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“The Past Has a Future”

Watch video of this event.

On September 8, 2016 Jonathan Fanton delivered the following address as part of a public program at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

It is a great pleasure to be here this evening. Let me start by offering my congratulations on behalf of the American Academy to the Massachusetts Historical Society on the occasion of its 225th anniversary, and to your exceptional president, Dennis Fiori. We are proud of our long association with the Society—in fact, 17 of the 29 signatories to the Society’s Act of Incorporation in 1794 were Academy members. Our celebration of such a durable institution, dedicated to the history of the Commonwealth, is a particularly fitting opportunity to reflect on the challenges of history as a discipline. As Kenneth Stampp, a long-time member of the American Academy, once observed, “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.” This evening, I want to take up that theme, examining how trends leading up to the present might provide some guidance as we look forward.

History: The Personal and the Academy View

As a starting point, I should note that while the Academy has a long relationship with the Society, as in any family relationship, it has not always been easy. When the American Academy was founded in 1780, our original charter included language stating that the Academy will “promote and encourage the knowledge of the antiquities and the natural history of America.” Despite that stated goal, the Society’s Bicentennial History reports that Rev. Jeremy Belknap cited the Academy’s deficiencies in the service of history as a key reason for founding the Society. In a letter to potential supporters of the Society, Belknap observed “that [the Academy’s] principal focus was upon natural history and the sciences,” and he expressed little hope that the American Academy would “establish a library to house historical sources.”

While history remains a vital element in all the work of the American Academy, our interests range over all areas of public and intellectual life—from international security and the health of public institutions, to the humanities and sciences. As a result, we do not focus on any one subject or topic, so I can readily concede that the historical interests of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts are better served by this Society.

Happily, despite any initial tension, the Society and the Academy have collaborated often through the years. Between 1897 and 1899 the Academy shared its space at the Boston Athenaeum with the Society while the building here on Boylston Street was being constructed. In return, the Society generously housed the Academy on the third floor as a tenant from 1899 to 1906 and again for a period of time in 1911. And this reciprocity continued. In fact, the two institutions have been collaborating on providing access to historical materials since 1919, when the Academy placed some 80 volumes of historical newspapers and legislative annals on deposit with the Society. More recently, in 1991, we hosted the bicentennial meeting of the Society in the Academy’s Cambridge headquarters, which featured a keynote address by Senator Edward Kennedy, who presented the Kennedy Medal to the distinguished Harvard historian and Academy member Oscar Handlin.

I am pleased to be here to reaffirm our tradition of collaboration. A few months ago, Dennis Fiori and Stephen Riley gave me and the Academy’s Presidential Fellow Sara Monteabaro a tour of this magnificent building. It was moving to sit in the office occupied by the American Academy more than a century ago and walk through the third floor gate, which once marked the entrance to the Academy’s quarters. And it was quite meaningful to view the rows of John Adams papers and know there is much of the Academy’s history here in the letters of one of our principal founders.

A personal journey in history, which began in Boston

That visit evoked personal memories. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I debated between going on to law school or seeking a PhD in history. Law had been my plan from an early age, following in my father’s footsteps. But an encounter with an original document caused me to reconsider. Let me share with you this story in brief.

I was a student in Edmund Morgan's colonial history class at Yale. Edmund Morgan, one of our country’s most-distinguished historians, was another recipient of the Society’s Kennedy Medal. He put together a book of documents drawn from John Winthrop’s diary and the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I became interested in an October 1630 entry where a long list of residents signed a petition to be freemen, to have a say in the running of the colony. Some historians had portrayed it as a popular movement and imagined a rally. I wondered if there was a pattern for the order of the names so I came to Boston to find the original document in the Public Library, as I recall. What I found were several groups of names entered by the same hand, but the groups were inscribed by different people, which suggested the names were not likely placed on the list at the same time. An analysis of the bios of each name revealed a higher death rate among the early signatories, leading me to surmise the names were added over time, some perhaps late in the harsh winter of 1630 to 1631.

