As a historian, I occasionally feel the need to visit the History News Network to read commentary on world events. More often than not I regret having been there.
Take the latest controversy, for example. The editors of HNN sponsor a series of blogs run by people of all sorts of political persuasions. The neoconservatives have Judith Apter Klinghoffer, the libertarians have Liberty & Power, liberals have, well most of the others. Recently Thomas C. Reeves, a distinguished historian and author of some twelve books, was given his own HNN blog. Reeves happens to be a conservative, and on January 12 he wrote an entry suggesting advocating school uniform requirements. In it, he argues:
Hip-hop outfits are not tolerated in the business world, for they betray a lack of learning and discipline that could injure an employer’s pocketbook. Why should they be tolerated in a school, where anti-intellectualism, in symbol and practice, can destroy the very purpose of the institution?
I am aghast to record here that the reference this writer provides to "solid studies" to support his encomium of school uniforms turns out to be dominated by authors and studies that find no correlation between school uniforms and any of the wonderful things this author claims they promote.
Okay, so Professor Reeves acted hastily in citing something that he hadn’t read closely enough. Embarrassing, to be sure, but could this be an actionable offense? Ralph Luker of Cliopatria, another HNN blog, sure thinks so. He writes:
Since Professor Reeves pays _no_ attention to what his readers have to say and apparently does not bother to read the sources he cites before claiming that they say what he wants them to say, I have called this to the attention of the Editor at HNN.
Later, at his own blog, Luker dug up an editorial that Reeves wrote back in 2002 for Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, and which was subsequently republished at HNN. In that piece Reeves had denounced the institution from which he had just retired—-the University of Wisconsin at Parkside—-for the pervasive culture of anti-intellectualism that was tolerated (indeed, encouraged) among its student body.
One quickly learns that the young people signed up for 101 and 102 (the chronological break between the courses at Parkside is 1877) know virtually nothing about the history of their own nation. They have no grasp of colonial America (I’ve been asked, "Is the seventeenth century the 1700s?") or the nation’s constitutional machinery. All religion baffles them (no doubt a tribute to the secularism dominant in modern public schools), all intellectual history eludes them, and politics bores them. Even after instruction, they often confuse World War I and World War II. All the presidents before Clinton are a blur; Franklin D. Roosevelt sometimes shows up on exams in the Gilded Age and U.S. Grant in the twentieth century. Almost all of the students simply refuse to memorize the Chief Executives in their proper chronological order. In fact, they choose to ignore dates of any kind; written exams rarely contain any. More than one student has told me frankly, "I don’t do dates."
But, Luker tells us, six of Reeves’s former colleagues wrote a response to that editorial, in which they claimed that "Every paragraph is replete with false, erroneous, misleading or outdated information." He doesn’t mention, however, their next sentence, in which they fail to back up their claim: "To refute each of these points would, however, take too long and try the patience of the readers." What conclusion does Professor Luker draw from all this? He asks:
Is there any reason to believe that Tom Reeves did credible work in his books, when he has misrepresented primary and secondary sources repeatedly at HNN? Since 2002, HNN has refused to publish Michael Bellesiles’s op-eds circulated by History News Service because Bellesiles’s credibility had been destroyed. I don’t know whether HNN would publish an op-ed by John Lott. But in repeatedly publishing articles by Tom Reeves and then giving him a blog, HNN has raised up its own credibility problem. The problem isn’t that Tom Reeves is a conservative. The problem is that he’s a liar.
Look, I don’t have any particular dog in this fight. I’ve never met Profesor Reeves, and I hate academic dishonesty as much as anyone. But does this amount to lying, a la Bellesiles, Lott, and Joseph Ellis? Reeves carelessly cited something that didn’t actually back up an entry on a blog. He wrote unkind things about UW-Parkside, and his colleagues were annoyed. But to call him a liar, and to therefore question his entire life’s work as a historian, is as vicious and unfair an accusation as any I’ve encountered in this business.