Timely Critique

By Breen, Myles | IPA Review, January 1, 1995 | Go to article overview

Timely Critique


Breen, Myles, IPA Review


The Killing of History

by Keith Windschuttle

Macleay Press, Sydney

WHO would have thought that this book would have been written by old Windy? Keith Windschuttle has delivered a handsomely produced hardback decrying the influence of the fashionable literary critics and social theorists on the way the discipline of history is treated in the academy. Explicit in this critique is the finding that the mindset of a culture is at stake. A generation will be influenced in its ability to think clearly and accurately if the rot continues, he argues. He is amazed how history, once so intellectually respectable, is now a prey to fashionable and bizarre theories.

The appearance of this book comes as a surprise to many others besides the current reviewer. Ten years ago, Keith Windschuttle was rather a favourite of the academic left. His best-seller The Media, a Penguin paperback, was a staple for introductory courses at many universities, and, while, as the author cheerfully admits, it is now out of date, it is still being adopted as a text. Windschuttle actually gave, and this is no mean fear, a clear comprehensible explication of French structuralist Marxism in his treatment of Australian media. The media, he wrote in the preface, "should be seen as arenas of conflict between he social classes." While one must suppose that a socialistic bent was a basic requirement, given the views of the teachers who would adopt the text, that phrase sounds like so much ritual cant today. But times change, and a new vision is required.

Enter, in 1994, The Killing of History. The book is interesting in the same way that IPA Review, is interesting. Within the academy, at least within the humanities faculties, it is rather naughty, beyond the pale. It tends to say things which are perceived to be against the interests of those in administrative control and of chose academics who see opportunities in the fashionable changes brought in by the 'cultural studies' movement. The conventional wisdom is, of course, predominantly socialistic, 'liberal' in the American sense, and, while claiming to be very 'Australian', slavishly copies American trends. The current establishment, while building on the premise of finding the former verities wanting, will brook no questioning of their own key assumptions.

FASHIONABLE AND CHEAP: There is currently, in the academy, an unholy alliance of administrators and trendy academics. The administrators are foisting 'cultural studies' on the curriculum because they are fashionable and cheap, and are not dominated by fuddy-duddy professors who waste time talking about 'standards'. As Windschuttle demonstrates, the cultural studies devotees appreciate the philosophical position that the traditional disciplines (in the physical sciences and the social sciences) cannot produce knowledge. This doubtful epistemological theory is not only adopted as such, but also as a manual for action. (Old timers will recognize agitprop when they see it.) If there is no 'truth', but rather merely a cultural agreement, then why not organize some like-minded colleagues, stack the committee and change the curriculum? Windschuttle sees them as following Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions):

"... a bevy of sociologists have entered the field to take up what they see as one of the most enticing consequences of his position: the idea that what is believed in science is determined by the customs and power relations prevailing within a particular scientific community."

The author says that he chose the word "killing" in the title of his book because "there was a lethal process well under way". He chose history as he considered it "the queen of the humanities," but his argument applies equally to many disciplines, especially to sociology, anthropology, or English literature. He finds it surprising that the poststructuralist theory of Michel Foucault is now "taken seriously enough" to be taught to graduate students in accounting at the University of New South Wales. …

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