History 30 was a large class with many sections so I was nervous when I was told that Professor Morgan wanted to see me. I still recall my visit to his office in the Hall of Graduate Studies. He said he had learned new information by reading my paper, which demonstrated to him that I had potential as an historian.

While I did not go directly from Yale College to graduate school, the Morgan conversation stuck in my mind. I had found the encounter with original documents exciting, touching some emotion deep inside. All the while as I worked in special programs for underrepresented students and then as chief of staff for the President of Yale, I thought about Professor Morgan’s encouragement and eventually I decided on history. So I can proudly say my journey began in Boston.

While I pursued an administrative career in universities and foundations, I maintain my love of history and am grateful for how it has helped me in judgements I have had to make in leadership positions. So I care deeply about its present health and future prospects.

The challenge history faces in the United States seems to be a growing separation from the public. Almost 10 years ago, the American Academy established the Humanities Indicators project to provide trend data on the health of history and other humanities disciplines. At the time, leaders in the Academy recognized that the STEM disciplines were dominating public discussion thanks to extensive data gathering by the National Science Foundation, and determined to level the playing field for the humanities. Since that time, and with considerable support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Academy has been gathering and analyzing data, and making it available in an accessible form to journalists, scholars, and policy makers at

If you go to the site, you will see that the project has been cataloging a number of troubling signs for history. For example:

  • In one of the clearest measures of a drop in general public interest, the Indicators report a substantial decline in visits to historic sites in the U.S. Fewer than one in five Americans over the age of 18 visited an historic site in 2012—a decline of more than a third since 1982.
  • In other worrisome news for a discipline heavily built around books, the Indicators report declining interest in reading for pleasure. As of 2015, Americans spent an average of less than 20 minutes a day reading for pleasure—down six minutes from the previous decade.
  • And in a trend that most academic historians have been looking at with alarm, the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in history fell by more than 12 percent in the most recent two years. As a percentage of all undergraduate degrees, history has now fallen to its smallest share since World War II.

There are other troubling signs for history as we look around the country. According to the Indicators, even though revenues for history nonprofits (typically state and local historical societies and museums) had largely recovered from the recession by 2012, 136 of these organizations failed or were absorbed into larger institutions during the recession. As a result, there are fewer organizations working to connect the public with the past.

And as most of you are acutely aware, the past decade has seen a large and growing gap between academic jobs and PhDs in the discipline. As of 2015, the discipline was awarding two history PhDs for every one academic job advertised, which creates a significant challenge for the preparation and employment of the next generation of scholars. A recent report from the Indicators found that the number of history faculty positions has plateaued, after rising for more than a decade.

The Humanities Indicators were created to provide a statistical profile of the humanities as a whole, and it is important to note that the troubles in history are reflected across the field. We can certainly debate whether the Indicators offer a full measure of the health of the discipline, and imagine other metrics that might be helpful here. For instance, we lack data on college course enrollments in history, which remains crucial not just as a measure of the relative size and engagement of the discipline, but also the potential pool of future college majors. We also lack information on the health of significant public institutions that support critical research, such as the public archives around the country. We plan to develop that data in the next few years, and invite your suggestions about other data we should be collecting.

I think we can agree there are very good reasons to feel concerned about the health of our discipline. The shared challenge for historical societies, universities, and historians presents an important opportunity: to revisit the strengths of the discipline and forge new links across institutions seeking a path forward. Your meeting is an important step on that journey.

One question posed by this conference asks, “Is history in crisis or in transformation?” It might be useful to shift the question slightly, and ask, was there ever a golden era when history was widely embraced by the general public and leaders in all fields?

A History of Concern

If we look back to the early 20th century, we will find familiar-sounding laments about the lack of government support for history work, as well as professional historians’ inability to write in a way that captures a wide audience. For instance, a century ago, John Spencer Bassett, a distinguished historian at Smith College, diagnosed the problem in terms that may sound familiar. He observed that “Fifty years ago, historians like Bancroft and Prescott stood side by side with the great poets at the top of the world of letters. To-day the historian’s influence has waned…. He is, perhaps, a more genuine writer of truth and more industrious; but he is not at the top of the world as formerly.”

