scholar should do exactly what Silverman criticized scholars for doing.

But each historian has different subject expertise, a different skill set, and different passions, and therefore being a catalyst for progressive, inclusive social change will differ for each of us, depending on where we are situated.

Again, as I read Hill, he presupposes that historians should be advocates for progressive inclusive change. The only difference is that different historians will advocate for different communities based on their different expertise and passions. The concept of “ivory tower” scholarship or “objective” scholarship has been cast aside.

Hill arrived at this point based on his own personal experiences.

I am tired. I am burned out because of the realities of being a Black man in America and being a Black scholar in academia in Oklahoma. I am burned out because the American history I study is violent and difficult even though it is so important….   And yet here I am. I persist in doing work as a historian that I think is essential for healing and change.

Hill is quite open about his definition of a historian: the historian should be a catalyst for progressive and inclusive social change to heal the historian’s community.

He declares that:

we (historians) possess tremendous power to promote social justice in ways that align with community goals, healing, and identity making.

He is especially concerned with what is taught is schools and what is taught to the teachers who teach in those schools. In Section III, Hill observes that in Oklahoma, while Tulsa now is included in the social studies standards, “there has been no statewide effort to create a curriculum to teaching it.” The rest of the section includes his recounting of his teacher-training workshops to address that shortcoming. He concludes with:

What is it that people are really asking? The answer that I am sitting with and mulling right now is this: Accurate, engaging history of racial violence that is rooted in the real needs of community members who are still feeling the tremors of the horror triggers people to imagine a future that they never had thought possible before. And in enabling that kind of reimagining, it also enables self-actualization.

Add “self- actualization” of the community to the job description of historians.

In the final section, Hill reflects on the lessons the learned from his experience with the commission. One methodological lesson was in the value and difficulty of teamwork. It is difficult because “Not many of us learned in our PhD programs how to conduct collaborative research.” Here is a specific change recommendation. I wonder if there is a difference in the training of public historians than for academic historians. Public historians are not trained to be “ivory-tower” historians and have more experience working the communities their museums and history organizations serve than do academic historians.

Hill observes that his “work with the Centennial Commission has reaffirmed for me the tremendous power historians have to effect societal change.” His final thoughts express the path he believes historians should take:

Social change occurs because I know they care, and I believe they will live in the world differently because of the community we have built. In my view, this is what historians can do to help bring about social justice. Our most important credential in building relationships with the community is not our expert knowledge but our desire to serve.

Historians should serve the community.

Hill shows himself to be a strong proponent of mandates provided they are the right ones. After all, suppose the views of anther community are diametrically opposed to the progressive inclusive social change advocated by Hill? Doesn’t that community have the same right for historians to serve them? Then it becomes a battle to the death in local school board elections everywhere or at the state level such as in Virginia.


What makes a mandate good or bad is in the eye of the beholder. In the current issue of Perspectives on History” by the American Historical Association (AHA) [Yes, I am a member and receive print copies of these two publications], James Grossman and Beth English, the executive directors of the AHA and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) respectively co-authored an article on combatting misinformation. Their concern was that “The Integrity of History Education Is at Stake.”

They reported that AHA and OAH were part of a coalition of over 25 organizations called “Learn from History.” The goal of the coalition is to

combat deliberate misinformation about the current state of history education and the ways that historians write about and teach the centrality of racism to the evolution of American institutions. 

This coalition was not the first foray of AHA and OAH into the political arena. Previously they had joined 147 organizations

…to condemn legislation that was introduced or enacted in 27 state legislatures with the aim of discouraging or prohibiting the straightforward coverage of topics in which issues of racism, sexism, and other “divisive” concepts arise.

The coalition expressed concern for teachers who face retribution for daring to defy such mandates. They “oppose cynical, politically motivated attempts to misrepresent what is taught in history classrooms…”

Welcome to the political arena. These history organizations are now officially part of the culture wars as warriors against the Trumpicans. There are consequences to that political stand.


To complete this trifecta of AHA publications, I turn to “A Snapshot of the Public’s Views on History” from the website. Here is a snapshot of the lessons learned from the survey.

