Roots of Revisionism

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

At Accuracy in Academia, we have long complained of academic historians who ignore primary sources in favor of secondary ones. What gets lost in that process from the former approach to the latter one is, well, history.

Never have I found myself tripping over a professor at the Library of Congress in 30 years as a regular there. An article which appeared on the academe blog maintained by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Peter N. Kirstein helpfully shows us part of the origin of this revisionist history. Kirstein himself is a professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.

“Two of America’s greatest historians of the postwar period were Richard Hofstadter and Howard Zinn,” Kirstein avers. “Like Dewey they had a strong Columbia connection.”

“Hofstadter taught at Columbia from 1946 to 1970, and chaired Howard Zinn’s dissertation-defense committee. Both were revisionist historians who preferred synthesizing secondary sources over mining archival documents. The claim that only primary sources constitute the gold standard of historiography is undermined by the Hofstadter-Zinn mode of discovery of a new past, thereby creating a more enlightened present. Historiography relying upon printed sources or readily available primary sources can be quite effective in liberation from the predominant accepted discourse on essential matters of national identity and purpose. The towering histories of Hofstadter’s, The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made ItThe Paranoid Style of American Politics, and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Dr. Zinn’s A People’s History of the United StatesPostwar America: 1945-1971 and Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal are examples of a searing revisionism that discovers a new American past freed from nationalistic hagiography.”

Avoiding primary sources is certainly something that both of these celebrated historians were good at. Zinn, as we have noted, apparently bypassed the Bureau of Labor Statistics when he claimed that unemployment grew during the Reagan years. Hofstadter managed to write a lengthy chapter on Abraham Lincoln in one of his still widely used texts that did not mention the Gettysburg address.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” the newspaper editor intones in John Ford’s classic film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Unfortunately, Zinn and Hofstadter have printed many legends which masquerade as factual history and that are still fed to college students, who are misled by them.