February 12, 2005

Churchill and standards

A friend from an educational psychology background wrote me last night,

It appears that Churchill is being revealed as an incompetent and likely dishonest historian. Is that grounds for dismissal, or merely rehabilitation?

Plenty of historians make mistakes about the factual record or misinterpret evidence, and it's not necessarily grounds for firing—that's what we call material for criticism and reevaluation of the record. It's a question of degree and circumstance. The devil's in the details, and that's best left up to faculty and administrators at UC to figure out.

Churchill's not an historian by discipline, as far as I understand, and it depends in part as well on whether he was blithely repeating myths that he had heard from others or was actively making up stories. The first is the historian's equivalent of practicing without a license (or training), and the second is deliberate fraud.

The other thing that's troubling here is that people who didn't like him went on a fishing expedition, obviously. The passive-voice phrasing, "is being revealed," is significant. People who are rankly incompetent or dishonest should be tossed out on their ears, but how many of our minor mistakes could be distorted into allegations of fraud in the heat of political conflict, with dozens of paid hype-masters focusing on every jot and tittle we've written? When I was looking up some materials cited in David Tyack and Elisabeth Hansot's Learning Together, I discovered that their citations on one or two matters were incorrect. I don't think that's misconduct, since any historian's book has a few hundred citations, and it's likely that a few are incorrect. Then, a few years ago, a student pointed out that their interpretation of one photograph from a Washington, DC, algebra class was flawed. The student is absolutely right. Do those errors jointly make the book fraudulent? I don't think so, but if David Tyack weren't such a nice guy, he might've attracted those sorts of allegations for the everyday minor mistakes he's made in a generally stellar career.

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Posted in Academic freedom on February 12, 2005 6:56 AM |