Guest Post: Is There a Revisionist Doctor in the House?

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?[1] 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.[2] 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.


[1] 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).

[2] 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.

11 responses

  1. To me, after studying Early America for about 50 years, mainly independently, what makes the subject so fascinating is precisely so-called revisionism! Nothing better than new information or a different interpretation to get the mental juices flowing!
    I found the New Left revisionism in the 60s when I was fresh out of grad school fascinating and thought provoking. Slavery and the formation of the Constitution, the Atlantic World, New Netherland history, the role of social history in bringing new insights: these are just some of the ways “revisionism” has led to a better understanding of the period. And, for the most part, these aren’t even controversial!
    I say huzzah for the revisionists. They keep us engaged!

  2. What should a public challenge to the pejorative charges of “revisionism” look like or entail? I think responding to the charge of “revisionism” by negatively responding to other charges (i.e., the liberal academic historian stereotype) is counterproductive. Three issues are key, I think, in responding rationally to charges of revisionism in ways that don’t respond directly to political (ideological) charges and are easily understood in the context of non-historians’ own experiences or perceptions.

    First, each historian (and each generation of historians) naturally interprets previously examined events, documents, and evidence differently, just like people do now with contemporary events.

    Second, each new generation of historians, like all workers, have access to tools and documents that either weren’t available or weren’t as easily available to previous generations, allowing them to look at old evidence in new ways.

    Finally, history is complex. I would ask someone inquiring about revisionism: “Do you do everything in your life based on a single motivation?” And: “Does everything you do turn out exactly as you planned, without ever having any unintended consequences?” Of course not. So why should we think that would be the case for people and events of the past?

    In the end, charges of being a revisionist should be met with, “Of course, my history is revisionist. ALL history is revisionist.” After all, even George Bancroft’s 19th-century, romantic history of the United States was revisionist toward a more enlightenment-based secular understanding of the causes and consequences of the Revolution from both patriots and loyalists.

    Of course, rational responses do not address dealing with people who sincerely and genuinely believe that there is a single, fundamental historical Truth. That is because I think there is no getting through that worldview. That belief, that there is a single Truth, whether it’s history, cosmology, politics, or anything else, will always trump any rational argument. Yet, those are the people who often yell the loudest and so it’s easy to find yourself engaged in a shouting match with them.

    Therefore, we should avoid over-engaging directly with the narrow group of people making charges of revisionism and speak to the broader public. I suspect less ideologically inclined people who find themselves sympathetic to revisionist charges against historians do so largely because they do not know what historians do. So I would suggest that our best bet (as I suspect it has always has been) is to better educate the public not just about history itself but about what it means to do history.

    • I agree with almost everything you say here. I would have liked to have said much of it myself had space permitted. (Indeed, I did say much of it in the extended version I presented at the Phi Alpha Theta induction ceremony at Framingham State University last month.)

      To your point about linking responses to revisionism with responses to the liberal academic stereotype, I do not see this as counterproductive because all too often the two accusations are uttered in the same breath and both address the purposes of doing history. As a professor, I have varied responsibilities; while I am always a scholar-teacher, sometimes I must place more emphasis on being a scholar and sometimes I must place more emphasis on being a teacher. Both roles are often misunderstood by non-historians. As a scholar, my purpose in doing history is to understand the past and to determine how that understanding helps us to navigate better the variety of complex issues — political, cultural, economic, religious — we encounter in the modern world. Revising earlier interpretations of the past provides useful insights for the latter. As a teacher, my purpose is to relay both of those to my students but also to help them develop a series of skills — such as critical reading and the ability to identify multiple (often competing) perspectives and the ability to assess evidence and formulate and defend an argument — that will serve them in their personal, professional, and civic lives. Here is where my work as an historian, as a teacher of history, is also misunderstood. Providing multiple narratives, including (especially) a revised narrative (because it is likely unfamiliar to most undergraduates) is a key part in helping students develop those skills. However, critics often see a zero-sum game and fixate on the presentation of “revisionist” history in the classroom (suggesting that merely including that interpretation cancels out all competing interpretations) and suggest that academic historians’ goal is creating students who merely parrot a particular, preferred narrative. In an age of debates about the value of the humanities and liberal arts education, I believe that it is necessary to call attention to the purposes of doing history on both sides of the scholar-teacher equation.