First, our respondents had consistent views on what history is—and those views often ran counter to those of practicing historians. Whereas the latter group usually sees the field as one offering explanations about the past, two-thirds of our survey takers considered history to be little more than an assemblage of names, dates, and events…. In sum, poll results show that, in the minds of our nation’s population, raw facts cast a very long shadow over the field of history and any dynamism therein.

Social change, actualization, progressive inclusion were not attributes associated with historians. Hill would agree hence his call for a change in historians.

We also learned that the places the public turned to most often for information about the past were not necessarily the sources it deemed most trustworthy.

The top three sources involved films and TV in some manner. College courses and history lectures ranked towards the bottom. Visits to historic sites and museums were in the middle. Fortunately for the history profession, when it came to the trustworthiness of the various venues, the results were reversed. Museums and history organizations were held in high regard and films and TV not so much. One caveat I would add, is that people nationwide can see the same movies and TV shows and remember them while visitations tend to be local and smaller scale. I venture to say people know more about Spartacus from Hollywood than history.

As historians become political advocates for their community and take a stand in the cultural wars, the inevitable consequence is to jeopardize that aura of trustworthiness.

Another key point from my perspective is the correlation between what people think history is and the way history is taught. History is not simply an assemblage of names, dates, and events but if that is the way it is taught then that is how it will be defined by students who become adult voters.

So what are the lessons to be learned from this perusal of recent publications by the American Historical Association?

1. Historians are warriors in culture wars.
2. Historians accept the concept of legislated mandates provided they are the right ones.
3. In a community-based history approach, historians have the right to serve both Confederate and Union communities.
4. Every school board election is or will be a battlefield.
5 .To change the meaning of history to the public requires changing the way it is taught as a series of facts (dates, names, places).

The national narrative has unraveled. It will continue to do so as we approach July 4, 2026. And the country will unravel as well as separate communities teach separate truths and no one develops a national narrative for the 21st century.

History Education and the Organization of American Historians Conference

This blog is a continuation of a report on the cancelled conference of the Organization of American Historians. For the first post go to The Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference: What Would Have Been Presented? and the second post Organization of American Historians Conference: II. The first two post focused on the Plains Indians. For whatever reason, the Woodland Indians were the not the subject of the presentations. In this post, the focus is on teaching history.

The following presentations are mainly educational and related to the challenges in teaching.

Teaching Hard History: Preparing Students to Teach about American Slavery

Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2018 drew attention to the need to do a better job teaching about the nation’s history of slavery in American schools. Participants at this session will use the “Teaching Hard History: A Framework for Teaching American Slavery” and “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” report (both 2018) and draw on their experience working with secondary teachers to address ways to teach both the history of slavery and its persistent legacy for the nation.

This description serves as the introduction to a sessions with multiple presentations on this topic.

Teaching Students to Critically Evaluate How Slavery Is Taught

In 2018 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) published a scathing report about how slavery is taught in American schools. The report demonstrates that teachers feel uncomfortable teaching about slavery, textbooks inadequately address slavery, and students have a limited understanding of slavery. To supplement their report, the authors produced a guide for teachers to help them bring slavery into the classroom in a more intentional way that will enable students to gain a thorough and nuanced understanding of slavery.

In my presentation, I will discuss how I integrated the SPLC report into my U.S. history survey. After spending two class sessions teaching students about slavery in the antebellum South, I assigned the report and asked students to reflect on their K–12 experiences learning about slavery. Then, using the textbook rubric provided by the SPLC, they evaluated our course textbook. Finally, exploring the resources provided in the supplementary material, students designed lesson plans for teaching slavery. Flipping the perspectives of students by having them look at slavery from a teacher’s perspective enhanced their understanding of slavery, enabled them to identify the problems with how slavery is taught, and provided opportunities to address those problems. By sharing my success with this approach, my presentation will provide an effective model for teaching slavery to undergraduates, and more generally demonstrate the benefits for students when the class is turned upside down and they are asked to investigate how a historical topic is taught.

Presented By Daniel Phillip Kotzin, Medaille College

Teaching Difficult Racial Histories in Post–Civil Rights America

The papers in this session address both the history of teaching about race and innovative pedagogical techniques for teaching the histories of racial discrimination, American Indians, and slavery. Teaching about race and race relations became a much more important part of history curricula at every level in the 1960s, as the influence of the Civil Rights movement, Black Nationalism, the American Indian movement, La Raza, and other organizations that supported minority rights impelled educators to incorporate previously neglected topics into the curriculum and in classrooms ranging from elementary schools to colleges and universities.

