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It Is Long Past Time for All of Us Who Teach and Write History to Take a Stand Against Professional Malfeasance

This article is drawn from Mr. Hoffer's recent book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds - American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, And Goodwin. This excerpt appears as the conclusion to the book and is reprinted with permission of the publisher, PublicAffairs.

Once upon a time, history meant everything to Americans, and historians were revered and trusted. For everyone knew that history's lessons were immutable and inescapable. Those who did not know history were fated to suffer its judgment for their ignorance. . . .

But not today, and perhaps not tomorrow. Economists, political scientists, journalists, and cable television's fast-talking all-purpose pundits have taken the scholars' place as spokespeople for our past and oracles of our future. The new historians' fascination with the arcane and obscure, amounting at times to intellectual narcissism, has cut almost all the profession's ties to ordinary readers. As individuals, the professors, by their self-absorption, undermined the trust that once they enjoyed among their fellow citizens. Professional historians' unwillingness to credit the legitimacy of the public desire for a history that ordinary people can understand isolated them, and new history's fragmentation denied the profession the ability to speak with authority to the public.

But understanding our history is not a luxury for Americans. Our history is as vital to us now as it was to the Founders of the Republic. For to us as to them, history serves mighty and pressing public needs. To the first generations of historians, that need seemed to be fulfilled by a glorious and heroic history. They fooled themselves and their readers into believing that such a history did not and should not include men and women who had been victimized along the way. If our history included what its first chroniclers excluded, then it would look a lot like the histories of other past republics--and these had always ended in decline and decay. The first histories performed, thus, a kind of magic act-keeping the dangers of dissolution at bay by denying all evidence of corruption and oppression.

The magic spell of false consensus the early historians cast, repeating one another's incantations as though they would protect the nation against foreign and domestic evils, entranced the conjurers themselves. Whether literary men or professional teachers, romantics or devotees of a science of history, they manipulated and misrepresented the past to maintain a facade of national unity and celebrate material improvement.

This history worked for one group, for the elite. It rationalized the power that the powerful had grasped. But in another, more important, sense it failed. Omitting slavery from historical narratives did not prevent slavery from causing a Civil War; omitting racism did not prevent racism from dividing the nation; omitting women did not hide sexism and subordination; omitting native peoples did not prevent them from rising in rebellion to regain by force what force of arms had taken from them.

The "new history" addressed these ills of exclusion. It not only included those formerly excluded and recognized their agency as well as their pain, it required all of us to think about the way history was constructed. It fostered critical, and self-critical, thought. But in so doing, it undermined the intellectual authority that consensus historians had claimed and, until the rise of new history, had routinely exercised. New history demanded a technical versatility that consensus history did not, but in sharpening its focus and narrowing its field, it lost the narrative sweep and the eye for a compelling anecdote that consensus historians had mastered.

In the meantime, consensus history had never lost its appeal among general readers, and blossomed in popular historical accounts. Popular history, created inadvertently when the first professional historians tried to drive the amateurs from the archives, became the place where the past was celebrated. The themes of heroism and harmony it supplied were comforting and inspiring to readers. Some of these were political conservatives, and some of them had an ulterior motive for underwriting popular history-to promulgate a noncritical view of the past that validated not only prior but present arrangements of power and private property. The new history was inherently liberal and oftentimes lent itself to demands for redistribution of wealth or reparations to the oppressed, considered a dangerous concept by conservative thinkers.

But popular history had another kind of allure for its authors, including the four discussed in this book: celebrity. Stephen Ambrose came closest to achieving it, and in a way he was the most candid of the four. He said that his critics were jealous of his success. With success came recognition, fame, and fortune. These are powerful attractions. Most academic historians are not proof against them; they just do not have the opportunities, or lack the interest to pursue them, or are not willing to make the compromises necessary to follow Ambrose's route, even if they could. Being a successful popular historian has a tremendous up side. In addition to having a far larger audience for one's writing, there is the money, the attention, and enough academic honors (for some popularizers hold and retain academic posts) to induce the cutting of corners now and again.

