25 July 2011

Should We Trust Academic Historians?

"Beware committees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders and important events." ~ Historian Paul Johnson (Intellectuals, page 342) 

Over the next few weeks I intend to upload a series of posts about academic and professional historians and why I do not believe their analysis/perspective should be given any more credence than anyone else writing or commenting on history and history related subjects. I reject the premise that someone with an advanced degree in history should be presumed to be any better at researching or analyzing historical facts. To put it simply - knowledge does not equate wisdom; especially in today's politically correct environment. Results and experience mean much more to me than "book learning", though study and knowledge are certainly very important.

I've often taken heat on this blog from professional historians for ostensibly promoting history which is skewed by my political views. That's a fair criticism - to a point. As I often point out, I do not hide my political views nor pretend that I approach the study of history void of a particular worldview or perspective. Read my header. 

But that criticism is only fair to a point. Many of the same academic historians and critics, who have been critical of me over this issue, will then hold up as examples of "objective", "scholarly", and "sophisticated" analysis, historians who also approach the study of history with a particular worldview - just one that is different than mine. I really don't have a problem with that. Everyone does it and no one's work or analysis is void of certain settled views - despite loud protests declaring the opposite.

I had intended on writing one very long post about this issue, using an "essay" that appeared on History News Network in April of 2008. The essay served as a public endorsement of Barack Obama's campaign for President. The essay was endorsed by a number of notable academic historians. I've actually worked on that post, saving it over and over again, since 2009. But it recently became obvious to me that the post was going to be much too long and, due to the nature of blogging, I came to the conclusion that it would be better if I served the post up in smaller helpings and then write a longer conclusion to wrap it all up. 

I will use the essay as a reference base to point out inconsistencies and illustrate why I do not trust an academic historian simply because he/she has an advanced degree. While some might give someone like that the benefit of the doubt when it comes to analysis, I actually take a contrarian position. I will usually assume an academic historian is carrying a lot of politically correct, leftist baggage and that I will likely need to sift through and weed out lots of nonsense and leftist ideology.

What makes the essay I'm using all the more interesting from my perspective is that there are quite a few popular Civil War historians who lent their names to the political endorsement which was posted at HNN. I would have to believe that at least a few of all the historians who signed on to this essay would like to rewind and be given the opportunity to rethink their position. I think you'll see why.

But to be clear, the things I'll be pointing out about this whole subject are not exclusive to just these "Historians For Obama." They just happen to provide a convenient example for reference. As I've noted here on a number of occasions, there are plenty of other studies and examples one could cite regarding the political slant of academic historians. Moreover, a number of other Civil War and history bloggers and professional historians also made public endorsements of Barack Obama - and then went on to criticize folks like me for being unable to accurately analyze historical facts due to my political views. One well known CW blogger publicly endorsed President Obama, while another spoke of his personal involvement in support of John Edwards' campaign. But I don't recall any criticism of this - at least not to the extent I've experienced here.

And now, for the first, short installment:

The HNN essay referred to above included the following "analysis":

"Due to the arrogant, inept foreign policy of the current [Bush] administration, more people abroad mistrust and fear the United States than at any time since the height of the Vietnam War." 

And . . . 

"We endorse Barack Obama for president because we think he is the candidate best able to address and start to solve these profound problems. As historians . . ."

And . . .

"As president, Barack Obama would only begin the process of healing what ails our society and ensuring that the U.S. plays a beneficial role in the world." 

But, here's the reality in July of 2011:

"President Obama has failed to live up to the expectations he created in the Arab world, according to a new poll released by Zogby International and the Arab American Institute Foundation. The poll also noted that most Arab countries view the U.S. less favorably today than they did during the last year of the Bush administration." (Source.)

And . . .

"Add Latin America to the list of regions upset with President Obama's lack of follow-through on campaign and White House promises."(Source.)

These are just two examples. There are others one could cite.