Even present concerns about the effect of technology on our audience have precedents. At various points in the early 20th century, historians worried that moving pictures, radio, and then television were undermining the public taste for history. In the late 1930s, the historians Charles and Mary Beard went so far as to worry about the effects of movies on democracy as, in their words, “American democrats were entertained by kings and queens in a succession of historical pictures.”

But both history and our democracy have survived, so it is worth reflecting on the gap between the alarms sounded at particular moments, and the durability of the discipline. Historians addressed those concerns by finding new ways to integrate or accommodate the emerging technologies of the day into their work. In his interesting book, Historians in Public, Ian Tyrrell traces the efforts of early 20th-century historians to employ technologies from lantern slides to radio and movies to bring quality historical work to a wider audience. The record shows a wide variety of history organizations and individual historians harnessed these new tools to reach out to wider audiences, or to connect with their audiences in new ways, whether to students in the classroom or visitors to historic sites and museums. I think we can look to history and see that recent technological changes offer just another tool, and should not be viewed as an exceptional or even a new threat.

Small Signs of Hope

So despite the statistics I cited earlier, I do not believe history is in crisis or on some irreversible downhill plunge. Historians have been troubled about the state of the discipline before, but it has proven resilient. But we are likely in a period that requires fresh and creative ideas and determination by historians and the wider public who appreciate the importance of history. Organizations like the Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Academy, and we who gather at this conference, have a responsibility to educate the public about the importance of history. And we also have to become more comfortable in engaging the public in the context of their own perceived interest in the past, which is likely different from that of the professional historian. I am an optimist by nature but also a realist. I accept the warning signs demonstrated in the Academy’s Humanities Indicators and the data I cited. But I also look for trends to build on, for signs of hope.

The past continues to have a substantial presence in our lives, which suggests at least latent public interest in history. Our culture seems saturated with history, as we see TV channels, television series, podcasts and films all built around historical themes and subjects. For instance, the History Channel had the 14th largest viewership on television last year, and historical documentaries and programs remain among the most-watched programs on PBS. More recently, we have seen a Broadway musical, Hamilton, foster a national conversation about the nation’s first Treasury secretary and his placement on the $10 bill—all while selling out hundreds of consecutive shows and winning a Grammy, a Pulitzer Prize, and 11 Tony Awards in a single year.

The evidence suggests that at least a segment of the public remains interested in connecting to versions of the past as a form of information and entertainment. Even the recent activism in America’s colleges suggests a measure of historical-mindedness among students, as they focus on challenging figures and symbols of the past, from the Brown family’s involvement in the slave trade to the residential college at Yale named after John Calhoun. And student protests led to a careful review of the record of Georgetown University’s sale of slaves in 1838, and a decision to rename two buildings and offer admission preference to the descendants of slaves. I suggest setting aside questions about the wisdom of these efforts to scrub the historical record from public places and atone for past sins. My point is just to note that the growing focus on symbols of the past reflects some historical awareness.

We should ask ourselves why those signs of latent interest and engagement with history have failed to flow into a more robust connection of the public to history and support for historical organizations. There are clearly some sparks of interest. How might we fan those sparks into a more productive flame?

Why We Can't Be Discouraged

I believe we need a sustained campaign to educate the public, especially young people and newcomers to our country, about the importance of history. Yes, this has been done before, but the campaign must be continuous, use modern means of communication, engage advocates beyond the profession, and make the case in language people understand. Much has been written over the years about why the study of history is important. Among the many reasons, four stand out for me:

First, a knowledge of history is critical to exercising our rights and fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens in a democracy. The study of history helps us understand complexity, appreciate difficult choices and trade-offs, discern patterns, temper our instincts with evidence, and strengthen our capacity for judgment informed by values as well as practical considerations. Too often of late, we have heard people talking about the “the worst situation ever” or the need for change, without any sense of the direction or shape of that change.