Meanwhile, the new history has embraced its own worst tendencies. It has never been as mindful of its own anarchistic implications as it should have been. With the authority and expertise of its creators such as Gary Nash thrown into disrepute in the 1990s, the new history adapted to public controversy by becoming consumer-driven. It became whatever its buyers wanted and ultimately proclaimed that there was no historical truth out there. In early 2004, the Public Broadcasting Service presented a program on Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion. As a result of the uprising, hundreds of black people and 55 white people (almost all of them women and children) were killed. It is a historical fact that views of these events varied over time and place.

In the years immediately after the uprising, Southern slave holders used the specter of Nat Turner to warn that every bondsman was a devil at heart. Contrariwise, for black power advocates in the 1960s, Turner was the epitome of heroic self-sacrifice for a noble cause. New historians, observing this process, decided that Turner was whatever people wanted him to be. As the Dunning Prize-winning historian David Blight recently put it, "For those who need a slave rebel, he serves that purpose. For those who need to see him as a deranged revolutionary who likes slaughtering people, they can see that too. He's forever our own invention, in some ways."

Thus, in the eye of the new history, the real Nat Turner can no longer be found. He ceases to exist. Only his image lives, an image continually reinvented. In the end, as Kenneth Greenberg, a historian of the antebellum South and an adviser for the PBS program on Nat Turner, recently told an interviewer, "'We know the truth we [historians] tell will fade away. Whatever truths we've subscribed to are not the truths our children and grandchildren will subscribe to.'" But consider what this otherwise learned conclusion says to the viewer of the program. It says that disagreements over the real Turner, and by logical extension, over the validity of all historical research and writing, are little more than debates over the relative virtues of fad diets. It's all a matter of taste, not truth. There are no immutable facts, and there never can be, for each interest group and each generation will make up its own facts. And if the study of history is nothing more than make-believe, why bother condemning Ambrose and the others? Instead, let the buyer of history books beware.

The PBS program was meant for general viewers, just as Ambrose's books were aimed at the general reading public. The new historians' embrace of arch-relativism may only reach to popular works (there still being no shortage of sharp controversy over facts in the scholarly journals), but it was the scholars' decision to ignore popular history that hamstrung the profession's response to Ambrose and the others in the first place.

History reviews in nonscholarly venues proved that Ambrose had a point. Scholarly referees of books for academic presses might nitpick, but popular reviews asked for a whopping good story told with as few obtrusive footnote numbers and quotation marks on the page as possible. As a scholar reviewing a dual history of Pocahontas and John Smith for a major newspaper recently complained, "Only another historophile would love this book. Despite the dust-jacket assertion that the book is 'gripping' . . . the narrative is terribly bogged down by endless citations from primary documents--the sort of scholarship that college history teachers and doctoral dissertation directors delight in." The novelist-reviewer for Entertainment Weekly, Zoe Heller, felt confident reporting that Unsettled, Melvin Konner's history of the Jews, "is that rarest of achievements--a scholarly study that is entirely accessible to the common reader." Scott McLemee, a prize-winning book reviewer who writes for the Baltimore Sun, simply used the code words "is not intended for specialists" to convey the same message of praise to potential readers of the historian Richard J. Evans's The Comingof the Third Reich: A History.

Clearly, popular history will always sell, even when its authors have been proved to be cheats. Commercial success does not correlate with scholarly ethics. Notwithstanding all the hoopla about his plagiarism, Ambrose's books still fill a shelf at Barnes & Noble, and the Smithsonian Institution's website still features him as one of the "Voices from the Smithsonian Associates." The welcome page for his talk touts his books on the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lewis and Clark expedition as though they were above reproach. Bellesiles is still publishing for the general public. The new edition of Arming America is available at Barnes & Noble stores. There is no warning label for unwary readers that some material in it might be invalid. He is once again a frequent contributor to the H-List and writes with authority on the uses of history, among other subjects. Ellis, too, is back in harness, penance done, speaking for the Founding Fathers, applying the lessons of their words to subjects as controversial as same-sex marriage and gay rights, eager to put the past he invented behind him. He reviews for the prestigious New York Times Book Review and has written a major biography of George Washington. Goodwin is also composing a biography of a hero of American history, Abraham Lincoln. Like Ellis, she has found a secure haven in consensus history, and the liberal media seem eager to let bygones be bygones.

