The historical profession's greatest modern scandal, two decades laterRoundup
tags: history, academia
Bill Black teaches history at Western Kentucky University. He is a founding editor at Contingent and has written for The Atlantic, Vox, MEL Magazine, and Aeon.
Related Link HNN Hot Topic: Michael Bellesiles
Historians just can't seem to win. On the one hand, they are accused of being narrow-minded eggheads who won't come down from the ivory tower and engage with the public. They are "isolated in professional cocoons," writes The Economist, "spending more time fiddling with their footnotes rather than bringing the past to light for a broader audience." Malcolm Gladwell has said the "problem" with history "is that it is written by historians," whose hyper-specialization renders their work illegible to the common folk.
However, when historians do engage with the public, they are told they are doing it wrong. The Chronicle of Higher Education has bemoaned the "twitterization of the academic mind" and the "rise of the pedantic professor," as scholars chase likes and retweets by firing off one-liners and going toe-to-toe with Dinesh D'Souza. The argument that historians are debasing themselves on social media is related to another argument: that they are playing fast and loose with the facts. This accusation has been lodged by conservative critics of The New York Times' "1619 Project," especially because of its reliance on the "new history of capitalism" school (NHC). The NHC, which includes books like Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told and Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams, emphasizes slavery's role in the origins of modern capitalism; it has also been criticizied by many scholars for what they deem weak argumentation and sloppy math. As conservatives see it, historians embrace the NHC because they like its "anti-capitalist" politics and then dismiss any criticism of the NHC as right-wing trolling.
If there is a through-line in these critiques, it is that historians are so blinded by political bias that they should stay holed up in the ivory tower where they can do the least amount of harm, and let the Malcolm Gladwells of the world do their thing.
Looming in the background of this present-day discussion is a controversy from nearly two decades ago, arguably the greatest scandal the modern historical profession has seen, all centered on one book and one man: Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, by Michael Bellesiles.
Arming America is the only book to win a Bancroft Prize, the most prestigious award for writing American history, and then have it revoked. Historians remain divided on the scandal; some think Bellesiles was a fraud, others think he was a sloppy scholar in over his head, while still others think he was a political martyr. It is nearly a rite of passage for young historians when they learn about the scandal, often in a graduate seminar, where they delight in the bizarre, almost biblical details — the flood, the earthquake, even a cameo from Charlton Heston.
A month ago, after nearly a decade of silence and not having addressed the controversy at such length since 2003, Michael Bellesiles spoke. The former Emory University professor stands by Arming America and blames a right-wing disinformation campaign for his downfall; moreover, he does not think historians have fully grappled with what may yet befall earnest scholarship. The critics are far from convinced, and they see Bellesiles and his support within the academy as symbolic of everything that's wrong with the historical profession.
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