THE WASHINGTON TIMES, APRIL 29, 1998
HEADLINE: HISTORIANS MOUNT CHALLENGE TO POSTMODERN ORTHODOXY; HISTORICAL
SOCIETY TO PROVIDE A CIVIL, DIVERSE FORUM
BYLINE: DAVID R. SANDS
Marc Trachtenberg refers to it as his "John Belushi letter,"
manifesto that signaled his complete alienation with the dominant forces in
The year was 1982, and the diplomatic historian from the University of
Pennsylvania was attending the annual convention of the American
Historical Association (AHA). Right there, at the profession's largest and
best-known association, he took up a resolution supporting a unilateral U.S.
freeze on nuclear weapons.
"It had a long list of 'Whereases' about the weapons industry and
that knew from my own research were completely absurd," he said. "I wrote a
letter in opposition that started out reasonably and, like Belushi in
the old 'Saturday Night Live' skits, got more and more worked up and
emotional as it went along.
"I think I got one letter in support."
Now Mr. Trachtenberg and some of the nation's most distinguished
historians from across the political spectrum have banded together to
challenge both the AHA and what they call the prevailing assumptions on
how historical evidence should be weighed. Other assumptions cover what
subjects are worthy of examination, the role of politics, ideology and
identity in the writing of history, and how history should be taught in
The Historical Society, announced at a press conference at the National
Press Club yesterday, "will be a place in which significant historical
subjects are discussed and debated sharply and frankly in an atmosphere
of civility, mutual respect and common courtesy," according to a statement
of principles released by the organizers.
"All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises;
according to the canons of logic; appeal to evidence; and prepare to
exchange criticism with those who hold different points of view," it
"We are not in rebellion against the new subject matter" focusing
such issues as race, sexuality, and gender in history, said Historical
Society founding president Eugene D. Genovese, a Marxist and professor of
"What we do object to is an imposed ideological line of any kind
compartmentalized research being done these days that is more an
exercise in self-expression than an effort to deal with objective reality," he
A "crust of dull conformity" has created an inbred profession
little relevance beyond the university gates, added Yale University's Donald
Kagan, author of a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian Wars.
"Historians should be having a constantly revolutionary effect on
American society if they were doing their job," he said. "Many of us are
troubled and disillusioned by the conditions in the profession today.
Our purpose is to create some excitement."
AHA officials said yesterday they had only just learned of the plans
the new organization.
"In an organization with 15,000 members, it's natural that you are
to have some people unhappy," said Vernon Horn, a communications specialist
for the association. "We have about as democratic a committee structure
as you can haveand we welcome anyone who is a practicing historian."
Historical Society founders say there has been widespread unhappiness
with the direction of the major history association, but Mr. Horn said
yesterday that membership has held steady in recent years and even grew
slightly over the past year.
The historians' revolt is just the latest fire fight over the state of
liberal arts education today, a rebellion against the postmodern
orthodoxy that critics say holds sway and determines who gets ahead in English
literature, sociology, political science and history departments in
higher education today. Often explicitly political, postmodern history tends
to distrust traditional historic narratives and borrows from literary theory
and other disciplines to question the validity of traditional historical
documentary sources. It sees cultural and sexual factors overwhelming
the political, diplomatic, social and economic forces that past generations
of historians focused on.
More fundamentally, critics say, the new breed of historians has
attacked the very foundations of historical evidence. Viewing virtually every
human interaction as an expression of political power - one group or elite
imposing its version of reality on an entire society - leads to a
distrust of basic primary sources; in other words a "winner's version" of the
Hence, there has been a flood of books examining previously
"marginalized" groups in history, from slaves in Colonial America to
In the April 1998 edition of the AHA's American Historical Review, the
lead article is titled "Down and Out and Female in 13th-Century Paris." Among
the books on modern European history reviewed in the issue were works on
English servants in the 18th century, the role of women in the
resistance to the reformsof Henry VIII, and "Domestic Dangers: Women, Words
in Early Modern London."
"We're responding to a growing emphasis we see on personal identity
measure of historical experience, to this notion that we each construct
our own facts and the notion of objective reality is a fiction," said
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, an author and historian at Emory University and Mr.
"You end up with historical work that focuses more and more on
increasingly narrow subjects," she added. "You can write about
cross-dressing in the
17th century, but if there's no larger significance you wind up with no
history at all."
"It's not just that the debates have gotten ideologically vicious,"
Genovese added. "A lot of them are just silly."
Historical Society organizers, who began the effort about six months
ago, say they have attracted nearly 250 fellow scholars, including some high
school history teachers, from across the political spectrum. In
Cambridge, Mass., conservative Russian historian Richard Pipes and Latin
history specialist John Womack, a self-described communist, are sharing
the recruiting chores at Harvard.
Historical Society organizers say they will focus on recruiting new
members in the coming months, with negotiations underway on a site for a
permanent national headquarters.
Biannual conventions will alternate with regional meetings and
organizers say they will make a special effort to attract historians at
universities and community colleges.
At yesterday's press conference, Mr. Kagan and others said their
disillusion with the major professional associations was longstanding,
but that the task of creating a rival organization proved daunting.
"A lot of us just dropped away, cultivated our own gardens, [complained]
to our friends," said Mr. Genovese. "The organizing chore here is
"My only regret is that I didn't speak out sooner," said Mr.
should have done this 10 years ago."