My survey of readers' responses to works of popular history on Amazon.com suggested that the accusations of misconduct against the four made little difference to ordinary readers. For them, reading history is not a critical intellectual act, but a form of entertainment. In entertainment, fabrication and borrowing are not only commonplace, they are taken for granted. Ken Hitchcock is the coach of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers and a self-described "history buff." He told a reporter, "I love the historical side of everything. . . . I could watch the History Channel all day." Or consider the reading tastes of the actor Keith Carradine. He is more than just a familiar figure in westerns; he is another history buff, and in 2004 he was hosting a cable TV show entitled "Wild West Tech." On it, he boasted, "Research based on original documents and newspaper accounts, plus input from historians and reenactors, ensures accuracy." That's what history was all about to him, and to his viewers. "There's no excuse for getting it wrong," he told an interviewer, "and getting it right, is, in fact, more interesting." For his own role as Wild Bill Hickok in the series "Deadwood," Carradine told a Satellite Direct reporter that he "read biographies and historical articles, 'basically everything I could get my hands on.'" He had no need to determine whether those biographies and articles were done by freelancers, popular historians, or university professors; whether they were original research or synthesis, or even plagiarized. Only the interesting facts mattered to Carradine--and others, too, as witness the over 3,000 websites on Google.com that offer "interesting historical facts" of one kind or another, ranging from facts about lightships to facts about Lexington, Massachusetts. When I visited them, these websites did not seem to evince the least concern as to who originally gathered the facts or whether the language in which they were expressed was borrowed.

Popular consensus history fills the bookstore shelves. New history hides itself like Rapunzel in her tower. Even university bookstores favor the popular yarn over the academic treatise. A variant of Gresham's Law: the bad celebratory chronicle drives out the sound, critical scholarship. It is ironic if predictable that the same media outlets that fete commercialism turn like attack dogs on historians when they err.

But the profession has done no better. The AHA's integrity code was already on the books when the four cases in this book erupted in the press. The Statement on Standards (even in the absence of adjudication of complaints by the Professional Division) clearly was relevant to the misconduct of Ambrose, Goodwin, Bellesiles, and Ellis, but no historian rushed to say so. Indeed, when the frauds were unveiled, professional historians were not the whistle blowers. It was through anonymous tips to journalists looking for scoops that the misconduct came to light. Interviewed by reporters on the case, leading historians voiced judgments so complex and vague that the oracle at Delphi would have been envious. While professionals fumbled the opportunity to construct a virtual national classroom in which they could have used the cases to teach sound historical methods, the journalists and pundits got all the lessons wrong. The critics saw the cases either as symptoms of a global meltdown of standards or proof of the cupidity of a few sneaks. Because they did not think in historical terms, or understand the long historical causes of the crisis, they did not see the long dark side of the American history writing.

Ideally, over the long span of time the real cure for falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism in history is more, better, history. A truly free marketplace of ideas, regulated by generations of scholars, will eventually discredit the fakes and ferret out the forgers. But even if one takes comfort in the ideal of a marketplace of ideas, that wonderful metaphor of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., so important to the concept of free speech, does not work as well when applied to history.

There are two marketplaces where historians hawk their wares, and the professional market's regulators, its impartial referees and its editorial boards, do not oversee what the hawkers of popular history are doing. What is more frightening still, poorly researched, tendentiously argued, and just plain fake histories may have an impact on the making of public opinion and public policy before the remedies of a free marketplace of ideas can take effect.