Educators and activists sought not only to include the history of minority groups in the curriculum, but to change the way that race relations and history were taught. Because teaching about race relations was a new topic, it inspired new pedagogies. Collectively, these papers offer a history of the inclusion of race into the curriculum and a look at significant approaches to teaching race from the 1960s to the present, ranging from to innovative pedagogies on American Indians to “flipped” classrooms in which students interrogate the way that slavery is taught in schools and textbooks to simulation games designed to model racial inequality. 

This description serves as the introduction to a sessions with multiple presentations on this topic.

Role-Playing, Poverty, and Race in the Simulation Games “Ghetto” and “Blacks & Whites”

This paper examines two widely used classroom simulation games to analyze debates over race relations, poverty, social science, and pedagogy in the 1960s and 1970s. Social scientists and policy makers devoted enormous attention to racial inequality, segregation, and ghettos from the 1940s into the 1970s, as the civil rights and black power movements confronted racial inequality in the United States. As scholars strove to understand America’s combustible race relations, simulation games generated enormous enthusiasm among many social scientists and educators, who believed that these games enabled both scholars and students to model social problems, understand them more intuitively, and explore possible solutions to them.

Proponents believed that gaming, unlike textbooks and lectures, offered a dynamic and interactive learning experience that permitted students to engage in role-playing and understand the gestalt of a social problem. The simulation games Ghetto, created by social worker Dove Toll and the Johns Hopkins Game Program in 1969, and Blacks & Whites, devised by two professors of psychology and the magazine Psychology Today in 1970, sought to provide players a vicarious experience of the hardships endured by black Americans—poverty, racial discrimination, and residential segregation.

These simulation games sought to reveal to players the near impossibility of keeping one’s head above water when one’s income remained below the poverty line. The games’ designers believed that these simulations would cause players to recognize the difficulty of climbing out of poverty, give players a better understanding of poverty and race relations, and imbue them with more empathy for the poor. Both Ghetto and Blacks & Whites focused principally on the lack of sufficient income and residential segregation that afflicted black Americans. Ghetto’s rules and structure emphasized that poor blacks lacked the economic resources to propel themselves out of poverty or improve conditions in the ghetto, while Blacks & Whites encouraged role-play, empathy, and focused on residential segregation. Modeling economic inequality and residential segregation was comparatively straightforward, but modeling racism and racial discrimination proved much more elusive. Ghetto and Blacks & Whites arose from social scientists’ effort to understand race relations in the 1960s, but these board games could hardly capture the gestalt of ghetto life or gauge the pervasiveness and irrationality of American racism.

Presented By Chris A. Rasmussen, Fairleigh Dickinson University

Educational Inequality and Native Americans: The Historical Development of Standards for Teaching Native American History

Prior to the 1970s, textbooks rarely addressed American Indian history seriously. Instead, Native Americans were more often presented as obstacles to progress. With the rise of the American Indian Movement and its precursor movements in the 1960s, some scholars and activists became interested in reforming how American Indian history was taught in schools. American Indian educators began organizing in 1969, and in 1970 formally created the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). Academic conferences were organized on the topic. In 1970 Jeanette Henry and her husband, Rupert Costo, edited a collection of essays entitled Textbooks and the American Indian. The couple would go on to spearhead the development of statewide educational standards for teaching about American Indian history in California public schools. Hundreds of thousands of children were taught lesson plans that Henry and Costo created, in which children constructed miniature models of missions and learned about their Indian inhabitants.

This paper analyzes how the reformist curriculum was influenced by the ideas that activists had regarding Indian identity and culture. The activists were concerned not only with educating non-Indians but also with educating Indian children. They wanted to remedy low academic achievement among the Native American population and believed that incorporating American Indian culture into the curriculum might be one way to address historical inequality. The reform movement not only tackled K–12 issues but also led to the development of an institution of higher education for American Indian students. Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University (aka D-Q University) was founded in Davis as a two-year college in 1971. It was the first college for Indians established in California and one of the first few in the United States.

