Book Notes: Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble

I’m going to return to my aspiration to make regular entries about books I’m reading, partly to help me to work my way through the growing stack of things I’ve put on my “to be read” pile. These aren’t reviews: they’re just questions and reactions of varying length about particular books I’ve read.

With Historians in Trouble, one of the things that struck me is that most of the trouble Wiener describes doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with the discipline of history per se. For example, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s troubles, discussed in Chapter One, strike me as being highly generic to academia as a whole, possibly even to professional life more broadly. The allegation is that she abused her subordinates and had them perform duties that they should not have had to perform, and that she treated graduate students as subordinates. It’s not quite dog bites man, but I don’t think it’s altogether that uncommon or unusual a story in academia, either, more’s the pity. But that fact that Fox-Genovese is a historian doesn’t seem to me to have anything to do with it. The same goes for the case of Stephen Thernstrom.

Some of the other cases he deals with: Michael Bellesiles, David Abraham, Edward Pearson, definitely do involve the specific craft of historical scholarship. This is one of the basic problems I had with the overall book: Wiener understands the major difference between these controversies in right-left terms, and in terms of the degree of public spectacle they involved, but there’s a real apples-and-oranges problem at the heart of the book. Before we get to questions of political polarization, there’s just a basic difference between what Fox-Genovese was alleged to have done and what Bellesiles was alleged to have done.

Fox-Genovese’s trespasses were about professional and social relations within academic institutions, about power; Bellesiles’ trespasses were about craftwork, about professional standards for publication. It seems to me obvious that these two kinds of accusations are going to play out differently both because they involve different kinds of evidence (to discuss Fox-Genovese requires talking about testimonial evidence; to discuss Bellesiles involves talking about archives and documentary evidence) and because the harms involved are understood differently.

In the end, there’s probably more professional consensus among historians, regardless of political leanings, that what Bellesiles did is unacceptable. (I think Wiener strains mightily here to make it sound like historians on the left are largely sympathetic to Bellesiles and beleagured by right-wing critics outside the academy). That’s because the nature of the evidence and the nature of the trespass are things which permit greater consensus. Fox-Genovese’s case is uncomfortable in different ways, perhaps not the least because powerful senior scholars on both the right and the left who teach in research universities have probably committed some of the same sins over time: to critique what she did almost requires signing on to a larger critique of power relations within academic life that cannot be easily contained to the usual identity-politics terms that many on the left would like to remain within.

Wiener’s right that the right-left divide within the public sphere weighs heavily on a lot of the cases he cites. Certainly there is to me and others a nasty double standard in the differing public readings of Bellesiles and John Lott, who seem to me to have engaged in somewhat similar behavior. But in a lot of cases, it seems to me Weiner is not very interested in the historical roots and contemporary practice of the professional ethos of historians in specific or academics in general. If you want to understand the cases of Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin, for example, I don’t think it’s very relevant to talk about right and left (Wiener agrees with this) but neither are the usual discourses about plagiarism much help. The problem with Ambrose and Goodwin is the problem with an entire model of productivity in research universities, where famous senior scholars produce books with the paid help of a number of research assistants. This model is less common among historians than it is legal scholars or in other fields, and appropriately so: the writing of scholarly history, it seems to me, requires that the individual author not only craft all the prose, but to know the archives, the sources, the architecture of evidence. I don’t mean that historians should never use assistants but they clearly should do so in very circumscribed ways. That’s one story I think has to come into focus in these cases. Another that Wiener is more alert to is the highly institutionalized manner that all public figures in contemporary American life use to absolve themselves of wrong-doing: confess mistakes but never intent of wrong-doing, retreat temporarily from public life, accept ceremonial punishment. Those techniques are not available to those who are not already public figures, who do not already have some kind of power–but they’re also not available to those who do not possess some marketable talent. Goodwin was back on the air pretty quickly because she is articulate and affable, not just because she is powerful and has many powerful friends.

I’m just not convinced that these cases all belong together, and if they do, I don’t think their association tells us much about the public sphere or right-left antagonism: the only threads weaving in and out here seem to me to be more subtle kinds of collisions between the ethos of academic professionalism and the marketplace of public culture, about the fading gentility of scholarly life, the ferocity of careerist professionalism, the commodification of academic reputation. I can’t say that I found Wiener particularly attentive to those questions.

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2 Responses to Book Notes: Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble

  1. Ralph says:

    I’m inclined to agree with most of what you say here about the “history scandals” and Jon’s highly politicized reading of them. The Fox-Genovese and Thernstrom controversies had little to do with the fact that they are historians and Weiner’s thesis that conservative scholars have survived with little damage done, while lefty scholars have been savaged is not a very illuminating — or even accurate — way of interpreting what happened. One might well ask why Jon didn’t treat the case of Ann Lane, a lefty scholar who committed major plagiarism with her first book, took a minor hit, and after a very comfortable academic career will retire very comfortably from the University of Virginia. I’d say that he didn’t treat it because it doesn’t serve his thesis. It certainly isn’t because he didn’t know about the case. Really, even though it has its own problems, I’d much more highly recommend Peter Charles Hoffer’s book, Past Imperfect.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Hoffer’s book is high on my list–I remember you recommending it more than Wiener over at Cliopatria.

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