Where Historians Often Go Wrong

Historian Thomas C. Reeves gives us the details of a talk that Alan Charles Kors, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, gave on the often incorrect paradigm of historians:

Secondly, Kors contends, ideologically driven historians misunderstand reality. They “imagine that goodness, wisdom, order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that it is malice, folly, disorder, war, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty that stand in need of purely historical explanation.” This is, of course, a misreading of human nature and of history that also sets the agenda for most journalists, which is why newspapers and television news programs dwell almost exclusively upon horror, evil, and insanity. The upshot of this misunderstanding is a history that focuses upon the worst that can be found or imagined, especially within the West.

Kors writes, “It is the existence and agency of Western values by which…injustice has been and is being progressively overcome that truly should excite our curiosity and awe. Anti-Semitism is not surprising; the opening of Christian America to Jews is what should amaze. Racial aversion and injustice are not the source of wonderment; the Fourteenth Amendment and its gradual implementation are what should astonish. It is not the abuse of power that requires explanation—that is surely the human condition—but the Western rule of law. Similarly, it is not coerced religious conformity that should leave us groping for understanding, but the forging of the values and institutions of religious toleration.”

Kors continues, “Most dramatically, of course, it is not slavery that requires explanation—slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions—but, rather, the values and agency by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and, astonishment of astonishments, abolished it.” The existence of poverty, the author argues, should not be an occasion of wonder; hunger has always haunted humanity. “What we ignore are the values, institutions, knowledge, risk, ethics, and liberties that created prosperity to such a degree that pockets of poverty now draw public attention and the impulse to remediate them.”

Historians, in short, focus upon the wrong things, emphasizing the problems without acknowledging the accomplishments and aspirations of a civilization that produced more freedom and prosperity than any other has. Kors calls this “a failure of intellectual analysis,” which it clearly is.

The historians very often see only what they want to see, and the picture is often bleak. “In the midst of unparalleled social mobility in the West, they cry ‘caste,’ In a society of munificent goods and services, they cry either ‘poverty’ or ‘consumerism.’ In a society of ever richer, more varied, more productive, more self-defined, and more satisfying lives, they cry alienation. In a society that has liberated women, racial minorities, religious minorities, and gays and lesbians to an extent that no one could have dreamed possible just fifty years ago, they cry ‘oppression.’ In a society of boundless private charity, they cry ‘avarice.’ In a society in which hundreds of millions have been free riders upon the risk, knowledge, and capital of others, they cry ‘exploitation.’ In a society that broke, on behalf of merit, the seemingly eternal chains of station by birth, they cry ‘injustice.’”

The full article can be found here.

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