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Sep 3, 2004 6:27 am

Clayton Right/Clayton Wrong ...

As if Clayton Cramer hasn't already commented extensively here, he responds at his own blog with a hypothetical: a historian publishes a book – not about the paucity of guns in early America – but about Happy Slaves. Read his hypothetical and let us know over here what you think about it. He doesn't have reader feedback on his blog.

In comments below, Andrew Ackerman, who followed the Bellesiles case closely at Emory, and Danny Loss, who admits to not knowing much about the case, but was surprised at Claytonian logic, both ask legitimate questions. Ackerman asks"Are you historians going to respond to Clayton Cramer's indictment of the profession or are you just going to ignore him?" Loss asks"Will Clayton Cramer respond to the questions posed to him?"

I can't speak for either Clayton Cramer or for the history profession. I have some familiarity with the Bellesiles case and some sense about the history profession. From those perspectives, I think there are two things to be said: 1) Clayton is right; and 2) Clayton is wrong. I'm not being facetious, straddling a fence, or displaying the yellow stripe that runs down my back.

Clayton is right about the Bellesiles case having been a huge embarrassment to American historians. It embarrassed a major department, a prime publisher, our most important journal, our peer review processes, our most important prize for outstanding work, major sources of funding – the whole apparatus for academic work in history. I think even those who didn't follow the case closely know that there were enormous consequences for Bellesiles. He lost his job, his book was withdrawn by his publisher, and his prestigious prize was rescinded. More importantly for the profession, the Bellesiles case occurred concurrently with other serious embarrassments. So much so that both the American Historical Association (see: Perspectives: Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association, 42 [February and March 2004]: 17-23, 21-25) and the Organization of American Historians (see: Journal of American History, 90 [March 2004]: 1325-1356)* took action to review where we stand. If anything, there is a sense in which Cramer understates the problem because of his Michael-one-note. So, my answer to Andrew Ackerman is that the historians are responding to the problems, even if the response isn't satisfactory to Clayton Cramer. I am enough of a Niebuhrian to be skeptical of the collective action of any group, but insofar as groups can be trusted, historians have been responding to the sense of crisis among them.

But there is a huge sense in which Cramer is utterly wrong and wrong in a way that has dogged his effectiveness in the Bellesiles case from the beginning. It is clearly evident even in his latest round of charges. Cramer makes no effort to delimit his accusations."I no longer have any illusion that these ‘professional standards' are adhered to by the vast majority of history professors teaching in the U.S.," says he. The fact is that, even if you expand from his monomaniacal fixation on the Bellesiles case to include the cases of other historians accused of ethical breaches in the last few years, as I think you must, the accusations were limited to a handful of historians, almost all of them historians of the United States and, Clayton, several of the most prominent of them were not even in the professorate or in the classroom.

But, if you look at Cramer's accusation, he makes no such distinctions: because of Bellesiles,"the vast majority" of historians of ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds, of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are guilty. Or because of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose – regardless of the fact that they were not teaching --"the vast majority of history professors teaching in the U.S." are guilty. Or, give Cramer his due, those who recommended Bellesiles's article or book for publication, recommended his project for funding or gave the book positive reviews are tainted. Regardless of the merit of that argument, you are still talking about a few dozen historians. But, because of them,"the vast majority of history professors teaching in the U.S." are guilty. How quickly the professor who teaches American constitutional history at Boisie State University dismisses the assumption of innocense until guilt is proven. And you have to prove guilt one case at a time.

I've told Clayton repeatedly that this kind of carelessness rendered his critique of Bellesiles's work largely ineffective from the outset. I've read the article he submitted to the JAH and elsewhere, which challenged Bellesiles's argument. It was suggestive and Clayton was clearly on to something, which turned out in the end to have been a big something. But it had neither the careful empirical precision of Jim Lindgren's work nor the sophistication of Bellesiles's critics in the William and Mary Quarterly. His gross accusations about"the vast majority of history professors teaching in the U.S." are symptomatic of the problem. Take it from Loss, Clayton: you're wrong. You're also right, of course; but Bellesiles doesn't a whole profession make.

*I apologize for being unable to link to these articles, but the AHA server seems to be down and the JAH articles are subscriber only.

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More Comments:

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/7/2004

Actually, Andrew, when it comes to anything related to guns, Garry Wills is very much a slouch, or worse. That's not a reflection on historians in general, nor Wills in general. I would venture a guess -- and I think it more than a guess -- that social psychologists have a greater problem, as a profession. There was a study dome two decades back (sorry, I don't remember the details) where (as an experiment) a psychologist asked, at random, several dozen social psychologists for their raw data on which their published findings were based, and something like two-thirds refused or failed to answer his request. I think historians would fare better by comparison.

