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Honesty in History
By Thomas Sowell
"YOU'RE HISTORY!" is one of the popular ways
of dismissing someone today.
Unfortunately, in too many of our schools and colleges
today, history itself is "history."
In many places, history has been replaced by
"social studies" -- a politically correct rendition of current social
issues. When there is history, all too often it is "revisionist"
history that looks back through the past to find things to denounce about
America or about Western civilization.
Even the biggest and oldest scholarly organization of
historians -- the American Historical Association -- has gone politically
correct. Not only have they become a lobbying group for various government
policies, they take political positions on things that have nothing to do with
history -- AIDS, environmentalism and "gender diversity," for example.
Too many historians, like too many other academics
today, look upon scholarship and education as an opportunity to carry on
politics by other means. To these politicized professors, the lectern is a soap
box and the students are potential disciples in ideological crusades.
Not everyone in the history profession takes this view,
But few have stood up to the strident ideologues, who
have often been allowed to become the tail that wags the dog. Now, at last, an
alternative organization for historians in taking shape.
The new organization is called the Historical Society.
Its leader, distinguished historian Eugene Genovese, says that it will focus on
plain history -- not the new trinity of race, class and gender, not esoteric
abstractions or the rest of the self-indulgent agenda of those who see history
as just a means to some ideological end.
Predictably, but sadly, the new organization's motives
have been questioned and it is being depicted as a bunch of reactionaries who
don't want historians looking into things like the postwar development of
suburbs or NATO policy.
In point of fact, the new Historical Society has no
restrictions and includes liberals and leftists, as well as conservatives. Far
from being uninterested in racial issues, its founder, Eugene Genovese, has
written one of the classic books on slavery in the antebellum South and has
spent three years at a black institution, Atlanta University.
The reckless, false and ad hominem charges against the
new organization give a painful insight into what is wrong with the old one and
with the people who have led it down the garden path.
Why is history important? The past is important because
the future is important. Without history, many people have no idea how many of
today's half- baked ideas have been tried, again and again -- and have
repeatedly led to disaster. Most of these ideas are not new. They are just being
recycled with retreaded rhetoric.
Ideas that have become fashionable since the 1960s can
be found in the writings of William Godwin in the 1790s. Ancient Greek tyrants
played the political game of redistributing other people's wealth to the poor as
a means of gaining despotic power over rich and poor alike. Yet hundreds of
millions of people fell for the same trick in the 20th century -- and tens of
millions of these people paid with their lives in the Soviet Union under Stalin
and in China under Mao.
It is not just bad ideas that history makes us aware of.
It also makes us aware of how rare our good fortune as Americans has been and
what has spared us the traumas that so many other nations have suffered and
still suffer today.
It is not just our economic prosperity, though that is
important. We don't have to worry about military coups, though there are
countries where juntas have seized power again and again. Even the racial
problems of this country do not begin to compare to what has happened in the
Balkans or Rwanda or Sri Lanka, much less Nazi Germany.
The people who wrote the Constitution of the United
States had a broad and deep knowledge of history. That is why they wrote the
Constitution the way they did, to cut off despots at the pass, to keep us from
slaughtering each other over religious differences and to prevent politicians
from ruining the economy.
However well they did their work, only the living can
maintain the benefits they created. And they can do that only if they understand
some of the lessons of history that are embodied in our laws and institutions --
which are far more important than the hot topics of the moment that some choose
to call "the real issues."
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