Where Do We Go From Here?
Mr. Luker is co-editor of the first two volumes of the Martin Luther King Papers and a member of the History News Service advisory board.
Our critics tell us that Martin Luther King's question, asking directions which depend, in part, on where one is, has lately become an important one for historians.
I had not meant to write a word on professional ethics and practice until I
read a headline, "The Cowards of Academe," in the Weekly Standard.
It followed by four days a similar attack on the integrity of our profession
in the Wall Street Journal. Undoubtedly, academe has its cowards. I've
known several and may have been one myself at one time or other. It is a form
in which our humanity appears. Yet, the journalists' attack on the Bancroft
Prize committee, the American Historical Association, the Newberry Library and
Emory University over Michael Bellesiles's Arming America seemed to me
well off-target. I wrote a short essay, "Journalists Are Rushing to Judgment
about Michael Bellesiles," for History
News Network. My argument was a self-evident defense of academic practice
and due process, I thought. Yet, the title for the piece won the gun lobby's
attention and, like Mr. Jefferson, I learned that not everyone saw my truths
The result astonishes me yet. In two weeks of entrenched warfare, I met charge after charge from my critics. Sometimes the tactics were personal, as in the heading of a new thread which read: "Academic Misconduct and Ralph Luker." It was an old canard about timing the release of the King Project's findings of plagiarism in King's dissertation, as if I had been responsible for controlling it. Repeatedly, I tried to call a cease-fire, at my best with humor. When an ally, Cecelia Justice, countered a point by one of my favorite critics, Thomas Gunn, I declared that Justice prevailed in Justice v. Gunn and thanked goodness for due process. Gunn was amused, asked where was the due process and continued firing. The essay on the Weekly Standard's and the Wall Street Journal's criticism of academe, said HNN's History Grapevine, produced more replies "than any other article on the website, indeed, maybe more than had been made to all the other articles on the website combined." They "actually stretch across the page like ocean waves caught at high tide on a stormy night."
In the end, we shook hands and laughed at the e-trenches we had dug. Early
on, I told friends that the quality of the debate was not high, ranging somewhere
between a dreary faculty meeting and the Jerry Springer Show. Yet, in its course,
my critics won my respect with spirited, often well-informed argument. They
held Bellesiles, other professional historians and me firmly in their gun sights
and fired very pointedly: "your peer review process has failed repeatedly
for years and we don't trust your due process." I thought I owed it to
new friends in the gun lobby to report back to old friends in the history profession.
The battle was, after all, just a skirmish in a larger encounter. We have all
read about Joseph Ellis, Stephen
Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin,
and Michael Bellesiles. The cases
of Paul Buhle
and Edward A. Pearson have had less public attention.2
I addressed an open e-mail to two dozen American historians, most of them prominent in the field, asking what, if anything, could be learned from these cases. The list of historians was deliberately ecumenical, including some people who have not spoken to each other in years. I speak to several of them and they to me only episodically. The issues seemed too important to be addressed by political preference or shunned by personal pique. Some of my colleagues communicated privately rather than to the whole group. The small sample of results limits the significance of generalizations, but given the option of anonymity the larger pattern was interesting. In general, political stance and personal differences were of no consequence. Generation was everything.
Historians of my generation really saw no problem at all. These cases were exceptional and exceptional in several directions. These were either "celebrity historians" who are unlike the rest of us or breeches of trust, functions of carelessness or some singular personality quirk. Contrarily, one was a celebrity historian who we should defend because he had for years been doing successfully what all of us should be doing. Given the limitations of time and dispersed archives, our peer review processes and our due processes work exceedingly well and our book exhibits display our enormous productivity. I was uncomfortable with those conclusions and their internal tensions. Were the celebrities our celebrities or not? Had the celebrities been doing what we should be doing? Oh, really? And don't those book exhibits democratically display deeply flawed and immaculate texts without distinction? Shouldn't they? Who knows which is which? Why don't we know? If we did, so what?
I was more encouraged by candid responses from a younger, yet already prominent group of historians. These cases did have some things to teach us, they thought, even as they disagreed about exactly what they were. These historians also took seriously a parallel question about the cases' implications for teaching even younger historians and students. I liked the flair and candor of a young Ivy League historian's first point: Historians should not tell "big, whopping lies." That seems like a good place to begin. She followed with three practical suggestions: that committees of the OAH should formulate guidelines on the use of research assistants and develop guidelines on research and the use of evidence which could be disseminated to graduate students; and, finally, recognizing that even the most conscientious effort is occasionally flawed, one should correct known errors in print as quickly as possible.