Julie A Hofmann - 9/6/2004

This has nothing to do with Ralph's post, just so everybody knows. But I noticed Mr. Cramer's mom's Siamese has gone walkabout. I'll keep my fingers crossed that the kitty gets found by people rather than the all-too-common coyotes. If it helps, mine was gone for 2 weeks, and Animal Control was sure the local pack had eaten Bootsy-snacks, but we got him back. The secret is way more color flyers posted over a much larger radius than you think. Ours was found over half a mile away, as the cat slinks. Good luck.

Danny Loss - 9/4/2004

Julie, I couldn't agree more. I agree so much, in fact, that you inspired me to blog on this very topic. You can read my take here.

Julie A Hofmann - 9/3/2004

I think part of the issue is that (and this is just IMO, I make no sweeping statelents of universal moral obligation here) for many of us, our professional and mental well-being relies on believing the best in others until we see proof otherwise. In the case of accusations of scholarly fraud, etc., we (if we are honest and ethical people) also have to deal with running an emotional and intellectual gamut something akin to Kubler-Ross's Stages of Grief.
For those of us regularly engaged in an academic life, we arer constantly reminded of the importance of academic honesty. We write about it in our syllabi. We explain it to our students to make sure they understand. We discuss with our colleagues how to detect academic dishonesty and how to deal with it in a fair and ultimately productive manner. In short, it is often a central part of our daily process.
Because most of us consider academic honesty so important (and, right or wrong, there are people who consider it at least as, if not more, important than some of the Ten Commandments), it is a shock when we find that someone of otherwise good repute is accused of crossing over into the "dark side." If that person has a teaching position, and the accusations are true, we know that it will result in the expulsion of the person from our ranks, and generally from our social circles. It is a huge step, and one which Ralph rightly sees as requiring due process.

In the non-academic world, we know that this just doesn't happen. We could all name quite a few people who, as corporate executives, have been guilty of at least unethical behavior, and often outright fraud or criminal wrongdoing, who have managed to come out ahead financially, sometimes going on to even more powerful positions in business or government. Academia isn't really like that. Drumming a colleague out of the service, so to speak, is a life sentence. And like all life sentences, it's not something to be taken lightly. Careful and lengthy review are necessary both for the accused and for the system as a whole.

I think we all have seen examples where careful deliberation is generally (at least in hindsight) far preferable to swift and decisive action.

Andrew Ackerman - 9/3/2004

It's incrontrovertible that every profession is plagued with these sorts of problems. But is there a difference, say, between the likelihood of this episode being repeating in the history profession than, say, another recurrence of a Jayson Blair journalism scandal? At least newspaper editors can tighten the leash of their reporters, cut down on anonymous sources and make sure that the anonymous quotes that appear in print were said by actual people -- force the reporter to reveal his sources to his editors. In contrast, history journals are so scrappy that they don't have the resources to pour over the footnotes on all of their submissions. And even the really good journals can get duped. After all, Garry Wills is no academic slouch and he wrote a highly praising review of Bellesiles for the front of the NYTimes Book Review (not academic but a good example of this problem). Even when reputable scholars review a flawed book, they still may not catch the errors. Is there really any attempt to give more scrutiny to manuscripts and submissions at journals and book publishers and even if there were, would they be effective?

Ralph E. Luker - 9/3/2004

Well, heck, Jonathan. I wish I'd said that.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/3/2004

I think an honest and thorough review of most fields of would reveal a degree of bias (direction depends on field), insiderism, cronyism, and self-satisfaction, not to mention plagiarism, data-rigging and disingenuous selectivity. Sometimes it gets people killed (medicine); sometimes it gets them tortured (constitutional law); sometimes it bolsters blind faith (religion); mostly, though it wastes time and money and energy. But no other field operates in the public eye the way that history does.

I do not believe that history bears these sins in isolation, nor that history bears a greater burden of these sins than other fields. This does not absolve us of the need to examine our practices, consider our flaws, reform where we can. And, as you point out, we have been doing that, though with the deliberate speed of scholarly historians rather than the code-first/test-later dispatch of software engineers. This is a profession, not a government; a tradition, not a machine; a body of work which takes months and years to produce, not blog posts; reviews are not judicial decisions, and peer review is not due process.

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