…but I’ve been accused of it before.
I realize I have posted nothing in a very long while. It may seem a little odd that I’m going to post a general history piece on a Civil War blog as the first piece back, but, here goes.
I have been reading about the recent controversy surrounding Purdue University President (also former Indiana governor and potential presidential candidate) Mitch Daniels’ email comments regarding the late Howard Zinn’s writings. Most of the comments I’ve seen from historians, both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning, focus on Zinn’s work A People’s History of the United States. The book came in second as the least credible history book in print in an informal poll of historians conducted by George Mason University’s History News Network (HNN). In addition, I have been looking at the hoopla over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies, listed as the least credible history book in print in the same poll.
In my defense, as well as that of both Barton and Zinn, I have read neither work. That being said, the following is commentary on the situation as a total outsider, not only as an observer of the debate, but also as a historian. My credentials as a history teacher, though it has been a few years, are well-documented on this site, but this goes beyond a content and pedagogy argument. It goes to what is good history and how it is presented.
I understand most history books are written for historians, or at least with them as the chief audience. That, however, does not mean that there is no small amount of mass appeal when a book is considered for print. That is just the fiscal side of the printing business. How the mass appeal is marketed may be different. Whether it be through a mainstream publisher as opposed to a university press or marketing the book as a potential history text for the classroom, there is still a certain amount of mass appeal for every work published or it sits in the author’s file.
What is bothersome to me about these controversies is, if these are indeed works of questionable credibility, why were they published in the first place? What editor allowed this to happen? Wouldn’t a small check of facts reveal this? If the evidence reveals an error of fact, a significant omission, an outright fabrication or a misrepresentation of the historical record, why publish them?
These questions become important when seen in light of the many overstatement of facts and oversimplification of causes surrounding many historical events by the population at large. While I am not a university-trained historian, I have learned to look at history books with a much more critical eye because of teaching. That is just not true for the average person who may be interested enough in a historical figure or event to read more about the person or event.
This is not simply a “liberal” versus “conservative” argument, though it seems to have been reduced to that with these two works. It’s not really about using history to achieve a political agenda, though, again, that seems to be where the debate about these two works has gone, especially for Barton’s. The argument, most precisely and accurately, is just that — one of precision and accuracy. A precise and accurate investigation and interpretation is demanded, not only by the history profession, but also by the public.
In the end, this becomes an argument for academic freedom and intellectual integrity. Is any author free to interpret the facts of history with their own prejudices and influences? Of course. Does that mean I, or anyone else, will agree with that interpretation? No, but these are the essence of academic freedom. Does that make the author wrong because I, or anyone else, disagrees? No. What makes the author wrong is if they have played fast and loose with the facts while reaching their conclusions. That is the only argument that means anything in this debate.