A note on revisionism

Amity Shlaes, whose new and exhaustively researched biography of Calvin Coolidge hit bookstore shelves last week, is sometimes described by ill-meaning reviewers as a “revisionist historian.” Intended to sound vaguely negative, this is in fact no label to be ashamed of, but rather the norm in science and scholarship. Contrary to some, no science, be it physics, psychology, or history, is ever “settled,” nor should it be, as long as new data come to light, or new interpretations can provide alternative or additional perspectives. But it’s easy to see why some may feel threatened by the revision of the trite and well-trodden – the writing of history, after all, is also a question of power. He (or she) who writes history controls the interpretation of history, and the lessons drawn from history. And all those -historians, politicans, journalists- who have staked their careers on a certain version of history are entrenched and stuck in that version. The acceptance of a new paradigm takes time. And it’s never just about the “facts,” for every interpretation has one or many alternative interpretations. But anyone with a true interest in a history that is as unbiased as it can be, and that utilizes multiple sources to construct a multifaceted view should welcome “revisionist” writing.

4 thoughts on “A note on revisionism

  1. You, Sir – I believe are writing from some other country and not from the U. S. of A. What you have to say about re- visioning history is basically true. We must constantly reexamine the past in the light of new information, insights and understanding. However, the exception to such ongoing inquiry is that History engraved by the New Deal Scholars. Their Scholarshit is impeccable; it must not be questioned. Are we clear on this matter?

  2. It does reveal the “cards” in the “hand” of those who keep the gates of historical “scholarship.” It exposes the deep-seated conformity they demand of all newcomers. For these self-appointed gatekeepers it is not about honest historical inquiry, the Socratic search for truth or the questioning of presupposed interpretations for their validity…it is about agreeing to a certain dogma of almost religious sanctity. They have lost sight, if they ever had it, of the principle that historical understanding never reaches finality. Political consensus is the basis for stagnation not honest insight. You diagnosed them well, Kai!

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