At the Academy, we often turn to history to draw both evidence and examples that can help lift the conversation out of particular political positions or the rhetoric of the moment, and instead focus attention on the trajectory of a current policy issue or problem. Historical evidence provides a basis for discussing current issues with a disengaged distance, and thinking through the challenges of the present with the kind of reserve and objectivity that careful decision-making requires.

History also helps us understand the principles and purposes that influence the institutions that shape our society and our lives. History provides tangible examples of the benefits of civic engagement. Perhaps equally important, history also gives us a perspective that nothing is inevitable and that leadership and engaged citizens can determine a better future. That observation has special urgency in this election season.

A second point is that knowledge of the history and culture of other countries is essential to relations with other peoples marked by compassion, respect, and a sensitive understanding of the differences in views and interests that must be bridged to insure a peaceful and fair world.

Just recently, the Academy announced a study of civil wars and international security, which will rely heavily on historical examples. The discussion starts from an exploration of the collapse of order in countries around the world in the past 20 years. Patterns discerned from historical examples can help guide preventative measures—measures that must be based on knowledge of the individual histories of future fragile and failing states.

Third, history helps us understand people with different backgrounds, beliefs, and characteristics so we can aspire to be a country that respects diversity and draws strength from it. As president of both a university and a foundation in the past, I have developed a particular interest in questions about civil society, and have often found that history provides the material that makes a vital civil society possible. We come to appreciate and respect people of different backgrounds as we learn how they arrived at an understanding of their own lives and position in society. Thus, greater historical understanding can provide a healthier basis for engaging with people of diverse backgrounds and life experiences within our own country.

Finally, reading history can be enjoyable and satisfying for us individually, helping us understand our personal journey and where we are in the arch of our own development. It gives us roots in a fast-moving world, helps us order an overwhelming amount of information, and make sense of rapid change. Speaking personally, the study of history makes me more optimistic and determined to work for a country and world with opportunity for all.

Too often we fail to articulate the simple pleasure that reading or engaging with history can provide. History opens up new and different worlds to us, and often does so in a way that invites engagement in much the same way as a good mystery. Whether through a book, documentary, or exhibit, history has the capacity to transport us to a place that resonates with present concerns, but also draws us in as we try to link the pieces together—either among events in the past, or from the past to our own lives. As my personal experience in Edmund Morgan’s course demonstrated, a moment of connection with an historical document can open up new worlds and change the direction of someone’s life.

We should not be shy about making the case for history to the general public through whatever tools we have, as often as possible. In Who Owns History?, Eric Foner quotes James Baldwin, who makes a powerful case, writing:

“History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

What We Might Do Differently

The Massachusetts Historical Society has taken the lead before in organizing efforts to reach out to a broader public, and make the case for the importance of history. When Charles Francis Adams, the President of the Historical Society (and a member of the Academy) dedicated this building in 1899, he noted that the founders’ sense of the history community was breaking down, as the historian of the future “probably is not at once a litterateur, a soldier, a statesman, a lawyer, a theologian, a physician, and a biologist.” He reflected a growing awareness that historians were becoming more professional and specialized on the one hand, and that the potential audience for history had grown considerably larger and more diverse than the Society’s membership had been in the past. He observed that this created a new set of challenges for the Historical Society. How would historians, who had a focused interest in one particular subject—something they might turn into a book length monograph—connect to the larger public that the Society had grown to represent? That remains a challenge today.

The Massachusetts Historical Society is a model of how historical organizations can engage and serve the public. The recently opened exhibit here on “Turning Points in History” offers a powerful example of how historical organizations can use their rich collections to raise public awareness of the key features of historical understanding. And the Society’s active social media presence reaches a new generation by making the collections eye-catching invitations to further in-person explorations at the Society. I noted an amusing picture the Society tweeted on July 15th, showing a picture of someone I admire, Teddy Roosevelt, riding a horse over a fence post. He had inscribed the picture to long-time friend (and one of Harvard’s first history PhDs) Henry Cabot Lodge. As these examples show, social media and new forms of communication already are valuable for historical learning, trends we can accelerate.

