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The Killing of History


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Keith Windschuttle


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.

Australian author and lecturer in history, social science, and media, Windschuttle presents an articulate, acerbic, sustained but balanced attack on postmodernist theory and its influence on the practice of history. After a survey of the major tenets of postmodern theory with its radical relativism, the author examines a series of case studies where the practice has been applied, such as Cortés's conquest of Mexico, movie versions of Mutiny on the Bounty, and the Hawaiian system of signs in the interpretation of Captain Cook's existence. He also includes a long chapter on Foucault. Showing the inconsistencies, errors, contradictions, and illogic that resulted from the postmodernist approach, he ultimately argues that the relativism and rejection of empirical research by such theorists produces a tribalism that disarms the marginalized groups it proposes to liberate. While oriented toward Australian intellectual circles, this book is readily accessible and deserves a wide audience.‘Thomas L. Cooksey, Armstrong State Coll., Savannah, Ga.

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