New Deal History

time for plan wpa: history corps, a proposal for the job crisis in history ph.d. programs.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a response to Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman’s “No More Plan B” article, which called upon history departments to grapple with the lack of tenure-line positions for an oversupply of Ph.D. students. In many respects, my response overlapped with Jesse Lemisch’s critique of “No More Plan B” and the duo’s subsequent article, “Plan C” (more back and forth here).

I find Lemisch’s call for “a program for historians like the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project” a compelling proposal. Not because it would be easy to achieve in the current political environment, but rather because it seems to me that it addresses multiple problems: the lack of rewarding employment for smartly-trained historians; the history being lost all around us all the time for lack of study; the strange and distorted gaps between specialized academic research and historical knowledge among the general public, which need not be so strongly dichotomous and in fact often complement each other. Riffing on this idea, here is a seed of an idea, utopian but also weirdly practical, for something that the AHA could develop along with history graduate programs. I call it History Corps.

History Corps would fund historians to “embed” themselves with institutions around the United States and the world in order to explore historical topics. Picture a historian working with a neighborhood association to document the history of a place. Picture a historian working with an Occupy activist group to study historical background and think about making history in the present. For that matter, picture a historian working with a police force on their own history, on developing a better understanding of policing, and other issues. Unions, schools, museums, government agencies, think tanks, corporations, banks, consulting firms, small businesses, retirement communities, health institutions, hospitals, architects, magazines, embassies, NGOs, the military—all these have histories both oral and archival; all these could benefit from historians trained at the most advanced levels; all these might benefit from the back-and-forth project—both individual and collective—of both making history and understanding it.

I am sounding a bit like a marketing brochure here, but so be it. A few other thoughts about this proposal:

  • History Corps would fundamentally not be about abandoning specialized research but rather deepening it through engagements beyond the classroom. It would not replace traditional research and learning but join what Ph.D. programs already do. It might even offer new ways to reinvigorate graduate historical training by bringing into the classroom the need for new skills, approaches to the past, and perspectives on what it means to study and advance the historical field (for instance, increased digital media literacy, skills, and perspectives).
  • History Corps would absolutely raise various ethical questions about complicity or advocacy, but that’s fine. Those issues have always been there, so why not engage them substantively and meaningfully.
  • History Corps might be funded through a combination of governmental, institutional, foundation, and user support. The AHA might perhaps be an ideal organization to administer such a project. It knows how to administer complex, multi-institutional projects. It knows how to mediate between specialized research and general learning. It has the history itself to make this history happen.

This kind of endeavor would address the very real economic issues that younger historians and aspiring historians face. But it does so not by telling them that they should have gone to business school. Instead, it offers a vision of historians as professionals. It gives them dignity and it more clearly distinguishes the distinctive skills, perspectives, and expertise that historical training brings. It’s not about making historical training applicable for other fields, but rather of clarifying how history as a field is necessary to a good society. And all the while, it makes the historical enterprise itself richer intellectually, both for historians and for those who are history—which is all of us.

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