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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Nothing But the Revised Facts?

I wonder if economists will ever suffer the fate of historians in Florida and be prevented from talking about relative values. "We've heard you are teaching that prices are correctly interpreted as relative and not absolute. That so? Off to jail Mr. ivory tower smarty-pants":

All history is 'revisionist', by Jonathan Zimmerman, Commentary, LA Times: Just when you thought it was safe to study American history again … the revisionists are back!

You know, those relativists who distort or simply fabricate the past to make it fit their present-day biases. For instance, ... in 2003, President Bush attacked "revisionist historians" who questioned his justifications for using force against Saddam Hussein. He did it again on Veterans Day in 2005. "It is deeply irresponsible," he declared, "to rewrite the history of how the war began."

And just last week, in an unprecedented move, the president's brother approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. "The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida's Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."

Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s ... American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.

The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.

There's just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It's wrong.

Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power '60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s... Before that time, ... some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the "noble dream" by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.

That's why Cornell's Carl Becker chose the title "Everyman His Own Historian" for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. ...

For instance, try to recount everything you did yesterday. Not just a few things, ... but everything. You can't. Even if you kept a diary and recorded what you did each minute, you would inevitably omit some detail: a sound in your ear, a twitch in your nose... So when somebody asks what you did yesterday, you select a certain few facts about your day and spin a story around them.

As do professional historians. They may draw on a wider array of facts and theories but, just like "Everyman," they choose certain data points and omit others, as well they must. ... [S]urely one of the biggest myths ... is that history is simply about "facts." This year marks the 75th anniversary of Becker's famous speech, yet Americans appear no nearer to understanding that all pasts are "constructed," that all facts require interpretation and that all history is "revisionist" history...

    Posted by on Wednesday, June 7, 2006 at 01:08 AM in Economics, History of Thought, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (18)

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