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Where Do We Go From Here?

Our critics tell us that Martin Luther King's question, asking directions which depend, in part, on where one is, has lately become an important one for historians.

I had not meant to write a word on professional ethics and practice until I read a headline, "The Cowards of Academe," in the Weekly Standard. It followed by four days a similar attack on the integrity of our profession in the Wall Street Journal. Undoubtedly, academe has its cowards. I've known several and may have been one myself at one time or other. It is a form in which our humanity appears. Yet, the journalists' attack on the Bancroft Prize committee, the American Historical Association, the Newberry Library and Emory University over Michael Bellesiles's Arming America seemed to me well off-target. I wrote a short essay, "Journalists Are Rushing to Judgment about Michael Bellesiles," for History News Network. My argument was a self-evident defense of academic practice and due process, I thought. Yet, the title for the piece won the gun lobby's attention and, like Mr. Jefferson, I learned that not everyone saw my truths as self-evident.1

The result astonishes me yet. In two weeks of entrenched warfare, I met charge after charge from my critics. Sometimes the tactics were personal, as in the heading of a new thread which read: "Academic Misconduct and Ralph Luker." It was an old canard about timing the release of the King Project's findings of plagiarism in King's dissertation, as if I had been responsible for controlling it. Repeatedly, I tried to call a cease-fire, at my best with humor. When an ally, Cecelia Justice, countered a point by one of my favorite critics, Thomas Gunn, I declared that Justice prevailed in Justice v. Gunn and thanked goodness for due process. Gunn was amused, asked where was the due process and continued firing. The essay on the Weekly Standard's and the Wall Street Journal's criticism of academe, said HNN's History Grapevine, produced more replies "than any other article on the website, indeed, maybe more than had been made to all the other articles on the website combined." They "actually stretch across the page like ocean waves caught at high tide on a stormy night."

In the end, we shook hands and laughed at the e-trenches we had dug. Early on, I told friends that the quality of the debate was not high, ranging somewhere between a dreary faculty meeting and the Jerry Springer Show. Yet, in its course, my critics won my respect with spirited, often well-informed argument. They held Bellesiles, other professional historians and me firmly in their gun sights and fired very pointedly: "your peer review process has failed repeatedly for years and we don't trust your due process." I thought I owed it to new friends in the gun lobby to report back to old friends in the history profession. The battle was, after all, just a skirmish in a larger encounter. We have all read about Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Bellesiles. The cases of Paul Buhle and Edward A. Pearson have had less public attention.2

I addressed an open e-mail to two dozen American historians, most of them prominent in the field, asking what, if anything, could be learned from these cases. The list of historians was deliberately ecumenical, including some people who have not spoken to each other in years. I speak to several of them and they to me only episodically. The issues seemed too important to be addressed by political preference or shunned by personal pique. Some of my colleagues communicated privately rather than to the whole group. The small sample of results limits the significance of generalizations, but given the option of anonymity the larger pattern was interesting. In general, political stance and personal differences were of no consequence. Generation was everything.

Historians of my generation really saw no problem at all. These cases were exceptional and exceptional in several directions. These were either "celebrity historians" who are unlike the rest of us or breeches of trust, functions of carelessness or some singular personality quirk. Contrarily, one was a celebrity historian who we should defend because he had for years been doing successfully what all of us should be doing. Given the limitations of time and dispersed archives, our peer review processes and our due processes work exceedingly well and our book exhibits display our enormous productivity. I was uncomfortable with those conclusions and their internal tensions. Were the celebrities our celebrities or not? Had the celebrities been doing what we should be doing? Oh, really? And don't those book exhibits democratically display deeply flawed and immaculate texts without distinction? Shouldn't they? Who knows which is which? Why don't we know? If we did, so what?

I was more encouraged by candid responses from a younger, yet already prominent group of historians. These cases did have some things to teach us, they thought, even as they disagreed about exactly what they were. These historians also took seriously a parallel question about the cases' implications for teaching even younger historians and students. I liked the flair and candor of a young Ivy League historian's first point: Historians should not tell "big, whopping lies." That seems like a good place to begin. She followed with three practical suggestions: that committees of the OAH should formulate guidelines on the use of research assistants and develop guidelines on research and the use of evidence which could be disseminated to graduate students; and, finally, recognizing that even the most conscientious effort is occasionally flawed, one should correct known errors in print as quickly as possible.

Further discussion suggested that two current influences require rethinking our professional ethics and practice. First, how do we appropriate and limit post-modernism's insight that all evidence is socially constructed? It surely means that it can be construed in a variety of ways. It surely does not mean evidence can be fabricated. How do we teach that without denying a legitimate role to the historical imagination? The other factor is the new technology. To put it bluntly, our peer review processes waved Arming America on to a Bancroft Prize and, with breathtaking speed, a lawyer/sociologist used archival sources, cd roms and a published primary and secondary literature which peer review ignored to force us to recognize that "there's a problem here." Given my professional biases, what greater humiliation can there be than to be told that by a lawyer/sociologist? In the short run, this problem may be of greater concern to the quantifiers among us, but my generation is comfortable with the notion of dispersed archives and the future sweeps us into its presence. Our students know or can readily claim that their computers and cd roms reach into archives in many parts of the country, if not yet the world.

"Trust, but verify" is good advice, even if Ronald Reagan did say it. There is reassurance in these results. The place where we are is embarrassed by some of our colleagues, but there are younger historians among us who are discussing "where do we go from here?"