The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past
The deliberately provocative title of this latest entry in the ongoing culture wars belies a reasonable, subtly argued if wide-ranging and at times unwieldy critique of contemporary historical theory. Australian author and lecturer Windschuttle contends that the introduction of fashionable academic ""history"" courses under such rubrics as cultural, media and gender studies are agenda-driven and have undercut the practices of history as a discipline. Windschuttle clearly subscribes to Roger Kimball's ""tenured radicals"" thesis, and places much blame for the decline in traditional history on postmodernist French literary and social theorists--above all, Michel Foucault. In the introduction of theoretical approaches like structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction and semiotics, he says, contemporary radical theorists posit a cultural relativism that denies an objective, knowable truth about the past. The author argues that history is inherently empirical: that historians draw conclusions by inductive reasoning based on research, rather than by the application of preconceived theories. Each of the nine chapters examines a particular episode or issue and analyzes current trends in scholarship. For example, a chapter on the conquest of Mexico presents a fascinating overview of this event and various historians' interpretations of it. The author warns that ""cultural relativism will never serve the real interests of indigenous peoples if it denies them access to the truth about the past."" While these views will scarcely endear Windschuttle to the academics whose theoretical approaches he attacks, he largely succeeds in shedding more light than heat on some contentious issues. (Oct.) FYI: Other recent and upcoming books on the study of history include Michael Kammen's In the Past Lane (Forecasts, July 21), Gerda Lerner's Why History Matters (Feb. 3). Also upcoming is History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past by Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree and Ross E. Dunn.
Reviewed on: 09/29/1997
Release date: 10/01/1997
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