Not so long ago, I noted the response of legal scholars to a prominent American law professor’s query regarding the ten greatest historians. The lists they submitted, I said, nearly all focused on the very recent, the academic, and the anglophone. In the end, perhaps predictably, some among them lamented that the majority of lists also featured disproportionate numbers of men of European descent.
Perhaps, I hazarded with some trepidation, historians’ responses would have been better.
Well ... the same law professor submitted the same question to an e-mail list for scholars of early America (down to c. 1815). Early on, I offered a long (by e-mail standards) list of my top ten. I included my reasoning in regard to each one. (For example, when it came to Thucydides, I said, “One of my personal favorites. A hard-headed, ‘modern’ writer. Unlike Herodotus, not prone to accept anything on rumor or to relay wild tales or traditions. Skeptical of his own society as well as of the enemy’s. A serious critic of the Athenian democracy and observer of the effects of war, psychological, political, economic, moral, and military.”)
So, did historians acquit themselves better than legal scholars? One might have expected them to, as their training certainly fits them for this task far better than does lawyers’ three years of case law, moot courts, and clerking. And, in fact, one brave soul did respond to a critic of my list who lamented that even now, people favor males’ work by saying that alas, over the last 2,500 years, virtually all of the most significant historians have been European men.
This made little difference to the vector of the discussion, however. Soon ensued a festival of race- and sex-based listing, with one historian offering the names Gerda Lerner, Joan Scott, Mary Beard, and Laurel Ulrich, while another said that “The lists, of course, reflects [sic] our training as well as our biases. We have picked what supports our world-view, what we teach and how we teach it.” The post that took the cake, however, was the one with first a list of ten notable female historians, second a list of ten notable black historians, and third the statement that “In these above lists, I ... didn’t take race and gender into account.” As the kids say, LOL.
So, the migration of this discussion from the legal scholars’ list to the historians’ list was a move from talk among the unknowing to talk among the opponents of the idea of objective truth. What it comes down to is, Gerda Lerner or Thucydides, Mary Beard or Herodotus, Joan Scott or Tacitus, Laurel Ulrich or Fernand Braudel, who can say? Six of one, half a dozen of the other, “You say potato…,” etc.
I suppose that’s why such a huge proportion of people who receive history degrees these days have never even heard of the seminal works of the great historians. What’s far more important than exposure to the great works is exposure to a racially and sexually balanced group of writers.
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