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Sep 10, 2006 8:34 am

Where Historians Often Go Wrong

On May 22, 2004, Alan Charles Kors, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spoke on historians and history before a convention of the National Association of Scholars. I was delighted when the speech appeared as “Where Is History?” in the Summer, 2004 issue of Academic Questions. I came upon the article again recently and felt obligated to share some of its profound and timely insights.

“The worst characteristic of academic historians today,” Kors argues, “is tendentiousness, seeing their work as an extension of their politics, and merely looking for evidence, however nonrepresentative, to support what they wish to believe.” This approach to the past is largely a product of “generations radicalized or reradicalized by the sixties and its legacies, of ethnic groups previously absent from academic life, and of women with often essential feminist commitments.” True, such historians have opened areas of intellectual study that were ignored far too long, such as the history of sex and sexuality. But this important innovation has very often led to history that is judged for its political correctness, and results in an ideological test on which to base jobs, tenure, and promotion. Kors contends that scholars should be “judging work by its intellectual force, its provocation of vital debate, and its shedding of light on historian phenomena, even if we ourselves should choose to shed that light from other directions. We have a right to demand probative research, rigorous inquiry, and logical relationship of explanation or theory to data, not to demand ideological, theoretical, or political commitments.” In short, Kors is arguing for authentic pluralism and the value of open debate, not the one party dogmatism that has a hammerlock on so many academic departments today.

Secondly, Kors contends, ideologically driven historians misunderstand reality. They “imagine that goodness, wisdom, order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that it is malice, folly, disorder, war, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty that stand in need of purely historical explanation.” This is, of course, a misreading of human nature and of history that also sets the agenda for most journalists, which is why newspapers and television news programs dwell almost exclusively upon horror, evil, and insanity. (The root of this disposition, in my judgment, often lies in the upper socio-economic backgrounds of the writers, people estranged from the life and times of average citizens who have not been influenced by Rousseau and the postmodernists. Secularism can also blind one to the hard view of human nature presented by the Judeo-Christian tradition.) The upshot of this misunderstanding is a history that focuses upon the worst that can be found or imagined, especially within the West.

Kors writes, “It is the existence and agency of Western values by which…injustice has been and is being progressively overcome that truly should excite our curiosity and awe. Anti-Semitism is not surprising; the opening of Christian America to Jews is what should amaze. Racial aversion and injustice are not the source of wonderment; the Fourteenth Amendment and its gradual implementation are what should astonish. It is not the abuse of power that requires explanation—that is surely the human condition—but the Western rule of law. Similarly, it is not coerced religious conformity that should leave us groping for understanding, but the forging of the values and institutions of religious toleration.”

Kors continues, “Most dramatically, of course, it is not slavery that requires explanation—slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions—but, rather, the values and agency by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and, astonishment of astonishments, abolished it.” The existence of poverty, the author argues, should not be an occasion of wonder; hunger has always haunted humanity. “What we ignore are the values, institutions, knowledge, risk, ethics, and liberties that created prosperity to such a degree that pockets of poverty now draw public attention and the impulse to remediate them.”

Historians, in short, focus upon the wrong things, emphasizing the problems without acknowledging the accomplishments and aspirations of a civilization that produced more freedom and prosperity than any other has. Kors calls this “a failure of intellectual analysis,” which it clearly is.

The historians very often see only what they want to see, and the picture is often bleak. “In the midst of unparalleled social mobility in the West, they cry ‘caste,’ In a society of munificent goods and services, they cry either ‘poverty’ or ‘consumerism.’ In a society of ever richer, more varied, more productive, more self-defined, and more satisfying lives, they cry alienation. In a society that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and gays and lesbians to an extent that no one could have dreamed possible just fifty years ago, they cry ‘oppression.’ In a society of boundless private charity, they cry ‘avarice.’ In a society in which hundreds of millions have been free riders upon the risk, knowledge, and capital of others, they cry ‘exploitation.’ In a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth, they cry ‘injustice.’”

Still, Kors remains guardedly optimistic about the historical profession, noting that we still, at least in principle, rely upon archival materials and are trained to pursue inductive logic and evidence. We are more capable of reform than those, say, in literature. He advises academics, “Do not give up. Win struggles for the critical and honest mind field by field, and discipline by discipline. That is your moral obligation.”

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Jason B Keuter - 9/21/2006

Maybe the best post I've read on HNN....

I would argue that the academic left is actually constructing a kind of perverse religion. Their vision of "perfection" is much like a "paradise lost" and their explanations for the loss of paradise relies on cunning, deception and manipulation by forces they all but call evil. And, they have annointed themselves the clerics who will steer the misguided flock on the right path. Further, they've endowed their mission with such significance, that they envision apocalyptic consequences should they be thwarted. Last, they both attack and use state power and are more than willing to ally themselves with outside powers when they feel the rulers of their own lands don't pay them adequate heed and homage.

Next, while most historians certainly are part of a narrow secular intellectual world, most of their students are not - especially in those auditorium sized courses they take to fulfill requirements (i.e the ones that, unlike seminars of true beleivers, actually pay the bills). Absent the stullifying power to punish students with bad grades, they would actually be exposed to the fact that their student body is diverse - as opposed to primarily composed of mis-led aspirants to the rungs of the upper middle class where they will serve as functionaries for evil.

Other words for all of this are gross hypocrisy and abuse of power.