Further discussion suggested that two current influences require rethinking our professional ethics and practice. First, how do we appropriate and limit post-modernism's insight that all evidence is socially constructed? It surely means that it can be construed in a variety of ways. It surely does not mean evidence can be fabricated. How do we teach that without denying a legitimate role to the historical imagination? The other factor is the new technology. To put it bluntly, our peer review processes waved Arming America on to a Bancroft Prize and, with breathtaking speed, a lawyer/sociologist used archival sources, cd roms and a published primary and secondary literature which peer review ignored to force us to recognize that "there's a problem here." Given my professional biases, what greater humiliation can there be than to be told that by a lawyer/sociologist? In the short run, this problem may be of greater concern to the quantifiers among us, but my generation is comfortable with the notion of dispersed archives and the future sweeps us into its presence. Our students know or can readily claim that their computers and cd roms reach into archives in many parts of the country, if not yet the world.
"Trust, but verify" is good advice, even if Ronald Reagan did say it. There is reassurance in these results. The place where we are is embarrassed by some of our colleagues, but there are younger historians among us who are discussing "where do we go from here?"
comments powered by Disqus
Ralph E. Luker - 8/26/2002
If the labeling offended you, you have my apologies. You are exactly correct about the necessity of suspending political bias in making a judgment. That is one reason, I suspect, that one of Bellesiles' major critics has been more effective than another. The cool, apolitical, dispassionate laying out of evidence is more convincing than even outlining the same evidence and interlacing it with an enormous load of invective. The latter taints the former and leads one to suspect that political motive biases the presentation.
Alec Lloyd - 8/26/2002
Perhaps one way to free up the discourse is to forgo labelling critics. One of the ways in which frauds succeed is by painting their detractors as irate, irrational people movitived solely by politics rather than truth.
To put it bluntly: by branding Bellesiles' (and your) critics as the "gun lobby," you promote the idea that anyone opposed to historical fraud must have a political axe to grind. That simply isn't the case.
The tactic is one familiar to politicians: smear anyone who questions you. Bellesiles did it and continues to do so. It worked. You yourself have defended his right to due process (without ever specifying what that process is) and anyone who wants a decisive result can't POSSIBLY be interested in the integrity of the profession, no they must be a gun-crazed loon.
Here's a thought: judge a work on its merits and not its politics. The profession will improve immeasurably.
Thomas Gunn - 8/22/2002
In this same issue of HNN we have an historian who wants a strict interpretation of the 6th amendment but sees a need to interpretate the 2nd into oblivion.
One unfortunate answer to "where *do* we go from here", may be just more of the same.
John horst - 8/20/2002
The tone in your last posting was a little disconcerting. As a bona fide curmudgeon, I kind of take solace in the absurdity of the goings on in our society today. I hope you will not take it too much to heart, as none of this is worth one's health and/or happiness. I did not detect any malice in your exchange with Ralph Luker last month, and as he states, he did not see it that way either, so I don't think an apology is necessary. I am a father, and I absolutely do want my daughter to grow up in a free, humane and moral world. I just don't know if that will happen. But I will not go down without a fight...
Ralph E. Luker - 8/20/2002
Mr. Kates' point is well-taken. The six historians mentioned in the article are six individuals, with different bodies of work. It may be unfair to mention Pearson's or Ellis's experience in the same breath with each other or the others. Ellis has produced work of very high quality -- it isn't the work which was in question. Pearson, on the other hand, seems to have merely given us a flawed reading of evidence. There is no question of dishonesty on his part.
Having said that, we have cases of six historians who have drawn substantial questions about what they have been doing and that is a high water mark in my professional experience -- enough I think to call for some introspection.
Ralph E. Luker - 8/20/2002
I took none of your posts personally, but I took them all seriously and enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of the exchange. In fact, this posting of my article -- unlike the _OAH Newsletter_ version -- specifically mentions you.
Now is not a time for a failure of nerve on any of our parts. We must all think seriously about public policy issues and not only of our national or personal self-interest.
