Carl Robert Keyes is a newly tenured Associate Professor of History at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is currently working on a book about advertising practices and consumer culture in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. An earlier version was delivered at the induction ceremony for the Phi Alpha Theta chapter at Framingham State University in April, 2014.
Earlier this month I finished teaching my first public history course. I’ve long been concerned about how professional historians, especially academic historians, (often don’t) communicate with the public and, in turn, the general public’s misunderstanding of the historian’s craft. Teaching a public history course made these apprehensions central to my work in the classroom. My students and I grappled with a different kind of historiography, a less formal historiography consisting of public opinion, incomplete recollections of elementary and secondary history education, and a “master narrative” that usually dominates stories of the American past told by many public figures, a narrative steeped in patriotism, heritage, and commemoration. More than ever, I found myself challenging my students (in all my classes, not just the public history course) to take a three-part approach in their studies: learn about the past, learn about how professional historians have interpreted the past, and learn about how the general public understands the past. This became yet another way to demonstrate that course content has relevance outside the classroom and beyond the semester.
This began with explanations that professional historians—academic and public—realize that popular versions of American history have traditionally tended to place disproportionate emphasis on elite white men, not unlike academic history once did to a much greater extent before the democratization of the academy in the wake of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For professional historians, I explain, their own research and the courses they teach or programs they develop offer new narratives that incorporate the experiences of women, people of color, poor and middling people, and a variety of other constituencies previously not accorded the attention they merited. The charge of historians requires that they analyze and describe as much of the human experience as possible, not just the experiences of certain privileged groups.
A variety of politicians, pundits, activists, and their ilk, on the other hand, describe these new narratives and new interpretations as “revisionist” history. Here, I explain to students, “revisionist” is a pejorative and derogatory description of the work being done by historians who tell a story that seems different than the sacred tales, the American mythology, that many politicians, pundits, and activists learned and that they are certain represents the truth—indeed, the entire Truth. Academic and public historians who tell stories about the past that incorporate greater numbers of women and people of color and other marginalized populations, they argue, are not telling the truth about history. They are “revisionists” who are attempting to mislead the American people, supposedly for nefarious political ends.
Those who use “revisionist” as an epithet pretend to be advocates of history, but do they truly understand the purpose and process of doing history? When was the last time we ever heard of a revisionist doctor or a revisionist surgeon or a revisionist engineer? I want my doctor to be as revisionist as possible. I want her to be aware of all of the latest studies in her field and new approaches to practicing medicine widely endorsed by her colleagues and then treat my symptoms accordingly. Similarly, I want a surgeon who is a revisionist. I want him to use the most recent surgical methods and medical technology. I know enough about early modern medical practices to know that I prefer lasers over leeches. I also prefer to travel in cars and airplanes designed by revisionist engineers, those who are aware of all the most recent advances in their field. Why then, if we demand the most cutting-edge knowledge, practices, and applications from a variety of other professionals, do some critics insist that history, our understanding of the past, must be—can only be—unchanging? Why do the narratives and interpretations presented by contemporary historians, those so-called “revisionists,” engender so much fear, discomfort, and anger? Why is it so problematic that those historians have presented cutting-edge research based on new methods and new sources as they have become available? After all, this is a process that we value in other professionals.
One answer is that the new narratives and the new interpretations are supposedly ideological. I will concede that these narratives and interpretation are indeed ideological in that they argue that the United States has not always lived up to its ideals, that in many situations individuals and institutions could have done better, that our past has not been a steady march of progress but instead has been much more messy and complex. What the critics refuse to recognize, however, is that their preferred version of American history, the triumphal and blindly patriotic narrative, is just as ideological as the “revisionist” interpretation they condemn so vigorously. The traditional “master narrative” is no less political. Just because it came first, just because it is familiar, just because it is comfortable does not mean that it lacks bias. In overlooking or writing out the histories of women, people of color, gay and lesbian people, people with disabilities, and, indeed, white men who did not rank among the political, economic, or social elite as well, proponents of a more “traditional” American history have made choices that have consequences in how we think about our identity, consequences in how we approach and define current issues that challenge our nation, and consequences in our expectations of our neighbors and our elected leaders.
The same critics that raise the specter of “revisionist” history are often quick to make another accusation: liberal, “politically correct” professors (and, mentioned less often, public historians) are attempting to brainwash students with their unpatriotic and un-American narratives. Doing history becomes a political and inappropriately partisan act that supposedly puts the soul of the nation at peril because the Truth of the American past has been obscured. This has never been my sense of the goals actually pursued by my colleagues in the classroom, regardless of the political views they express in their private lives as citizens. Instead, my colleagues and I seek to prepare students for thoughtful citizenship and civic engagement by introducing them to the depth and breadth of American history made apparent by examining the interactions and perspectives of multiple constituencies. In general, neither I nor my colleagues desire students who agree with us all the time. Instead, we want our students to gain the skills and knowledge to be able to fully participate in the democratic process without being hoodwinked by politicians, pundits, and activists who use history as a weapon to confuse others and misrepresent the past. “Revisionist” shouldn’t be a dirty word, and we—academic and public historians—must more actively and publicly challenge those who argue that it is.
 Here I offer my own take on Douglass Greenberg’s comments about revisionist chemistry and the absence of public physicists even though we have public historians. Douglass Greenberg, “‘History Is a Luxury’: Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Disney, and (Public) History,” Reviews in American History 26, no. 1 (1998): 301. He notes that Joyce Appleby first offered a similar critique of accusations of revisionism. Joyce Appleby, “Should We All Become Public Historians?” Perspectives (March 1997).
 In his analysis of objections to the National Park Service including discussions of the causes of the Civil War as part of the interpretation at historic battlefields, Dwight Pitcaithley makes the point that the critics do not recognize their own position as equally ideological. Dwight T. Pitcaithley, “‘A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (New York: New Press, 2006), 178.