Doubting popular historians in addition to pop-science

Eric Garland Uncategorized Leave a Comment

What an interesting trend we have going, indicting a wide variety of intellectuals in the current ruling order for a lack of integrity. Today, Salon widens the inquiry about Fareed Zakaria to include several best-selling historians who have been also accused of professional failings.

Let this be, then, the tale of two highly visible Harvard Ph.D.’s who have been caught red-handed committing plagiarism. Both Fareed Zakaria and Doris Kearns Goodwin were awarded degrees in government from Harvard, 25 years apart. Goodwin, the elder, is a serial plagiarizer who has been welcomed back with open arms by the TV punditocracy. She directly and egregiously lifted quotes from others’ works on multiple occasions – a Pulitzer Prize–winning book contained passages plagiarized from three different writers! – and she quietly paid off one aggrieved author.

The full story can be read in University of Georgia historian Peter Hoffer’s book “Past Imperfect” (2004). It’s damning. It’s also revealing of the fact that Goodwin recycles material because it’s easier than coming up with something new. Bear in mind that, as a matter of course, history majors are taught to visit the archive and focus on primary sources. Government majors are not. Still, that is no excuse for what she (or Zakaria) did.

Even as she admitted to slipshod research in 2002, Goodwin rounded up her prominent journalist friends – and she even co-opted some professional historians. They published a letter in the New York Times assuring the public that she was a writer with “moral integrity” who was innocent of plagiarism. She disappeared from TV and, until her infamous fraud could be erased from public memory, put off publication of a new, breezily written, but still unoriginal (if plagiarism-free) book.

Brutalicious, followed by the cry for rigor, echoing the interests of the scientists now revolting against Malcolm Gladwell et al.

We have to fight mediocrity as well as plagiarism – the two are more closely related than you realize. Journalists doing history tend to be superficial and formulaic. To the historian’s mind, they don’t care enough about accuracy. It’s a surprisingly short distance to travel from dressing up the past in order to make it familiar, to paraphrasing (actually, stealing) an earlier biographer’s ideas.

History is not a bedtime story, folks. Plagiarism is variously defined as “wrongful appropriation” and “close imitation”; it is not just blatant theft of the gist of a paragraph. Originality in writing history is something palpable and verifiable, and it’s the reason History Ph.D. candidates spend years researching and writing a dissertation, taking several years more to fashion it into the book that will earn them tenure. Good history demands the ability to judge the available evidence – a form of knowledge journalists are not asked to cultivate.

Why the groundswell against entrenched interests? Perhaps people are realizing that a world run by 90% authority and 10% competence is not run particularly well.