The History Scandals ... Cause for Alarm?

Matthew Price, in the Boston Globe (Ot. 24, 2004):

WITH FAT BIOGRAPHIES of sundry Founding Fathers appearing every other month and bookstore tables still piled high with odes to the Greatest Generation, the public's appetite for the American past appears as healthy as ever. But according to University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, we're being sold a bill of goods.

In his new book, "Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud -- American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin" (PublicAffairs), Hoffer contends that his profession "has fallen into disarray" and aims a polemical blast at his fellow historians for condoning sloppy scholarship and an anything-goes ethical climate.

A specialist in Colonial history and American jurisprudence, Hoffer is a respected scholar whose previous work has generally earned the esteem of his peers. Now, setting himself up as judge, jury, and executioner, Hoffer puts historians in the dock -- and throws the book at them."

American history," he writes, "is two-faced" -- split between celebratory popularizers who often value rousing narrative over scholarly rigor and academic specialists whose jargon-riddled, often dour monographs ignore the ordinary reader. Meanwhile, Hoffer accuses the American Historical Association (AHA), where he has served as an adviser on plagiarism and a member of its professional standards division, of abdicating its responsibility to enforce basic scholarly principles in both realms.

Hoffer revisits the now-familiar cases of a quartet of historians brought low by scandal in 2002: former Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles, who was accused of falsifying data in "Arming America," his controversial 2000 study of 18th- and 19th-century gun culture; Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who were both found to have used material from other scholars without full attribution; and Mount Holyoke's Joseph Ellis, who was rebuked for spinning tales of his nonexistent Vietnam combat record in classes and newspaper articles. According to Hoffer, these were not just isolated incidents but symptoms of a wider problem -- one that goes far beyond the headlines to the very way history is written and consumed in America.

Hoffer's case is impassioned, but the final verdict will belong to his peers. Is the entire historical profession in America, as Hoffer wrote in a recent e-mail, "sailing close to the edge"? Or, as some of his colleagues are already suggesting, is Hoffer himself guilty of exaggeration and distortion?...

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