What's Wrong with Radical History ... And the Radical "Historians Against the War"





Mr. Cameron is a Montreal journalist and long-time college history teacher. His own scholarly research is in the history of science.

The July 11 Frontpagemag.com carried an article by Greg Yardley, called Historians Against History. It is full of good intentions, but I'm afraid it badly misunderstands just what has gone wrong in a lot of recent historical scholarship. Yardley's ire is directed at the radical activist group within the American Historical Association who call themselves "Historians against the War." He attacks these tenured propagandists in the name of historical "professionalism," a "noble dream" of "objectivity, balance, and evenhandedness."

Yardley holds that historians are free to engage in polemic journalism and political activism, but that their collective views on current issues should have no more credibility than, say, "Gardeners against the War." When teaching history himself, he tried to adopt an "objectivity" of approach himself, behaving differently than he would as a journalist.

But his notion that there once was a world of such "objective" scholarship, until the radical and subjectivist serpent entered the garden, is just a fine romance, which could be easily shredded by the radicals that he deplores. Certainly no one could conceivably argue that before "the study of history became a profession," even the greatest histories were free of "presentist" political influences: think of Hume or Macaulay. There are also contemporary popular historians, Paul Johnson the best example, who still write very good history in this tradition.

Not only that, much "professional" history in the twentieth century always showed obvious, and by no means indisputable, political inclinations. A whole school of "progressive" historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker was followed by similar figures in later generations.

Even 1960s radicalism, while mostly producing more heat than light, brought a few substantial historical contributions from writers like Christopher Lasch and Eugene Genovese. Yardley and many other younger writers now seem unaware of an old scholarly distinction, that between partisanship and bias.

Partisanship is what historians, and scholars in other liberal disciplines, are bound to display as a simple feature of their individual character. The approach made to documents is bound to be different for the religious or the secular, the radical or the conservative. Some of the most intellectually and morally instructive history has been written by passionately partisan scholars.

But from Thucydides to Niall Ferguson, these writers have two other qualities as well. They display their parti pris openly to their readers, and they take it for granted that they still have an obligation to treat documentary historical evidence with a code of honesty, willingness to give full weight to documents that tell against their preferences, and intelligent criticism from other scholars with opposing views.

Bias literally means "slant," and what is typical of the awful stuff produced by contemporary academic radicals is that it is so slanted as, at a minimum, to suppress the whole truth, and in many cases propagate outright lies. In the Cold War years, this charge could sometimes be justifiably brought against those historians who were actual communists or fellow travelers, since it was impossible for them to give an honest account of the countless historical topics on which the Party had a "line." But the causes of appalling bias by the radicals of the last two decades have been somewhat different.

The New Left radicals of the 1960s recognized a real frailty in "professional" scholarship as such. While they, too, confused bias and partisanship, they accurately discerned plenty of the latter, and a bit of the former, in the "mainstream" and America-affirming liberal history of writers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. They further confused "liberalism" as a political program and as a methodological principle of openness to different points of view. In this latter sense, academics of widely varied political views had formerly been able to say, "we are all liberals now." Radicals treated this as a mere convention of the hegemonic bourgeoisie, but initially had to play along.

But as the post-secondary educational system got bigger and bigger, quantitative changes started becoming qualitative ones. In university departments of only, say, half a dozen professors, there might be only one really outstanding scholar or teacher, but there would seldom be more than one complete dud or nutcase as well. But when these departments began to number in the dozens, both scholarly capacity and political opinion began to approach a normal curve distribution in each institution, so that two or three political lunatics could establish their own coteries of undergraduates and graduate students and campus lobby groups.

Many "middle-of-the-road" professors long underestimated the full implications of this change. They had been formerly able to assume safely that bad scholarship and teaching, since they generated nothing of lasting value, could just be treated as the irritating chaff that went along with the harvest of wheat. What they did not anticipate was that the chaff would set out to drive out the wheat altogether. Real scholars and teachers are correctly recognized as unbearable competition, dangerously attractive to bright and undeceived students, and producing articles and books that are actually read.

Yardley's plaint is not really against historical studies in particular, it is against the corrupt politicizing in all large formal organizations that bow to the insistent demands of the noisy and ambitious for the sake of a quiet life. Off the university campus, consider the National Education Association, largely dedicated to wrecking the American public school system for the last half century, or even the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science, increasingly being bullied into cheering on environmental arguments based on weak or non-existent scientific evidence.

The Cold War once did a favor for defenders of Western civilization that had little to do with the political struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. It made it possible for academic liberals (in both the political and methodological sense) to recognize that there were at least some variants of radical thought that they were compelled to fight head on. In a "post-Marxist" world, few have any idea how to confront a subjectivist, nihilist, America-hating nitwit, especially if he/she/he-she also claims to speak on behalf of previously silenced lesbian Latinos in wheelchairs, or whatever.

Yardley actually ends his article by proposing that federal or state authorities intervene directly to straighten things out. This is a terrible idea, and a very naïve one. In a world like the present, state intervention would be far more likely to entrench the nutcases, not the scholars. The latter are just going to have to learn to fight, using the old weapons of logic, reason, and common sense. They need not be ashamed of being "partisan" in such causes as patriotism, reason, and intellectual honesty.

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This article was first published by the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission.


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More Comments:


Nathan M - 10/11/2003

Do you know of any historians doing good commentary on current events?