This paper traces the development of K–12 standards for teaching Native American history in California, comparing and contrasting this process with similar developments in several other states. The paper examines the roles and contributions of the major participants in this process. By the twenty-first century, the methods and lesson plans of the 1970s progressives were coming under fire for working with stereotypical conceptions of Indian identity and for not being progressive enough. The paper also analyzes the recent criticism of the standards and how the standards are evolving in response to critics.

Presented By Thomas Brown, Virginia Wesleyan University

How to teach American history was a concern expressed at the conference. What should the infamous introductory survey college course include? I don’t know the answer, but as you can see from the four session titles below, it is a topic that college professors are struggling with.

Current Trends in Teaching the U.S. History Survey Course

Is the U.S. History Survey Course Dead? A Discussion of the Viability of the U.S. History Survey Course

From College to High School Classrooms: Closing the Gap in Teaching U.S. History Curriculum

Textbooks and Teaching 2020: Teaching the Introductory U.S. History Course in the Age of “Student Success”

Obviously education was a big topic at the conference.  Unfortunately the abstracts and session titles provide only a brief glimpse into what was presented. These are sessions where it does help to be there in person, to have the opportunity to participate in a discussion, to talk with people after the session has ended during the break or even over a meal. An online presentation with a lot of strangers doesn’t quite permit the same ease of communication as would be possible in person. These topics also show what can be discussed at the smaller conferences of teachers and the history community at the country, state, and regional level.

What’s New at the Organization of American Historians (OAH)

The Organization of American Historians (OAH) held its annual conference earlier this month. The OAH was founded in 1907and is the largest professional society dedicated to the teaching and study of American history. It represents more than 7,800 historians working in the U.S. and abroad. Its members include college and university professors, precollegiate teachers, archivists, museum curators, public historians, students, and a variety of scholars employed in government and the private sector. Its mission is to promote excellence in the scholarship, teaching, and presentation of American history, and to encourage wide discussion of historical questions and the equitable treatment of all practitioners of history.

This blog represents another in a series reporting on the sessions at history-related conferences. Sometimes I am able to attend such conferences, sometimes I am not. This one I did not attend. Unfortunately the online program does not include abstracts as the National Council on Public History (see conference report). It would be nice if all conference abstracts were posted online.

This conference report will be divided into two parts. The first, below, covers content sessions. The second encompasses outreach and education by history organizations. Once again, these sessions provide an example of what is being discussed and may offer suggestions for sessions at local, state, and regional conferences.

Many of these content sessions are on early American history. That may be a reflection of my own personal interests. If you are interested in reviewing all the sessions at the conference go to

I start with some general discussion sessions such as on a new book or about a big theme. These sessions are better served by a YouTube video than an abstract for people who were not present. Nonetheless, they reveal the types of discussions the historians are having.

Considering Synthesis and Narrative: Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of
the United States Solicited by the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR)

Jill Lepore’s These Truths is the first major narrative history of the United States to be published in recent years. It is also the first of its kind authored by a woman and by a person of Lepore’s generation. Lepore has written extensively on the problems of narrative and interpretation facing U.S. historians, and she has also written successfully for a very broad audience in both her books and in essays for the New Yorker. This session brings together scholars with very different specialties and interests to reflect on Lepore’s approach and her achievement.

Chair: David Waldstreicher, City University of New York
Commentator and Panelist: Jill Lepore, Harvard University

Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School
David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley
Malinda Lowery, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Jeff Pasley, University of Missouri
Claire Potter, The New School

Rethinking Early America: New Perspectives and Enduring Questions
Solicited by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

The recent publication of John Murrin’s Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic (Oxford, 2018), which brings together essays written over four decades, affords an opportunity to take stock of some of the central categories that structure our understanding of vast early America: empire, the Atlantic world, politics, and Anglicization. Participants will offer a series of brief paired remarks (Fred Anderson and Elizabeth Ellis on empire; Alison Games and Max Mishler on the Atlantic world; Caitlin Fitz and Daniel Richter on politics; Andrew Shankman and Kariann Yokota on Anglicization) to highlight the multiple perspectives on key categories.

