John Hope Franklin: Warns of bias in history

Historians in the News

John Hope Franklin and Romila Thapar treated students, professors and community members to an in-depth discussion on the role of historians in social and cultural change at the Divinity School's Goodson Chapel Saturday.

Franklin, James B. Duke professor emeritus of history, and Thapar, professor emeritus of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, discussed the evolution of the study of history in front of a packed audience Saturday afternoon. The talk-"The Historian in the World"-was sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Institute, with Srinivas Aravamudan, director of the institute and a professor of English, moderating the discussion.

The talk opened with conversation about how historians from different academic backgrounds-Thapar as a classicist and Franklin as a modern historian-could relate to one another.

"There is a common experience one has as a historian, whether it is 19th-century United States history or history from 1000 or 2000 years ago," Franklin said.

Much of the talk focused on the necessity of avoiding bias in historical scholarship. One topic of discussion was the importance of properly finding and interpreting historical evidence and the necessity of having accurate history textbooks in primary and secondary schools. Thapar said objecivity in school textbooks is particularly a problem in India, her home country.

"When I evaluated the textbooks used by 12- and 13-year-olds in India, I found that they were horrible," she said. "The textbook publishing committee is not autonomous, so every time a new [political] party is elected to power the information in the textbooks is changed to conform to the party's ideals."

Franklin said he is concerned about how ideologies affect people's perception of history. "When historians look at history through an economic viewpoint, or just a political viewpoint, or a viewpoint dealing with just social groups, history can become narrow and imprecise," Franklin said.

As an example, he said bias can lead to the history of certain U.S. regions being misrepresented as the history of the entire country.

"The history of the South, or the West, or the Industrial North is different from the complete history of the United States," Franklin said. "Emphasis on the history of a certain region stands in the way of understanding [the] history of the United States as a unified history." ...

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