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Studying the American Experience

By Patty Housman

History professor Alan Kraut

“George Washington, or Macy’s?” 

This is the question that first sparked University Professor Alan Kraut’s interest in history.  

“I grew up in New York City, where my father worked in a factory. During the summers I worked there too,” he said. “On Saturdays we got out early, and my father would ask me if I wanted to visit the George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall, or go to Fraunces Tavern where Washington said goodbye to his troops, or see the toy soldiers at Macy’s department store. My father loved history, and we would go upstairs at the tavern to see the Washington artifacts. Or we talked about the toy soldiers, and their uniforms and guns, and the wars they fought,” he said.  

These adventures around New York inspired Kraut’s lifelong career of research, teaching, and writing about history. Most recently Kraut served from spring 2013–14 as the 107th president of the prestigious Organization of American Historians (OAH), the world’s largest scholarly organization promoting the study and teaching of American history. 

“Professor Kraut is well suited for this important role leading the OAH,” said Dean Peter Starr. “He is an exceptional teacher, scholar, and leader, with an unparalleled passion for history.”  

Under Kraut’s leadership, OAH launched a new magazine, pushed for funding to support the scholarship of young academics, and created a mentorship program for the next generation of historians. He also used the scholarship of the OAH to take a stand on important public issues of our times.  

The new magazine, The American Historian, debuts this summer. Designed to serve the needs of history teachers at all levels, it is filled with fresh new features on teaching, professional development, research, scholarship, and contemporary debates about the past.  

Kraut also worked hard to improve the quality of the annual meeting experience for the OAH’s newer members. He got the idea for a mentorship program several years ago when he got onto an elevator with a graduate student. The student stared at Kraut’s name badge before saying, “Hey, I know your work—I read your books!”  

“We got off the elevator and had a long conversation,” said Kraut, who understands that it can be intimidating for junior scholars to approach senior scholars. The incident inspired him to create the “Hey I Know your Work!” program, which puts senior scholars together with small groups of graduate students at every meeting. They sit down over coffee to talk about research, career plans, book ideas, or whatever else inspires them. The junior scholars come away with new ideas and connections. 

“The program has been a big success,” said Kraut, who volunteered for the program himself. “I hope it’s my lasting legacy at OAH—to provide a better experience for our next generation of scholars.” 

Kraut also recognized the financial constraints of young scholars and the escalating expenses involved in traveling to conventions to present their work. He put together a fund to help offset conference attendance for five young scholars this year, and he expects the program to grow and support more scholars each year.  

Also under Kraut’s leadership, the OAH weighed in on several public issues of the day including two gay marriage cases that came before the Supreme Court. After considerable debate about whether or not historians had anything to contribute to the issue, the OAH’s executive board decided that American history could illuminate the issue for the court. Kraut wrote, “The OAH strongly recommends that prior to its decision this Court avail itself of the rich and extensive historical scholarship that exists to understand the history of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” Kraut quoted former OAH president Kenneth M. Stampp: “With the historian it is an article of faith that knowledge of the past is a key to understanding the present.”  

Kraut faced another public policy issue when several American academic institutions voted to boycott Israeli universities in an effort to influence Israeli foreign policy. In a presidential message, Kraut advocated opposing the boycotts because they would only serve to muzzle free speech. “Greater contact, not less, between Israeli and Palestinian historians has never been needed more than at the present,” he said. “Those of us who hope to heal the world by challenging injustices can have no better medicine in our pharmacopeia than the insights derived form history and free, open historical discourse.” 

Now that his term as OAH president is over, Kraut is back teaching at AU and serving as the incoming mentor for the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar Program. He also chairs the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Advisory Committee and recently served as president of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. He consults for the National Park Service and documentary filmmakers, and advises the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and PBS’s “History Detectives.”  

For the past eighteen years Kraut has co-directed American University's Civil War Institute. In 1999 he received the AU Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, the institution's highest honor, and in 2009 was appointed a University Professor, the institution's highest rank. He is the prize-winning author or editor of nine books and is an elected Fellow of the Society of American Historians. 

Kraut is at work on his tenth book, which will explore how immigrants assimilate into American society. “We discuss immigration policy in our country, but we also need to discuss new immigrant policy—the role of federal government in integrating newcomers into American society,” he says. Once again, he looks back at history to find answers: “How did previous generations of immigrants negotiate their presence here? And how will this Americanization occur for latest wave of newcomers? These are the critical issues that need to be determined.”