Chair and Commentator: Jane Kamensky, Harvard University

Fred Anderson, University of Colorado Boulder
Elizabeth Ellis, New York University
Caitlin Fitz, Northwestern University
Alison Games, Georgetown University
Max Mishler, University of Toronto
Daniel Richter, University of Pennsylvania
Andrew Shankman, Rutgers University–Camden
Kariann Yokota, University of Colorado, Denver

State of the Field: Early America in Broad Perspective

Each scholar in this session, focusing on a different region and, to some degree, topic within the history of early North America, ponders the relationship of a wide geographical frame and its capacity to illuminate structures and systems to methodological challenges. From ethical approaches to the far-reaching archives of slavery and ongoing concern with generating a textured social history of enslaved people, to the ways analyses of culture, gender, and region fit within global interpretations of colonialism and the continuing struggle to integrate the northern regions of New Spain into early America, the panel evaluates the balance between early America and the intimate histories of colonial places and processes.


Marisa Fuentes, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Susanah Romney, New York University
Brett Rushforth, University of Oregon
Steven Hackel, University of California, Riverside

This next session is the type of session I enjoy. It address how we remember people and events in history and how those memories help construct and define our identities as Americans. This is a session where it would be very useful to have the abstracts to get some idea of what each presenter said.

Taking Liberties: Memory, Myth, and Identity in Early America
Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH), the Western History Association, and the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR)

Chair: Rosemarie Zagarri, George Mason University
Commentator: Michael Hattem, New York Historical Society
“Tortured for no other crime than their knowledge”: Public Memory of Puritan Persecution in New England Congregationalist Political Culture during the Imperial Crisis J. Patrick Mullins, History Department, Marquette University
Contested Memory: Fashioning History in Early America Amanda Rumba, Purdue University / Ivy Tech Community College
Obnoxious and Disliked: How John Adams Constructed His Own Historical Narrative
Marianne Holdzkom, Kennesaw State University
Clamoring for a National Eschatology: Cultivating Visions of the Future Surrounding the War of 1812 Eran Zelnik, California State University, Chico

These next two sessions cover two sacred settings in American history – the Civil War and baseball stadiums. In both cases it would be useful to have the abstracts of the presentations. The baseball session is the type of session where people relax and have some fun; the Civil War session likely was more serious in tone.

Holy Grounds: Religion and the Meaning of the American Founding in the Civil War Era
Solicited by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)

Chair and Commentator: Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University
Higher Principles, Common Law, and the Constitution: Transcendentalism’s Evolving Democratic Theory Benjamin Park, Sam Houston State University
The Foreign Roots of American Spiritual Exceptionalism Joel Iliff, Baylor University
“That Thy way may be known upon earth”: Appropriating Covenant Theology for a Confederate Republic Pearl Young, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Stadium Wars: Sports Venue Construction, Urban Politics, and Social Change in the 1960s
and 1970s

Chair and Commentator: Bruce Kuklick, University of Pennsylvania
Does Downtown Matter? Dodger Stadium and the Battle for Modern Los Angeles
Jerald Podair, Lawrence University
The Astrodome and the Promise of an Integrated Houston Seth S. Tannenbaum, Temple University
Building Stadiums to Become Big League in Kansas City and Oakland
Matthew Ehrlich, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The final session here was based on the commercial movie The Green Book but as a documentary on the conditions at the time the Green Book was published. The Green Book was included in two previous blogs:  Negroes and the American Dream: Hidden Figures, Open Dreams (3/11/18) and Fifty Years an African-American: Is It Time for a Change? (4/3/18).

The Challenges of Driving While Black: The Green Book and Other Coping Mechanisms

The panel will include a new National Endowment for the Humanities–funded film on the Green Book Travel Guide for African American drivers in the 1940s and 1950s. They hope the film will be a catalyst for discussions about race and law enforcement, since the idea of driving, vacationing, and taking to the road generally seem to resonate with a wide spectrum of Americans—not just with people of color. The panel will expand the discussion beyond the green book to other challenges facing African American travelers in the twentieth century and more recently.

Commentators and Panelists: Craig Wilder, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Thomas Sugrue, New York University

Gretchen Sorin, Cooperstown Graduate Program
Ric Burns, Steeplechase Films, Inc.

In a conference the size of the OAH, any selection will inevitably reflect the interests of the one selecting. These sessions alone are not sufficient in number or time to justify the expense and travel to attend a conference in a distant location. In the second conference blog, I will turn to a different type of presentation that speaks more to the history organizations than to the history scholar.