Clearly, a crucial stage for history’s revitalization is finding a way to awaken an awareness of the value of history while young Americans are still students. History remains a core part of the curriculum in the schools—as 95 percent of high school students take a course in U.S. history. But we might well ask how well that exposure benefits either students or the history field. A 1997 survey found that most Americans associate the word “history” with a much loathed course in school, even as many Americans felt a close interest and affinity for “the past” when it was associated with family and nation. Building the understanding that “history” and “past” and “family” and “nation” are not separate subjects but rather different ways of talking about the same thing, is one of the most important tasks for history education at the primary and secondary school level. But we have to ask whether standardized testing requirements are limiting the flexibility and creativity of teachers in the classroom. If the answer is yes, then we need to speak up.

While improving the quality of history and civics in schools and colleges is important, it is not sufficient. We are living in a new age where people want to be active participants and not passive recipients of knowledge. They learn history by interacting with it, using it, in museum exhibits, games, and, of course, in a variety of media, including video games.

There are some excellent programs out there that try to nurture positive student interest in the past. National History Day, for instance, is a school-based program, sponsored in Massachusetts by the Society. It brings together thousands of middle and high school students at the local, state, and national level to create history in a wide variety of forms—from traditional papers to web sites and exhibits. I am moved by the example of three 16-year-old NHD students in Illinois who made a documentary on the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, which led to a reopening of the case and the convictions of the killers 40 years later. An independent study of the program in four states found that students who participated in the program were “more interested in their history classes, and find those classes more interesting than their other academic classes.” The program provides an engaging way to fire an early interest among students, and also, in the words of the study, helps them develop “a more mature perspective on current events.”

And earlier I mentioned how the Broadway play Hamilton had sparked a renewed interest in the founders of our country. In October 2015, the Hamilton creators, together with the Rockefeller Foundation, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the New York City Department of Education, launched an educational partnership to provide 20,000 public school students with the opportunity to see Hamilton on Broadway coupled with a history curriculum designed around the play. As the show moves onto the road next year, the program will expand to other cities, creating new opportunities to connect students to a lively and captivating presentation of the past that is intended to engage a multi-racial audience.

At the national level, the American Historical Association recently initiated an “Everything Has a History” campaign on social media, linking historical context to trending topics in the news. Their effort to remind people that current events are deeply embedded in past events has been used in social media messages and crossed over to traditional media such as the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. At a more local level, there is the example of the Philadelphia History Truck, out of Temple University’s Public History program, which uses a converted food truck as a mobile museum and a staging ground for gathering local histories in city neighborhoods. It works with members of the community to build a history that its members can recognize as their own. Each of these programs represents a fresh attempt to connect to contemporary audiences.

As we think about making the case about support for the study of history, we should also consider a cost/benefit analysis. Think about events, aid programs, conflicts, that cost more or yielded less because of a lack of understanding of history. During the Iraq War, officers in the Pentagon belatedly turned to an out-of-print history about the French experience during the Algerian civil war, seeking a better understanding of insurgencies in a Muslim nation. As this example demonstrates, our leaders have a tendency to learn too late the value of history. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Academy member Graham Allison (along with Niall Ferguson) made this case most directly, recommending a presidential Council of Historians. They argued for “a new and rigorous ‘applied history’—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues.” This seems sound advice, not just for the value it could bring to national decision-making, but also for the example it would set for the general public. We need a narrative about the importance of history for our democracy, for a fair and decent society, for respectful and peaceful relations among nations, and for our personal growth and security. Allison and Ferguson’s proposal would be a positive step in that direction.

Historians also need to be more willing to participate in public discussion of controversial issues—although that is easy to say when you are not the person on the receiving end of Twitter and Facebook insults. But we as historians should work to create the expectation that an historian will have something of value to contribute to a conversation about a charged contemporary issue. TV viewers should come to think that it is strange for an historian to not be part of a panel of experts on a news broadcast about the Keystone Pipeline, or a Black Lives Matter protest, or an international trade agreement.

