Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, May 09, 2008

History Lessons

Mary Lefkowitz, the classicist who took on the Afro-centrists (arguing that the Greeks stole their philosophy and other knowledge from Africa) has written a very personal account of her life and academic career as a result of her involvement in this controversy in History Lesson: A Race Odyssey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). I read the book because so much of this controversy focused on the nature of historical evidence and the interpretation of ancient history. However, this book is really more about the nature of academic freedom and the culture wars in the university in the 1990s. If one wants more of the substance of the debate about the use of historical sources versus memory, mythology, and present social and political agendas, a reading of her 1996 Not Out of Africa is the place to go. However, this new book is a fascinating additional source about the controversy, similar in tone and spirit to the personal account Deborah Lipstadt wrote about her experiences in the David Irving libel trial regarding her own work on the Holocaust deniers. One senses the surprise by which Lefkowitz discovers that academic freedom, postmodernism, race, and politics make for strange bedfellows. Early on she writes, “Telling the truth, instead of being our first responsibility, had suddenly become less important than achieving social goals” (p. 2). Also less important, according to Lefkowitz, is the responsibility that college and university administrators feel they have to promote civil discourse, the debate about ideas, and the defense of faculty who are attacked because of criticism they offer of certain ideas about and approaches to scholarship.

One, like myself, who is interested in how documentary and other evidence supports our understanding of the past, will find a number of references to such concerns. Lefkowitz writes, for example, “Teachers of course need to have freedom to experiment and to test new theories and interpretations. But academic freedom does not give us the right to rewrite history without reference to the known facts – even if by doing so we imagine that we can bring about social improvement” (p. 13). Her commentary on incidents at her school (Wellesley), how her criticism of publications such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena soon evolved into a convoluted set of accusations about Jews exploiting blacks and a focus on race rather than historical scholarship, and the libel suit involving her and the subsequent lack of support by her school’s administration places her in the arena of other such academic debates such as the Bellesiles’s scandal on the use or misuse of historical evidence in his study of guns in early America and the Irving suit against Lipstadt, also involving historical evidence. Lefkowitz seeks to bring all these various matters together, seeking “to describe and expose some of the strategies and arguments that were used to turn an uncontroversial statement about history into a controversy about race and, even beyond that, into an inquiry about the purpose of education.” She seeks “to use my experience to show why it is better in the end for all of us to pay attention to facts, and argue from evidence” (p. 14).

This is a book archivists will want to read, for several reasons. First, Lefkowitz seems to be on the side of the angels for her views on the importance of evidence. “The only way one can learn about the ancient world is by studying its surviving texts and artifacts,” she writes. “We have no other choice. We have not lived in antiquity or in the settings of civilizations like those found in the ancient world” (p. 123). Second, archivists understand the complexities about the nature and veracity of historical documentation, their role in influencing or shaping what documentation is saved and how it is used – and Lefkowitz provides some commentary on such matters. Archivists have become more aware of how limited their documentation can be and how scholars and others are stretching into other forms of information to build historical cases and interpretations. Nevertheless, archivists must always be aware of how such evidence stacks up in the long run. As Lefkowitz suggests, “It is through the use of evidence that we can separate good scholarship from bad, in any field. The best argument is not the one we like, or the one that is argued most persuasively, but the one that offers the best account of all the available facts” (p. 132). And, third, archivists are aware of the trouble they can be in for gathering evidence from a range of conflicting groups or in enabling scholars and other researchers to have access to evidence about controversial issues. In this regard, Lefkowitz, despite the personal grief she experienced, indicates it was all worth it: “Even with all the anguish and worry that was involved, it was a privilege to be involved in an important intellectual controversy, to need to explain myself and to take nothing for granted” (pp. 148-149).