Discussion: Historical Revisionism
For this discussion read the following articles: McPherson: “Revisionist Historians”; and Zainaldin: “The Price of Truth” –> both will give you excellent background on the difference between pop-culture revisionism, and the professional act of revisionism that is vital to the practice of history. Then, consider Gary Gerstle, “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus”.
Gary Gerstle’s article “Race and the Myth of the Liberal Consensus” addresses two important historical issues, both listed in the title. One of them, obviously, is race–the existence of persistent racism in the northern American states in the Twentieth Century. The other, which should be your main focus this week, is his analysis of what he feels are old and faulty interpretations of the subject (his act of revisionism).
NOTE: Please keep in mind that Gerstle focuses on the work of other historians in his article – this is what is known in the profession as a “review article”, where the scholar evaluates the work of other historians to argue their own point. He is not presenting his own research here.
Revisionism, the use of new evidence or reinterpretation of old evidence to disprove an existing thesis, is a major part of the historical profession. There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes truly new information is unearthed. The opening of Soviet archives in the wake of the Cold War, for example, has allowed scholars access to all kinds of information and changed their understanding of the twentieth-century U.S.S.R. In other cases, social changes demand reevaluation due to changing social values. For example, American history was once littered with negative views of minorities due the overtly racist nature of American society, including academic-level historians (think back to some of the stuff that you read in the Scott article a few weeks back, about the inherent racism of the profession at the turn of the century). In the 1960s, a shift towards less racist views started in America, and correspondingly historians became less racist themselves, often due to the inclusion of minorities amongst their ranks.
Also, the emergence of new interpretive approaches can provide revisionary interpretations. Think about how using a New Cultural approach would provide you more about cultural meanings than a New Social or Materialist approach would. Likewise, if you wrote about World War Two through a biographical lens like that of FDR, you would get one view of World War Two, but if you looked at World War Two through a new Cultural History approach and studied a group of soldiers, like in Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, you would get a different take on the same period of history. That means we often find revisions of a topic come through the use of a new approach for that topic (something to keep in mind when thinking about a topic for History 309 and 495).
For this week, read the materials listed above, and think about two things in your initial post. Write at least one fully developed paragraph for each set of questions.
1. Why is revisionism vital to our understanding of the past? – pay close attention to the McPherson and Zainaldin articles in terms of defining what revisionism is to historians. What advantages does revisionism provide in terms of historical understanding? Do you think that Gerstle provides a good model for this kind of history? (Demonstrate that you understand what Gerstle’s article was about in this part of your initial post.)
2. Why was Irving’s work not considered revisionist, but just really bad history? Why was Irving not considered legitimate, either as a scholar, or through the work he produced? (note: Is Irving a professional historian? If you can’t tell by the readings, do a quick Google search on him). What is the moral of what happened to him?
3. How is every examination of a historical topic revisionist? How will every research project you do be revisionist? How could a first look at a topic be revisionist? Provide an specific example of a topic for which you could use revisionism in your future work in HIST 309 or HIST 495.
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Week 5 Sources