Conclusion: The professional historians got it wrong. And, it is my opinion that, the reason they got it wrong is because they allowed their politics to color their analysis - which is what I'm often accused of. Funny, I've never seen my critics take these folks to task.
Hmmmm . . .

Moreover, what is most important to realize is that anyone with just a fundamental understanding of Obama's (and the left's) view of foreign relations and America's history, should have seen that Obama would ultimately fail in what many would characterize as utopian and unrealistic goals.

Question - if the politics and worldview of these academics, bloggers, and professional historians caused them to err in this analysis - which involved very recent history - does the possibility exist their worldview and politics would cause them to err in other areas of historical analysis regarding much earlier history? In other words, if these academics can't get recent history (much of which they've lived through and experienced first hand) right, should they be given the benefit of the doubt on history much further removed from their own lifetimes? The answer is, of course, quite obvious; at least to me.

Next installment coming soon.


13thBama said...

Let me cite another reason to not trust progressive historians.

They call themselves progressives because they know they had better not admit to being socialists. So, in short, they are lying to everyone by making up a new name for themselves.

So am I to believe then that this is the only lie they are willing to tell? Am I to sit comfortably in my den and read their output thinking that they would never try to deceive me in anything else?


Danny McCoy said...

Do you think there is a difference between the historians interpretation of events that have not happened like Obama's presidency when they signed the letter and the events they study from the past?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Danny - yes, of course. None of us are prophets. But the point I attempted to make, perhaps not very well, is that historians should be able to look at recent history - and learn from it - in formulating opinions on policy positions of any politician. A historian is considered an expert regarding the past and historical facts and should, one would normally assume, be better equipped to analyze the past, i.e. what has failed miserably, what has worked well when it comes to government, society, culture, etc. To be blunt - socialism/statism does not work. Quite obviously, many academic historians failed (and continue to do so) in seeing what has happened right before their eyes (the Soviet Union, China, many European countries, etc.). I hope I'll make that a bit clearer in future posts on this same topic.

Also, the folks who signed on to this rather sophomoric sounding endorsement went beyond the norm for a simple political endorsement, at least in my mind. The reasoning (or rather, lack thereof), is extremely shallow, without real substance and quite partisan. Not exactly what one would expect from folks with advanced degrees. And, just to remind everyone, they signed on to this "as historians." It sounds more like something written by a 20-something MoveOn.org activist.

Do feel free to add more details about how you feel about your question.

Thanks for your comment and question.

Danny McCoy said...

You have a point but I think your assesment of the current administration being socialistic is a bit of a stretch. Sure it is liberal, but socialistic...IMHO...I disagree.

Looking foward to reading future posts.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Danny - I understand your disagreement, but if you'll look at Obama's background, his mentors, his associations, many of his appointments and consider all that together with many of his policies, I don't believe the label "socialist" is at all a stretch. He must maintains some semblance of "moderate" in order to win elections, but that's a mask - at least as I view things.

I appreciate your time and comment. Do feel free to comment any time.

13thBama said...

Not sure if anyone is still watching this thread, but here is a question for you.

Does it seem that historians will go the way of Baptists and Democrats? Meaning, will they split into two factions? In this case, Conservative and Progressive?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

13B - I think that happened long ago. But I think the problem is that a leftist worldview is favored and institutionalized in most colleges and universities, which makes it difficult for conservatives to get tenure - thus they don't get "noticed" by "mainstream" academia. That comment may be met with howls of protests(from progressives), but there is empirical evidence to support that statement. They can howl all they want. Just read Eugene Genovese's "THE SOUTHERN FRONT ~ History and Politics in the Cultural War." It is an extremely well-written, fair, and balanced look at this issue; particularly as it applies to the history of the American South. And Genovese was, at the time, an avowed Marxist! (But an honest one.)

13thBama said...

An honest Marxist? Interesting.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Yeah, I know. He had, by that time, begun to "see the light." He now professes to be a devout Catholic and convert to conservatism.