Rear Window

Last was a tough year for historians. Just how bad it was became clear in early October when a New York Times article with the grabber headline, “Are More People Cheating?†was accompanied by a series of mugshots of the notorious and scandalous—from Ivan Boesky to TYCO looter Dennis Kozlowski. Nestled among the tawdry thieves was Doris Kearns Goodwin, celebrated biographer of LBJ and the FDR White House. After being accused of plagiarizing, she was forced to rewrite offending portions of her oeuvre and lost her position as a PBS “presidential historian.†Kearns’ offense was not just academic, asserted Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers University-Newark, whom the Times dubbed the “cheating guru†for his longitudinal surveys of idea theft among those attending America’s high schools and colleges. “There is no question that students point to things in the larger society as rationale and justification for their cheating,†he told the Times, which itself had been blindsided in 2003 by reporter Jayson Blair’s spectacular web of lies; “whether Michael Milken, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bill Clinton or Enron or their parents cheating on taxes,†youth ape their elders.

Stunned by such assertions, some of Kearns’ august colleagues rushed to her rescue, a reflection of a larger professional hurt. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and David Halberstam led a distinguished jury of her peers who fired off a letter to the editor, protesting “vigorously†that Kearns’ photograph was “displayed in the company of some of the most notorious scoundrels in America.†Because she did not “intentionally pass off someone else’s words as her own,†and thus her errors “resulted from inadvertence, not intent,†they concluded that their friend’s “character and intent symbolize the highest standards of moral integrity.â€

Would that a strongly worded letter to the Times was all that was required to re-polish a badly tarnished career. If it were, then that much-read section of the newspaper would have been packed with letters of commendation and pleas for mercy. According to the History Network News, more than 10 prominent scholars have been charged with plagiarism since 2002. Among them is the immensely successful Stephen Ambrose, who admitted that he had cribbed paragraphs without attribution; Michael Bellesiles, who misrepresented data in his controversial Arming America and resigned from Emory University; losing his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke College was Revolutionary Era historian Joseph Ellis, who refashioned his life story to include a tour of duty in Vietnam he never endured; Ann Lane of the University of Virginia, whose 1971 dissertation was chock-a-block with borrowed passages; and David McCullough, Philip Foner, Brian VanDeMark and others whose questionable documentation raised hackles and elicited howls. All things considered, historians were lucky that only Goodwin’s grainy snapshot appeared in the Times’ lineup of early-21st-century reprobates.

What has gone wrong? Has the hunger for success, or fear of failure, impelled this generation of historians to risk career-ending shortcuts? Did they swipe a page from Tom Lehrer’s “Lobachevsky,†forgetting it’s actually a wicked send up of academic pilfering?

Plagiarize, Let no one else’s work evade your eyes, Remember why the Good Lord made your eyes, So don’t shade your eyes, But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize… Only be sure always to call it please, “research.â€

So maybe historians are just grave robbers in drag—credentialed practitioners skilled in the exhumation of past scholarship, deft in the picking through of dusty ideas, and (usually) careful to trick them out in new garb before passing them off as one’s own. Are we but liars in cap and gown?

John Lewis Gaddis doesn’t think so. Although his compact and provocative new book, which probes how historians think, and what the significance of their thoughts might be, is not a direct response to the dispiriting news of professional larceny, his conviction that the historical enterprise can add a much-needed moral dimension to human life is propitious. Central to his argument is his faith in the historian’s wide-angle lens. This perspective leads him to chide famed French scholar Marc Bloch for suggesting that humans cannot see beyond themselves, and that therefore “the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.†Gaddis’ reply is cheering: Those who study the past are “much better off†than those who do not because they seek “an expanded horizon.†If the past is “another country,†a foreign landscape we must come to know, “then history is the way we represent†that other time and/or place. And “it’s that act of representation that lifts us above the familiar and lets us experience vicariously what we can’t experience directly: a wider view.â€

The backward gaze is also maturing; it offers at once a sense of mastery over some of that distant terrain and a recognition of how much of it we will never know. “Historical consciousness… leaves you, as does maturity itself, with a simultaneous sense of your own significance and insignificance.†While historians may “dominate a landscape,†they are also “diminished by it….suspended between sensibilities that are at odds with one another.â€

It is those conflicting sensibilities that frame and bedevil the historian’s craft. Because it is impossible to fashion a “truly literal representation of any entity,†the historian must select from an array of subjects, documentation, and foci. To that set of complications, add another: The thing to be studied, Gaddis notes, quoting David Hackett Fischer, “is a vast expanding universe of particular events, about which an infinite number of facts or true statements can be discovered.†And with every discovery come new conundrums: How to weigh the strength of one’s data or interpret its relevance? How to know its value, theoretical or practical? How to sift through its various possible, and contingent, meanings? It is a wonder that historians can write a single word.

Or reach the moral conclusions that Gaddis feels are essential to their scholarship. No “work of history… has ever been written without making some kind of statement—explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously—about where its subjects lie along the ubiquitous spectrum that separates the admirable from the abhorrent,†he argues. As “moral animals,†paradoxically, we have no choice but to embrace this interpretative agenda. Yes, the “past†we describe is inevitably shaped by the “present†we live within, a relationship that leads to a constant reconfiguration of history; it is always “remeasured in terms of previously neglected metrics,†such as the role of women or the impact of “sexuality, disease, and culture,†subjects that of late have transformed our understanding of human behavior in earlier times. Yet “the history these representations represent has not changed. It’s still back there in the past,†a reality that “keeps our representations from flying off into fantasy.â€

Fair enough, but over time historians’ insights become a substitute for reality, trumping “the firsthand memories people have of events through which they’ve lived.†That is precisely what tweaked Winston Churchill, who expected to protect his reputation by picking up a pen: “History will treat me kindly, because I propose to write it.†Nice try.

Yet even as they have reconceived Churchill’s reputation—and that of so many others—historians cannot escape their own vulnerability. Although our conceit may be that we impose ourselves on the landscape of history, subsequent generations will revise our efforts, in turn redefining the contours and content of historical memory. That’s as it should be, Gaddis confirms. History is “the means by which a culture sees beyond the limits of its own senses,†and that may be “as much a prerequisite for a healthy well-rounded society as is the proper ecological balance for a healthy forest or a healthy planet.â€

Gaddis’ generous assessment is tested, however, when his professional peers meld their representation of reality with others’, appropriating words or purloining arguments with malice aforethought, by mistake, or through simple sloppiness. And nothing so reminds of the precariousness of the historian’s claim to moral judgment or academic authority as the swift and very public fall from grace that can come when we fail our craft, our readers, and ourselves.

Contributing writer Char Miller is author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, and editor of the forthcoming Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, celebrating the Observer’s half-century of publication.

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Published at 12:00 am CST