Ethics in History
Historians, like accountants, have been much in the news lately–for all the wrong reasons - Ethics in History introduction. Just as accountants are likely to get their numbers straight, historians are likely to get their facts and footnotes straight. The very least that professional integrity requires is honesty. For historians, this not only demands as accurate a rendition of the past as they can reconstruct, with fidelity to evidence that invariably is complex and even contradictory, but accurate citation of sources and, perhaps above all, rigorous self-scrutiny and truthful self-representation.
There is no firm of historians whose collapse can rival the recent demise of Arthur Andersen. But in their own individual ways, Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Bellesiles and Doris Kearns Goodwin have committed serious breeches of professional integrity–ranging from classroom dishonesty through plagiarism to outright fraud–that might even make an accountant blush (Auerbach, 2002). Ellis, TIME noted, is “one of the most widely read historians not named Stephen Ambrose. An appropriate introduction, indeed, to Ambrose himself, who has been accused of repeated acts of plagiarism in his recent work. Ambrose had made himself sui generis among American historians for his entrepreneurial zeal and the frenetic productivity that accompanied it.
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Author of twenty books in thirty years, and six best-sellers since 1994, he had long since left behind serious scholarship for $40,000 lecture fees, private planes, and presentation of himself as “the best selling author who served as historical consultant on Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Beneath the radar screen of fame and fortune, but well within the parameters of scholarly notoriety, emerged Michael Bellesiles, professor of history at Emory University. His Arming America, published in 2000 by Knopf, had garnered rave reviews from professional and journalistic stalwarts such as Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, Gary Wills in The New York Times, and, most euphorically, Jackson Lears in The New Republic, who praised his “debunking counter-narrative” and its “exhaustive research. It also won the prestigious Bancroft Prize awarded by Columbia University. Bellesiles’s message was undeniably appealing to the liberal academic community. He presented a convincing rebuke to the ingrained assumption of contemporary political conservatives that colonial Americans, accustomed to a culture of guns, had written the Second Amendment into the Constitution to protect the right of all Americans to bear arms.
Challenging the accepted wisdom that guns had been widely owned in colonial America, Bellesiles offered an array of statistical data, ostensibly drawn from probate records and census returns that made him, according to historian Michael Zuckerman, “the NRA’s worst nightmare. ” Indeed, Bellesiles sharply criticized the NRA in his Introduction. Measured against Bellesiles, or even Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is not a trained historian but a popular biographer and frequent television commentator, seems almost innocent in the simplicity of her dishonesty.
Like Ambrose, she retained a team of research assistants who conveniently relieved her of the task of doing her own work. Like him, also, she had appropriated the words of others without bothering to enclose them within quotation marks. Indeed, it was revealed that back in 1987, Simon & Schuster had paid damages to author Lynne McTaggart, from whose book (among others) Goodwin had plagiarized in her The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. The larger issue, however, is not who is the nicer plagiarist but how historical truth is to be protected from abuse, whether for money and fame, or from political partisanship.
It is hardly confined to technique or technology, as both Ambrose and Goodwin claimed. For Ambrose, computers made cutting and pasting too easy; for Goodwin, however, notes made in longhand caused her difficulty. But assembly-line publication, as Martin Arnold suggested, is better suited to the production of toasters than books. And neither Ambrose nor Goodwin seemed to be in control of their own assembly lines. Nor was it merely a problem with the hired help; Bellesiles, after all, did his own “research. And even a most accomplished scholar, such as Ellis, was tempted into fictionalizing his own past in the classroom to burnish his image among students. Yet once the dust of scandal settled, little seemed to have changed. Ellis presumably invigorated by his sabbatical year and enriched by the publisher’s largesse that accompanied it, is likely to return to his position of academic privilege at Mt. Holyoke, there to be admired by new generations of students. Ambrose and Goodwin will surely continue to publish and prosper.
For Bellesiles, it is still too soon to say anything other than that no scholar with such dubious professional credibility has been given so many opportunities to explain and defend himself to so little benefit. Personal impulses and lapses aside, can such professional corruption be historicized? Can we, that is, explain its recent proliferation by locating it in the context of time and culture? To be sure, four examples (or three, excluding Goodwin, who is not professionally trained as a historian) are a minuscule sample of a large, and largely honorable, profession.
Indeed, if professional historians must be chastised, it is far likelier–as anyone who attends professional meetings or reads professional journals can attest–to be for their stodginess than for their flamboyant disregard of ethical proprieties. Yet historians, like other professionals, have experienced the inevitable moral coarsening that can accompany the pursuit of fame and fortune, or tenure, in modern America. Just a century ago, Louis D. Brandeis, in some anguish, asked whether law was a profession or a business.
If the answer was not already depressingly evident, he probably would not have asked. Of late, doctors, and now accountants, have confronted the same question. It just took historians a bit longer to get there, perhaps because the financial incentives for teaching and scholarship were so meager for so long. Once the professional boondoggles–fellowships, travel grants, publisher’s advances, lecture stipends, bidding wars, consulting fees, textbooks, even celebrity status–beckoned, historians (who are, more or less, like other people) eagerly succumbed.
The rise from rags to riches, after all, is so genuinely an American success story that it is unreasonable to expect historians, who know more about it than most, to exempt themselves. It is easy to forget, until it is too late, that the self-made man who, like Jay Gatsby (or Joseph Ellis? ), emerges from a web of deception is likely to destroy himself along the way. Beyond the corruption of money is the moral relativism that has penetrated academic precincts.
