A group of historians have mounted a challenge to postmodern orthodoxy that some say determines who gets ahead in their profession.
Marc Trachtenberg refers to it as his "John Belushi letter," the manifesto that signaled his alienation from many of his colleagues.
The year was 1982, and the historian from the University of Pennsylvania was attending the annual convention of the American Historical Association, or AHA. There, at the profession's largest gathering, he criticized a resolution supporting a unilateral U.S. freeze on nuclear weapons.
"It had a long list of `whereases' about the weapons industry and war that I knew from my own research were completely absurd," he recalls. "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 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 see as prevailing but wrongheaded assumptions undergirding their profession. Such assumptions dictate the direction of historical research and teaching, as well as the role of politics, ideology and identity in the writing of history.
Their new group, the Historical Society, "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 during a media event at Washington's National Press Club in late April. "All we require is that participants lay down plausible premises; reason according to the canons of logic; appeal to evidence; and prepare to exchange criticism with those who hold different points of view."
The Historical Society is not rebelling "against the new subject matter" concerning race, sexuality and gender in history, notes founding president Eugene D. Genovese, a professor of Southern history [see "Genoveses Try to Alter the Course of History Teaching," p. 20]. "What we do object to is an imposed ideological line of any kind," he says, "and the compartmentalized research being done these days that is more an exercise in self-expression than an effort to deal with objective reality."
Yale University's Donald Kagan, a professor and author of a four-volume history of ancient Greece's Peloponnesian War, puts it more plainly He says a "crust of dull conformity" has created an inbred profession with little relevance beyond the university gates. "Historians should be having a constantly revolutionary effect on American society if they were doing their job," says Kagan. …