The Clare Spark Blog

April 12, 2014

The Organization of American Historians taking sides

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 9:36 pm
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dissenthouston[From Rick Shenkman’s report on day 2 of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, 2014:] The major event of the day was the late-afternoon plenary session devoted to “historians and their publics.”  The standout panel included Alan Kraut, Spencer Crew, Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, and filmmaker Shola Lynch.  Unfortunately, we can’t show you a video as one member of the panel objected to cameras.  So you’ll have to take our word for it that it was a great panel.  Wilentz, typically combative, said that historians should use their authority to police the public square.  When pundits and politicians (Glen Beck, they’re talking about you) make stuff up about history, they should be called out.  Lepore said when she tried to do that very thing in her book on the Tea Party historians wondered why on earth she was bothering. 

Wilentz got off a great line.  Historians, he said, “want to make the alien seem more familiar and the familiar seem more alien.”  That was something all the panelists seemed to agree with.

– See more at:]

[My stunned comment:] This is an astonishing statement to emanate from an academic conference. Read it closely. No longer is US history to be a search for more accurate knowledge about the past, but one of its leading lights, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz recommends [the alienation-effect made famous by Bertolt Brecht?]. Even worse, Rick Shenkman, former chief editor of History News Network, agreeing with Wilentz, sees historians as an arm of the state, policing “the public square”—presumably filled with bothersome and  unteachable Tea Party hoi polloi.

These sentiments are what passes for academic freedom and free speech today. “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is [not] us.”


No conservative call for anticommunist or anti-progressive historians will remedy the sorry state of academe. Rather, what is needed is an injection of courage and especially the re-examination of the liberal assumptions of yesteryear.

Ralph Bunche complained bitterly of those upper-class white liberal foundations that funded only those projects that increased communications between warring groups, such as white and black. Such tactics offended him because he saw structural flaws in American society that would not disintegrate because whites and blacks played nicely together, eschewing [hate speech].

We should be so lucky now. The polarization is so complete and hardened that certified teachers of the young see themselves as guardians of public order, ONLY. (In the past, their impetus toward political and social “stability” was rarely stated with such startling candor. If the rabble was rioting, you bought them off or co-opted them]

But more, though self-satisfied in their allegiance to that side that works toward “social justice” Wilentz’s Brechtian moment suggests a tactical distancing from complacency with respect to received knowledge, that is belied by the opinion that historians should be the thought police.

It is back: the same old liberal double bind that I complain about endlessly here: There is no conflict between Truth (found out by poring through archives and distancing oneself from inherited biases–i.e., making the familiar seem alien, making the invisible visible) and Order.

These social democrats and leftists may hold the commanding heights of academe, but their opposition holds the mantle of free speech, which I implore them, as the [unruly] public, neither to abuse, nor to take for granted. Our betters have spoken and now it is up to us to uphold reasoned dissent and the rule of law. [Update: 5-7-14: a conservative scholar has taken issue with my thesis here; says that OAH is a private organization and has the right to these sentiments, which he does not associate with policing, but rather with inspection, and that my blog would deny similar rights to conservative academics. I stand by my reading of “policing”, but hope that cultural pluralism is alive and well, as much as this conservative scholar believes to be case, as opposed to leftish academics functioning as an arm of the State while dominating higher education.]




  1. Agreed with your premise about historians taking sides. I’ve gone through the Age of Affluence (That’s Post-World War II up to the present) at Oglethorpe, and let me tell you that the teacher was of the hard left (when I first encountered him at Orientation back in late Summer 2012, he freely admitted in front of all the to-be-students when lecturing Oglethorpe’s history that he was a student radical, participated in the Revolution as he put it), and that the students were even more leftist than the professor.

    I was probably the only Conservative in the classroom. If there were any other conservatives in the class, they certainly left by now (I’d leave myself if it weren’t for the fact that the class was literally one of the last classes required for my major and graduation). They covered all the standard Leftist Talking Points, such as being anti-Vietnam, sympathy for the radicals and communists if not outright support of those monsters, loving the freedoms of the 1960s and 1970s and all of that. Even when I did try to point out correct facts from various history books, he effectively stated that I was on “the wrong side of history.”

    Thankfully, we didn’t get into the radical revolutions, although that’s mostly because the teacher dropped those lectures thanks to some snow/ice storms in Atlanta, not to mention covered a lot of unnecessary time on the Civil Rights era. Most likely had he continued with them as planned, he most certainly would have talked highly of them. Wasn’t even the first time as well, as I also endured similar pro-Communist messages such as the Wretched of the Earth and one of Eric Hobsbawm’s works in Historical Perspectives of the Social Order II (which is even worse as that’s unavoidable regardless of major. Though to be fair to the teacher, she was kinda forced to cover those topics by the head of the department), and endured a femnazi professor for World History up to the 1500s, which seemed more similar to a gender studies class than an actual History course in the way she’s denigrading men and Christianity, and her effectively promoting Islam.

    Comment by Eric Otness — May 10, 2014 @ 12:45 pm | Reply

  2. Rick Shenkman here. 1. I remain the editor of HNN. 2. I didn’t say in my report if I agreed or disagreed with Wilentz. I said he got off a good line. He did. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is impossible to invoke the authority of historians to beat down untruths in the public square. As soon as you’d try historians would themselves be ground up in the media grinder, turning themselves into the story. That said, historians should play a role in combatting ignorance and putting events into perspective. That’s what they do on HNN every day. But they cannot sit in judgment like gods on Mt. Olympus. Simply wouldn’t work.

    Comment by Rick Shenkman — May 9, 2014 @ 5:58 am | Reply

    • Thanks to Rick Shenkman for clearing up his own views of Sean Wilentz’s “combative” statement and for clarifying his own status as editor of History News Network. I do not see, however, why historians should not address a broader public than their undergraduate and graduate students. Journalists and other citizens rely upon the work of historians to clarify current pressing controversies; I certainly do.

      Comment by clarelspark — May 9, 2014 @ 2:08 pm | Reply

      • Of course, I am eager for historians to address a larger public.

        That’s what HNN is all about.

        My objection to Sean’s suggestion was that he wants historians, as a group, perhaps in the name of the OAH, to issue traffic tickets to offenders.

        I don’t think that approach will work.

        Comment by Rick Shenkman — May 9, 2014 @ 4:30 pm

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