Ever since the 1960s, when it became permissible to reject authority in order to pursue noble ends with corrupt means, American society has floundered in the backwash of moral contingency. Now everything is “socially constructed,” invariably according to the endlessly regurgitated categories of race and gender. No longer are there bedrock truths, only personal choices. Unwanted criticism is quickly dismissed as inappropriately “judgmental. ” As history has disintegrated from factual authenticity into mere “narrative,” the past has all but lost its authority to instruct.
What, then, is there to anchor scholars–or anyone else–to norms of ethical behavior when the very notion of “norms” is obsolete? Enter Bill Clinton, the political personification of these broader social trends. If the moral sordidness of the Clinton years pushed conservatives over the edge, the Clinton impeachment process did the same for liberals. Led by Sean Wilentz (who lectured members of the Judiciary Committee on their Constitutional responsibilities as though they were his Princeton undergraduates), liberal historians rallied behind their maligned president.
Wilentz, joined by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and C. Vann Woodward, sponsored “Historians in Defense of the Constitution,” the petition signed by four hundred historians including Ellis, Ambrose, and Goodwin. This may explain the alacrity with which conservative commentators pounced on the Fallen Four historians for their ethical improprieties. (Although Bellesiles was not a signatory, his attack on the NRA in the guise of exploring the original intent of the framers of the Second Amendment certainly qualified him for the liberal hall of shame. It was payback time for Clinton defenders, for liberal historians whose own ethical lapses were placed on public display not long after their leader departed from Washington. Whether or not the point was made with a partisan edge, the virtue of integrity deserved reaffirmation. To be sure, it is not only historians, among academics, who have recently felt the heat of judgment. It turns out that the first novel ever written by a female African-American slave, the much publicized discovery of the much publicized Henry Louis Gates, Jr. seems to have been a heavily plagiarized text, at least by current standards.
Momentarily upstaged by the Princeton graduate student in literature who discovered her extensive borrowings from Dickens’s Bleak House, which Gates had missed, Gates constructed an imaginative explanation that put Ambrose and Goodwin to shame. According to Gates, author Hannah Crafts was merely “seeking a relation to a canonical tradition, finding in Dickens a language and rhetoric that she sometimes assimilated and sometimes appropriated. Rather than plagiarize (thereby implicating Gates, who had both overlooked and then celebrated it), she had merely “emptied out a rhetorical template and filled it with particulars of her own. ” As evidence of Crafts’s borrowings mounted, so did Gates’s rhetorical evasions. Crafts, he declared, “Echoes or lifts passages from a remarkably impressive range” of English and American writers, indicating that her manuscript, in his felicitous phrase, was “creatively plundered. Standards may have been different then, and Crafts’s achievement may indeed have been considerable, but precisely how creative plundering differs from mundane plagiarism Gates declined to say.
What then are the moral positions of the historian and the researcher when access, selection and disposal are concerned? This is not only a problem for the historian and the researcher, but for society as a whole. What the Dutch historian Peter Klein recently said with regard to appraisal is applicable to access as well: “It is unreasonable to ask from the historians to solve this problem all by themselves (Klein, 1992). . ” In a democracy the debate about selection and access should be a public debate, subject to verification and control by the public. If one cannot discuss publicly the moral arguments for secrecy (Bok, 1982), society runs the risk of creating Stasi and KGB history – history not for the people, but against the people. “Records should be open for use to the maximum extent that is consistent with the public interest,” Schellenberg wrote in his Modern Archives. In the Netherlands restrictions on access to public records transferred to a public repository are limited by law.
Restrictions may be imposed solely in the interests of respect for personal privacy or the prevention of disproportionate advantage or disadvantage to the persons concerned or to third parties. ” Once access has been restricted the historical authority can, having heard the transferring agency, lift the restrictions on access or set them aside in respect of a particular applicant, if the interest of the applicant’s ability to consult or use the document outweighs the interest of the restrictions.
Such a special clearance procedure was recommended in 1985 by the 23rd International Conference of the Round Table on History under the proviso that such procedure “should be transparent and governed by objective criteria, so as to guarantee equal treatment of all interested parties”. As historians they can and should depict past actions with reference to the ethical norms \widespread at the time the actions took place. They can also use the techniques of isolation and establishing continuities to put past actions into ethical outlook.
But, in the end, the ethics of historians qua historians must be to be open-minded and understanding of the actions they describe. Conclusion So where did the “facts” come from? I suspect that data from major studies are so widely quoted in the media that over time, industries are in the habit of citing statistics without proper references. Somehow, the sources are lost, the data become slightly altered, and before you know it, whole industries quote information without attribution. The twofold mission of historians and historical institutions is to preserve and to make available fur use.
The mission is challenged in this time of change: how to prevent entire nations and cultures from repressing and falsifying their past; from destroying their records. The past and the present can be saved for the future if the public historian, as a public servant, is able to safeguard the integrity of the contractual relationship between citizens and their government which the records document: and to administer access to such records so us to ensure that citizens’ rights are protected; and to be close to the people in order to serve the people.
How gratifying it would be, after all these sordid disclosures, to discover that honesty still matters, even in academic circles. Yet it is precisely scholars who are the keepers of our national memory, whose writings and teachings instruct Americans about our past who have so cavalierly traduced their responsibility to tell the truth. The corruption of historians, in the end, expresses the corruption of the very society whose “narrative” of dishonesty now implicates them.