Yes, Victor Davis Hanson writes a regular column at the National Review Online. He gives insightful commentary on the current war that is contextualized very well by his vast knowledge of Greek and military history.


Josh Greenland - 8/12/2003

"Frankly, I think historians, who have some sense of the process of change and flow of events, are more qualified to comment on current events than people who are entirely focused on the present without any sense of context or background."

Interesting theory.

Do you know of any historians doing good commentary on current events?


Jerry West - 8/11/2003

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Dave Thomas wrote:

History depends on evidence and analysis. How can a historian have all the evidence he needs to analyze current events?....

I am sorry that historians fail to write about history instead of current invents.

Jonathan Dresner wrote:

Frankly, I think historians, who have some sense of the process of change and flow of events, are more qualified to comment on current events than people who are entirely focused on the present without any sense of context or background.

JW:

History does depend upon evidence, and I would question whether or not any historian ever has all of the evidence, or even "enough" evidence.

The moment something happens it is history and it is fair to analyze it with what evidence you have. Granted, time and more evidence may radically change the analysis, but that does not make the first pass not history, just less complete history.

Jonathan is correct.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/10/2003

Historians do an awful lot of analysis without "all" the evidence. In fact, the most interesting historical work is about reading "between the lines" and reinterpreting data in light of new insights.

Frankly, I think historians, who have some sense of the process of change and flow of events, are more qualified to comment on current events than people who are entirely focused on the present without any sense of context or background.


Dave Thomas - 8/10/2003

The person who said newspapers were the first draft of history was a journalist who wanted academic respectability. Cheney is no more an historian than any reporter.

I am sorry that historians fail to write about history instead of current invents. If they want to prognosticate fine, but they should not demean themselves and an honorable profession by calling it history.


Stephen Kriz - 8/9/2003


Dave:

It has been said that "news is the first draft of history". In the case of the bogus war against Iraq, it was a plagarized copy written by Dick Cheney. Or something like that....

Stephen Kriz

P.S. I love your cheesebugers, Dave. They are a lot better than McDonalds! How is Wendy?


Dave Thomas - 8/9/2003

History depends on evidence and analysis. How can a historian have all the evidence he needs to analyze current events? Historians "have" to wait for the availability of evidence to accumulate to conduct analysis. Political scientists and opinionist do not.

The author represents political science and opinion as history.

They are not.


thelairdjim - 8/9/2003

You gotta love pomo-babble.
In English he said that radical history is better than traditional history because it challenges the old assumptions. Of course since it merely replaces old assumptions with new and untried assumptions its value is entirely assumptive. The assertion that radical historians make up only 10% of historians is possibly true but utterly irrelevant. I've been reading through various history textbooks for years and the communist assumptions on history are conventional wisdom in most of them. Radical history breaks down into just a couple of logical constructs that explain the whole universe. Rich exploits/oppresses poor. Male exploits/oppresses female. White exploits/oppresses every other color. Straight exploits/oppresses queer. There. All done! You could get a doctorate in history while learning nothing more than that.


Herodotus - 8/8/2003

What on earth does this mean: "The transformation of lecture halls, and reconfiguration of faculty-student dialogues are labor intensive. Radical historians recognize the double meaning of partial, i.e. studies with temporal-spatial boundaries and the subjectivity of the field as it reproduces itself through training new disciples. Radical approaches to research and teaching give all the opportunity to recognize and push beyond the denial of subjective relativism that masquerades as value-free methods and objective analysis."

Is radicalism a real thing or just some fun word used to describe 'beyond-revisionism'?


David R. Applebaum - 8/8/2003

The Value of Radical History

Debates between traditional and radical-revisionist scholars energizes historical studies. New methods applied to ignored sources are diverse. They have changed over time, demonstrated increasing rigor, generated debate, and expanded the rhetoric of sound scholarship. The range of legitimate and significant historical problems, issues, and questions is growing. There are persistent efforts to suppress new approaches, sustained by the myth of political correctness that rests upon the repetition of incomplete anecdotal fairytales. Traditional scholars continue to hold power and dominate funding (NEH), publication, and employment in the field. The control of history is not as great as in others, e.g. economics. The neo-conservative ambition to excise dissenters from academic history is an on-going effort. Radical scholars (probably less than ten percent of academic community) are discomforting for those who seek closure, error-free knowledge and unassailable truth about the meanings of the past. Revisionist approaches to research challenge traditional pedagogical practices. The transformation of lecture halls, and reconfiguration of faculty-student dialogues are labor intensive. Radical historians recognize the double meaning of partial, i.e. studies with temporal-spatial boundaries and the subjectivity of the field as it reproduces itself through training new disciples. Radical approaches to research and teaching give all the opportunity to recognize and push beyond the denial of subjective relativism that masquerades as value-free methods and objective analysis. Radical history offers the necessary space for the creative critical imagination of historians to grapple with the paradoxes and dilemmas of received knowledge about the meanings of the past.


Josh Greenland - 8/7/2003

Sure, Cameron's criticisms of Yardley's article are thoughtful, but he also spews gross, Coulter-like generalizations, issues ad hominem attacks and expresses political and social bigotry, especially in the third and second to last paragraphs. I was especially taken with his sneer at any "he-she" who might want to speak up for lesbians.


mark safranski - 8/5/2003

I commend Mr. Cameron on his article- HNN is often informative but it is seldom amusing and analytical at the same time.

http://www.zenpundit.blogspot.com