Nor does public shame, the ultimate penalty for historians' misconduct according to the Statement on Standards, actually repair the damage that misconduct does. Eric Foner, president of the AHA at the time that its council told the Professional Division to stand down on adjudication, has insisted that "publicity is the best way to handle" misconduct. But in an increasingly shameless culture--where The NewRepublic's reporter Stephen Glass, who invented interviews with invented people, publishes a novel and has a movie based on his lying; the plagiarist Jayson Blair, late of the New York Times, gets a huge advance from a publisher for his book Burning Down My Master'sHouse; and Monica Lewinsky writes a tell-all book on her escapades in the Oval Office--publicity seems to work the other way: it benefits the wrongdoer. When a Jayson Blair can spend an entire day on various television shows plugging his book, how can anyone take shaming seriously? I have found little evidence that Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin felt anything more than embarrassment and anger at any time during their public grilling.

At the height of the scandal over Ambrose and the others, the OAH executive board issued a statement, "Professional Integrity." At its core was the injunction that "historians seek truth." The AHA weighed in with its own proposal: "The Association will mount a more visible campaign of public education, explaining why the historical profession cares about plagiarism, falsification of evidence, and other violations of scholarly integrity." The terse but majestic praise of truth seeking in history in the OAH statement sounded like an idealized version of consensus history, and the AHA's proposed campaign concealed what was in reality a retreat from professional responsibility. If they had any real value, the two statements proved that professional historians had finally grasped the reality that something was very wrong with historical scholarship. But mere words will not heal this suppurating wound. High-flown pronouncements of principle only underline the profession's unwillingness to act in cases of misconduct. Pious moralism cannot conceal a hypocritical refusal to enforce ethical precepts.

I wrote in the preface to this book that my experience on the Professional Division convinced me that I had to write about these cases. In fact what piqued my concern was the AHA's decision to pull the plug on the division. At the precise moment that the profession needed to have in place some formal mechanism for hearing and deciding such cases, the AHA council directed the Professional Division not to continue its program of hearing complaints. In a press release, the executive director of the AHA announced that "adjudication . . . has proven to be ineffective for responding to misconduct in the historical profession." The division would now . . . promote the Statement on Standards as a document other institutions should use when addressing charges of professional misconduct among historians [and] publish a wide array of advisory documents to educate historians and members of the public about why historians care so much about professional integrity, how misconduct undermines the entire historical enterprise, how to prevent it, and how to respond to it when it occurs.

But these were general solutions to particular problems, like announcing a public-health code when a victim had a spurting artery. In the wake of the AHA decision to abandon adjudication, the lessons of the four cases, and the long and turbulent history of historical writing preceding them, dissolve before our eyes. I expect that they will become footnotes, revisited by history graduate students in the first week of their methods courses and by journalists when they want to write about the next inexplicable and despicable wave of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism. An objective observer might conclude that the professionals had retreated to their classrooms and their libraries, leaving the freelancers, the journalists, and the popular historians with their high-powered editors as masters of the field. At its 2004 meeting, the OAH convened a panel of leading historians to discuss ethical misconduct in the profession. As the observer for the History News Network remarked with some bemusement, only 13 people sat through the proceedings.

But if academic historians are to shoulder the burden of providing a truly serviceable history to the public, they must be willing to take strong and pointed action against individuals guilty of scholarly misconduct. They cannot allow misconduct to hide itself behind the veil of popularity. The profession has precedent for this kind of courage. In 1995, after the city of Cincinnati rescinded an ordinance guaranteeing equal rights to people regardless of their sexual orientation, the AHA withdrew its convention from Cincinnati and moved it to Chicago. In 2000, when the OAH was informed that a hotel chain might have discriminated against people of color, it shifted its convention headquarters from one of the chain's hotels to a different location. Those bold (and expensive) public acts demonstrated that the two associations would not tolerate sexual or racial discrimination. It is long past time for all of us who teach and write history to take the same kind of stand against professional malfeasance.