Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

In Defense of Tom Reeves

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?

He then cited another web site as a source of “solid studies of this issue.” Here’s where the trouble started. As one of his readers commented:

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.

Discussions - 17 Comments

I am not aware of the charge that John Lott has lied a la Bellesiles. Can someone point me to some specific information on this charge?

Try here. It’s worth mentioning that the case is far less cut-and-dried than that of Bellesiles, and that few have charged that his offenses have been as serious.

Why on earth would historians start blogging? I know from experience that we are talking about people a substantial minority of whom cannot be in the room with three other sentient beings without forming an alliance with one or two, and lighting out after the remainder.
What is really remarkable is how much ill digested opinion, personal insult, and pettiness are on display in the pretentious opinion swamp linked to this story. It proves conclusively that people "qualified" by their "extensive expertise" are just as grudgeful and unreflective as everyone else, but they can have a more official-sounding fight over credentials. Shut up and teach your classes. Oh wait - that’s what grad students are for.


Same Lott that does all the gun control stuff? What about the Joseph Ellis reference?

Yep, same John Lott. Joe Ellis didn’t get in trouble for plagiarism, but rather for inventing a fictitious past for himself in his lectures. He was in the habit of telling students that he had been deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement, and that he served in Vietnam, neither of which turned out to be the case.

I guess before we make our judgments, we need to find out the other examples of misusing primary and secondary sources. The first example is clear, and in my opinion, inescusable. If sources are cites, they must be cited correctly. This is what academics do for a living. It is not ethical for an academic to argue "solid studies" without being sure that the argument is based on at least a reasonable foundation. Now, the second example is less-convincing and as an editorial, is likely based on anecdotal evidence--he’s a historian, not a qualitative researcher. So I’m not convinced by it. However, are there more? Since the accuser advises us that there are "repeated" instances, let’s take a look and consider the evidence as opposed to the usual ideological musings....

The plagarism of Ambrose and Goodwin, I at least understood. The Ellis incident was just downright stupid. Why in the world would he have done that? It defies common sense. Did he ever offer an explanation?

Surely it’s worth noting that Reeves never actually claimed that this web site backed up his argument. To demonstrate that he was lying, one would have to show that the "studies" were not, indeed, "solid." Good luck with that.

As for the claim of "repeated instances," nobody has mentioned more than these two. Given the intensity of the debate, I imagine that if Professor Luker knew of more he would not have held back.

And since when is it an "ideological musing" to assume innocence in the absence of proof of guilt?

Equating John Lott with Bellesiles isn’t exactly fair. Lott explains most of these controversies on his website, and does a fine job of refuting the NAS report on "right to carry’s" effect on crime.

Given the "heat" Lott has taken over the years, we should take accusations against him with a grain of salt. This blog entry does him a disservice.

Are you kidding John? Of course it’s possible to make a reasonable determination of whether or not the studies are "solid"! If one can not do that, than one has absolutly no business being a researcher/historian. And before jumping on the bandwagon to EITHER defend or decry, it should be checked out--rather than brushed off in a cavalier manner ("good luck with that."). Academics--and or people working in R&D in general (be they in the hard sciences or the "soft" sciences) cite other researcher’s work to support their argument, point to a gap that their study/argument addresses, and a host of other things. This is why it is inexcusable --and unethnical--to cite other sources without having read them (best case scenario) or to make a claim that they are more than they are.

Of course it’s possible to make a reasonable determination of whether or not the studies are "solid"! If one can not do that, than one has absolutly no business being a researcher/historian.

Sure, but if you claim that something is "solid," and I happen to disagree, does that make you a liar? Or does it mean that we simply have different standards for judging? I don’t claim that all standards are equal, and it is perfectly acceptable to question Reeves’ judgment in citing that source, but it does not rise to the level of a lie. And that’s what this is ultimately about.

I agree with John. As researchers, we can examine evidence or secondary studies and draw very different conclusions from them. If someone misinterprets a source or thinks it is a good one, and it is not, can we level charges of lying, plagarism, etc.?

I am a member of one of the blogs at HNN involved in this latest debate. I won’t comment on the debate--Lord knows there has been plenty of that already--but I did want to mention that our blog, Rebunk, is hardly just liberal. In fact, only one of the three (soon to be four) members would actually call himself a liberal. I understand Mr. Moser’s frustration with HNN--it can be frustrating--but take another look. We might surprise you.

I, too, would commend Rebunk to NLT readers (in fact, I notice that they link to NLT). I know Steve Tootle, who writes for it, is a good guy.

I am the liberal one on Rebunk and by any stretch I am the only liberal one. We have widely disparate ideologies but are united on a handful of core issues that if anything make most people accuse us of being neo-cons even though I certainly do not place myself in that category. In any case, we welcome all with malice toward none. Well, except for idiots and Yankee fans.

Do give us a thought for more than just this increasingly shrill Luker-Reeves pissing match



Professor Reeves was called out by his former colleagues, Michael Meo, and me -- not because he is a conservative, but because his text, in the case of his article, and his citation, in the case of his blog post, were misleading. In a number of respects, I am myself a conservative. Some others who blog with me at Cliopatria also have some conservative instincts. Unfortunately, some people reached conclusions before looking at the evidence and made unreasonable accusations, which they could not substantiate.

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