More than 30 years ago, when I began toiling in the academic vineyards, a cynical fellow grad student (is there any other kind?) suggested that for many books an honest dedication would read,"To my graduate students, who did the research, wrote the book, and explained it to me."
That may be a bit much (only a bit?), but it does highlight the fact that issues of academic honesty are not new. A spectacular if unpublicized example: in the '60s, a historian mastered Grover Cleveland's prose style (inviting the musical question,"WHY??") and wrote a dissertation based on fabricated quotations. Caught, he was stripped of his degree, his book was recalled, and he faded into suitable oblivion.
So when Peter Charles Hoffer, a historian at the University of Georgia, suggests that the recent cases of Michael Bellesiles, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph Ellis represent something new, methinks he misspeaks. What's new is the publicity attending the controversies, as academics become just one more variety of celebrity to be toasted and roasted over media coals.
Hoffer has actually written two books."Part One: Facts and Fictions" tours 150 years of American historical writing so quickly that everything is flattened. Hoffer says that American historical writing before 1970 can be summarized as" consensus history." To Hoffer, this seems to mean it was nationalistic and triumphalist, written almost entirely by male WASPs.
This will not only confuse people who know that the term" consensus historians" is applied particularly to post-war scholars such as Daniel Boorstin and Richard Hofstadter, it also oversimplifies unconscionably. Historical writing was never so homogenized -- consider only Charles Beard's influential Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) and other"progressive" histories, to which Hoffer barely nods. The"revolution" in historical writing (featuring the"new social history") that debuted in the early '70s had ample precedents, as Ellen Fitzpatrick's splendid History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980 (2002) points out.
Hoffer does better in"Part Two: Fraud." He shows how Bellesiles wrote Arming America (2000) with doctored evidence and rampant disregard for responsible historical argument, how popular (in two senses of the word) historians Goodwin and Ambrose misrepresented the words of others as their own, and how Ellis created a fictitious personal past for the"benefit" of his students.
Unfortunately, tracing their transgressions primarily to the"history wars" of the last 30 years just doesn't work. Hoffer is closer to the right track when considering the rise of Internet bloggers and the politics of academic celebrity. (For a more thorough, if jargon-riddled, study of that, see Ron Robin's new Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy, University of California Press.) But lying, cheating and stealing are ancient crimes whose roots extend far outside the parochial world of the historical profession.
Reprinted from the Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2004.