In my opinion, the historians' petition to congress is an important matter. It calls for a public debate before we allow anyone -- even the president -- to rush us into a war whose consequence we cannot foresee. Elsewhere, my friend Bill Leckie has observed that our intervention in Afghanistan has delivered it from tyranny to chaos. We have no finished work there; yet we contemplate doing the Iraqis a similar favor. How much destabilization by the United States the Muslim world can or will tolerate is a good question. We could be looking at -- not some national decline from which there is cyclical rejuvenation elsewhere -- but an armaggedon endgame. I too worry for our grandchildren.
Thomas Gunn - 8/20/2002
I wrote a response last evening, but I didn't send it b/c it seemed too convey an attitude of hopelessness that I don't want to feel.
I'm scared, not so much for me, but for my grandkids, that where we are going is where every civilization before us has gone. And for mostly the same reasons. Maybe what we are witnessing is the same rush to destruction that the Greeks and the Romans suffered. And maybe it is part of the grand scheme, a repeating system like ice ages and wholesale species anihilation.
The question becomes, "can we change History?" or are we condemned to repeat it.
I don't know the answer to that; what I do know is without an *accurate* record of what went before there is no hope. I also know the folks most likely to survive the transistion will be the ones most honest with themselves. They will be the ones who prepare and provide for themselves and thier basic social unit, the family.
I'm sorry if you felt I was being personal, and attacking you. I didn't mean that at all. Sometimes in the heat of battle shots go wide. I was frustrated that you could not or would not see what seems so plain to me. I suspect you may have felt the same way. I'm reminded of the words from the "Desiderada", "no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should".
I wonder if the responses here will be as waves across the screen? I'm hoping. ;-0)
john horst - 8/20/2002
As a non-historian in search of some semblance of truth and justice, I have been following the several articles and posts on this fine website. Mr. Luker should be applauded for his contributions. I am sorry that, in the heat of the exchanges, unfounded and unfair attacks were made on his character. That seems to be a theme that runs through our society today, (attack the opponent rather than the opponent's argument).
I hope you historians can get through this. It would be a shame to fall victim to the evils of sophistry, pandering to special interests, obsession with fame, and the money grab that has so completely infected the rest of modern society. I imagine though, it is all inevitable, as it was with all the great empires of the past...
William H. Leckie, Jr. - 8/20/2002
Ralph's essay raises an intersting point,which is how to accommodate the ethical questions raised by the notion that "truth" is socially constructed. It's actually an ancient problem, central--as Josiah Ober has pointed out--raised in Thucydides' narrative and central to the comedy of Aristophanes, to say nothing of the debate between the Platonic Socrates and the Sophists. In the ancient context, the problem was posed by the distance between the speech-act conventions of the Athenian democracy and the material world--will a war on Iraq be a new Sicilian expedition?
Now we have the issue of professional communities of discourse and historical fact and reasoning about it. The ancient "solution" was the "one who knows"--with historical examples in the Athenian past such as Themistocles and Pericles. But there was no doubting that despite the arbitrariness of conventions, of language, a reality "out there." It's my view that both the pomo academy, popular skepticism, the media, and US right are now all complicit in privilging convention over realities accessible only with through earnest integrity in both scholarship and debate, and by acknowledging the inevitability of our own individual limitations in a community of scholars, and the limitations of our society--which, since it has raised the pursuit of immediate self-interest into the only virtue, is unlikely to support a revived empiricism and attention to real ethics.
don kates - 8/19/2002
This comment is limited to the cases of Bellesiles and Joseph Ellis, the only writers mentioned whose works I have studied in depth. There is no comparison between the two cases. The tragedy of Joseph Ellis is that he is an able scholar whose very real contributions to the understanding of the early Republic will forever be blighted by a psychological flaw that led him to inflate his personal record.
In contrast, the Bellesiles Scandal is a disgrace that casts suspicion on the entire profession of history: Ignoring the duty to investigate the book -- and despite ample warning that it was dubious -- an historical fraud received American history's highest honor because the fraud supports a political program to which influential historians are deeply wed. And the Bancroft Prize is unlikely to be withdrawn despite this disgrace because historians remain more concerned to promote that program than to ensure the integrity of their profession
- Five Things You Need to Know to be a Better Digital Preservationist
- Book on Losing British Generals Wins American History Prize
- Stanford scholar explores civil rights revolution's positive impact on the South's economy
- Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Amazon's Tentacular Reach
- Q&A with historian and author Nick Turse