      I wholeheartedly agree that the belief “that there is a single Truth … will always trump any rational argument” among those who hold that belief. I did not mean to imply that we should engage in unproductive shouting matches with those who hold such views, but rather (as you suggest) that historians should make more effort to engage with audiences who are sympathetic to charges of revisionism only because they have only ever been exposed to those charges and have not had the benefit of hearing from historians about what we actually do. At the same time, we should not let accusations of “revisionism” pass unremarked. When those who believe in a single Truth make such claims about our work, it is possible (and I believe it should be our responsibility) to give a civil response (perhaps along the lines of the three points you make), not necessarily for the benefit of those who made the “revisionist” insinuation but for others silently observing who could, upon having more and better evidence, reach more informed conclusions about history and historians.

      • I just want to call attention to this idea you’ve touched upon in the comment: “In an age of debates about the value of the humanities and liberal arts education, I believe that it is necessary to call attention to the purposes of doing history on both sides of the scholar-teacher equation.” In the blog post, you pointed out that you want “revisionist” doctors, because you prefer “lasers over leeches.” This speaks directly to why we should be concerned that humanities fields tend to have less apparent value to the general public than do STEM fields. Admittedly this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, but it seems that the general public perceives what we do as scholars in the humanities to be less rigorous. I think many people in my generation (millennials) have taken on an idea of science not as dynamic and ever-changing–“revisionist”–but unwavering Truth with a capital T and totally devoid of cultural, political, economic, and historical context. Teaching students to think critically is an especially necessary intervention amidst such attitudes.

  3. Surely “revisionist” gets its meaning from its historical context. It deliberately conflates holocaust deniers with Stalinist rewriters of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, two groups famous for using the innocent-sounding verb “revise” for their creation of gross lies.

    Keyes seems to me to be indulging in a fey sort of affectation, the pretence that he is rescuing the real meaning of the word from a distorted nonce use. He is simply incorrect. “Historical revisionism” has nothing to do with correcting or adjusting our understanding of history on the basis of fact; it simply means the creation of a false history on the basis of political, generally authoritarian, bias.

    The misuse of “historical revisionism” as a pejorative against those who correct the original whited versions of slavery is just average normal right-wing name-calling. The answer is not to resuscitate a fey, olde meaning to “historical revisionism.” It is to call out the name-callers as liars.

    In the context of slavery the revisionists are the politicians we’ve heard lately, saying it wasn’t so bad, they got fed didn’t they, and so on and so forth.


    • I disagree about my purpose. I did not intend to “rescu[e] the real meaning of the word from a distorted nonce use.” Instead, I aimed to suggest that historians should take ownership of the word for their own purposes rather than shy away from it as an accusation and an indictment of their work, much as many members of the LGBT community adopted the word “queer” to describe themselves. Doing so was a means of achieving empowerment through shifting its meaning by embracing the word “queer” and not letting others dictate its meaning or their identity. Taking up “revisionist” as a badge of pride — and explaining why we have done so — is one way that historians can “call out the name-callers as liars,” as you put it. Doing so will take a bit more work than simply labeling others a liars, but it stands to be more productive.

      I think that we may have some of the same goals in mind to a greater degree than your response perhaps indicates. You might be interested to learn that the original address delivered last month included a critique of Jim DeMint’s recent comments that “big government” didn’t free the slaves. I eliminated that portion of the longer essay when I condensed it for publication on The Junto.

  4. Just to note… The AP story covering O’Shaugnessy’s winning of the GW Book Prize begins:

    “The author of a revisionist account of the British leaders who lost the North American colonies in the Revolutionary War has won one of the nation’s largest literary awards.”

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