Perhaps there should be greater incentives for academic historians to look to an audience that extends beyond their peers. A recent Indicators survey of history departments found that only one out of four departments considered engagement with the public of more than marginal importance in tenure decisions, indicating that the gap between the public and historians is not a one-sided problem. This is something that should change in history departments in all higher education institutions, but it needs to start earlier, in how we train graduate students to communicate with a wide range of audiences.

Exploratory Meeting with the Society

I have given only a sample of promising ideas and initiatives for engaging the public in history. There is clearly more to do. As a consequence of this conference, I have been thinking about how the American Academy can help. For inspiration, I look to a current Academy project called the Public Face of Science, which aims to understand how the public builds trust—or mistrust—in science and the scientific process.

In today’s saturated media environment, the key question is how to keep the public engaged with science, and scientists. The available data suggests that a major determinant of the public’s perception of science is what one might think of as participatory encounters–science museums and festivals, citizen science projects, television programs and movies with scientific themes, and so forth. Yet we have almost no data on the long-term effects of such encounters on how the public views science, and the same could be said for history.

The Academy is embarking on an effort to collect and analyze the available data on this question to identify gaps and methods to collect new data on the impact of these activities. Were a similar study to be undertaken for history, we might learn surprising things about what factors actually shape the public’s view of our field.

The Academy has also organized a coalition of leading organizations which champion greater investment in basic science. The coalition will cultivate a group of influential individuals from outside the research community to speak publicly about the value of science and engineering research. Their effectiveness will derive from their desire to speak out of concern for the nation rather than self-interest. They will provide a stable of additional voices to add to existing outreach efforts organized by leading scientific and professional organizations. The purpose of this venture is to promote the importance of basic research in America, the need for sustainable federal investments over the long term and robust partnerships across government, academia and industry. That program seems like a potential model for history as well. Let us recruit “messengers” from leaders outside of the profession, such as corporate executives, television and film personalities, and nationally-syndicated columnists, to make the case for the importance of history to the public. And let us communicate more effectively what “basic research” in history looks like, what resources are required and what materials are studied. But we must also not forget to convey what historical research can feel like—the emotional charge that encountering a petition for greater participation from 1630 can give to an undergraduate almost 350 years later.

As the American Academy approaches its 250th anniversary, we will be looking at our history and asking how well we have fulfilled the original vision of John Adams. In a letter to his wife Abigail in 1776 (a letter that resides here in the archives of the Society), Adams sketched a broad vision for the Academy, but one rooted here in Massachusetts. In his original sketch, he imagined “A philosophical society shall be established at Boston… for New England must produce the Heroes, the statesmen, the Philosophers, or America will make no great Figure for some Time.” Guided by Adams’ vision of an organization that embraces both the past and our responsibilities to the future, I could well imagine the American Academy would be open to working with the Society on a vigorous initiative to raise awareness about the importance of history. We might begin with an exploratory meeting co-hosted by the Academy and the Society to chart a course.

This is not a time for handwringing in the discipline. Given the many clear and substantive benefits of history, I am not discouraged by the recent data and remain optimistic about the future. We are gathered here today because we recognize the great value of history for the Commonwealth and this nation—values that the Massachusetts Historical Society has embodied for now 225 years. This is an appropriate occasion to ask with reignited urgency how we as historians might strengthen our connection to the public again and renew the discipline’s vital role. Your meeting tomorrow asks the right questions and no doubt will yield insights that will evoke a rich follow-up discussion and a call for action.

Our two institutions share a storied history. We have lived together, have many members in common, are animated by the spirit and presence of John Adams, and believe in the importance of history to democracy and research to policy. Our disposition is optimistic and our commitment to strengthening the study and use of history deep and enduring. So let us think of this occasion as the beginning of a new chapter in making common cause.

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