From the "Confessing History" Patheos Archive: "All Historians are Revisionists"

In light of my earlier post today about the United States History Advanced Placement curriculum and revisionism, I thought I would republish this 2011 piece from my old “Confessing History” column at Patheos.  Much of the material in this column is developed in my Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In last week’s column I mentioned, among other things, that I thought David Barton was a practitioner of revisionist history. I wrote that “all history is revisionist” and added that “revisionism is the lifeblood of history.” Several readers thought I was wrong about this and they did not hesitate to tell me so in the comments section, on Facebook, on my blog, and via personal e-mails. It seems that the word “revisionism” continues to carry a negative connotation.

Yet, despite my detractors, I continue to believe that revisionism is absolutely essential to the study of history. In fact, there would be no history without it. In his book Who Owns History?Columbia University history professor Eric Foner recalls a conversation with a Newsweek reporter who asked him, “When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” Foner responded: “Around the time of Thucydides.” (Thucydides, who lived in the 5th century B.C. and was the author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, is considered by many to be the first “historian.”)

Those who believe “revisionism” is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence—documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind to help us reconstruct the world in which they lived. Revisionists don’t just make things up.

This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through book reviews. Bad history comes from all sectors of society. Historians have not only been critical of Christian nationalist writers like David Barton, but they have also criticized left-wing and secular revisionists, such the late Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States reads like a case of indoctrination by historical example.

Perhaps a few examples might help to illustrate what I mean when I say that revisionism is the lifeblood of history.

Without revisionism, our understanding of racial relations in the American South after the Civil War would still be driven by what historians call the “Dunning School.” William Dunning was an early 20th-century historian who suggested that Reconstruction—the attempt to bring civil rights and voting rights to southern Blacks in the wake of the Civil War—was a mistake. The northern Republicans who promoted Reconstruction, and the various “carpetbaggers” who came to the South to start schools for Blacks and work for racial integration, destroyed the southern way of life.

Read the rest here.

3 thoughts on “From the "Confessing History" Patheos Archive: "All Historians are Revisionists"

  1. We had a nice discussion over Wood's article on the HNN boards. I think the rebuttal to Wood and his anti-intellectualism pretty much nailed it. This rebuttal by an actual historian against Wood, who is not a historian, can be found here.

    I think the whine from the right has far more to do with the pedagogy being implemented not only in the AP course, but across the United States. An inquiry based pedagogy is about developing critical thinking skills for our youth. It is a pedagogy which I am also advocating in higher education, especially in the discipline of history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It's one thing to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, the accepted narrative. I approve, even in the case of Mr. Zinn.

    But I disagree that David Barton is a “revisionist.” He's just sloppy and amateurish, seeing what he wants to see.

    But his thesis, his general argument that [the Christian] religion has been bleached out of our history–particularly the Founding–ideologically-driven secularist scholars, is quite defensible.

    Philip Hamburger, Daniel Dreisbach, Mark David Hall–all are creditable scholars, and not such easy pickins as the overmatched David Barton. Punking Barton is in the end a straw man enterprise.

    Take on Dreisbach, et al.

    To the rest, John, if the Texas Textbook Massacre was unacceptable–and Dreisbach was on the panel as well as Barton–then this should raise your hackles just as much.

    And more, for this current aggression against historical truth is on the national level, not just already-benighted Texas.

    Recalibrate your outrage meter, bro! America needs you!

    The Left’s Attempt to Institutionalize the Rewriting of US History: A New Step Forward Through their “Long March Through the Existing Institutions”

    by Ron Radosh

    August 30th, 2014 – 9:32 am

    Recently, a few conservative intellectuals have raised serious questions about the College Board’s effort to develop a new curriculum for the Advanced Placement history courses. Stanley Kurtz, at National Review Online, writes that “this Framework will effectively force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a leftist perspective.” Naturally, the College Board argues that its intent is only to provide “balance,” to streamline the curriculum, and to enhance teacher flexibility. In other words, all benign matters that educators should welcome.

    Are Kurtz and the other critics, like National Association of Scholars executive Peter Wood, right in their criticism? Wood argues in a preliminary report, like Kurtz, that “this newest revision, however, is radical.” The board, he notes, citing other critics, is substituting a specific curriculum in place of their previous broad frameworks, promoting a negative view of the United States, and erasing major figures (the Founding Fathers, of course) from American history.


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