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Historians and Their Duties Essay

Gorman timely presents the question “Do historians as historians have an ethical responsibility, and if so to whom? ” in his essay Historians and their Duties especially in an era which has seen the use of history as a way to further political agenda, invent or distort historical fact to justify political undertakings. He rightfully disputes Richard Evans’ assertion of value-free reportage of history and the restrictive historian’s duty of presenting and interpreting knowledge.

In saying that “Historians are simply not trained to make moral judgments…they have no expertise in these things,” Evans suggests they must evade the moral question, but this is impossible. Morality governs us all, including historians. I differ in Evans’ bloodless concept of historical duty, one I think he broke after being expert witness in Irving v. Penguin Books and Lipstadt (Fulford, 2001) where he became instrumental in the conviction of a historian for distorting historical interpretations about the Holocaust.

I think history, to become a significant part in advancing knowledge and good in society, must refuse to be monastic or ornamental, but instead be engaging and useful to mankind. I find Butterfield’s thoughts on ethics provocative in the verbose Bentley essay Herbert Butterfield and the Ethics of Historiography. The most striking is his recommended passive attitude to international politics: “Whatever wicked things we may think are done… … we have no right to say a word… until we have forgiven the sin and covered it up with love. It strikes as a worldview that is either naive or cruel because it seems to justify crimes against humanity.

I find it hard to reconcile with his anti-Whiggish stance condemning the selective presentation of history from the viewpoint of the victor (Schweizer, 2007). Is he, in the process, recommending us to absolve Hitler or the U. S. which he disdained for dropping the A-bomb on Hiroshima? I believe he is, and historians, to his view, being limited in understanding, cannot truly uncover the hand of God or Providence, enough for them to deliberate moral judgments of history.

Responses to Student Views Unlike the first student response, I support Butterfield’s criticism of selective or rejectionist approach to the interpretation of history with a bias to the “victor”. I share his view of world events as a historical process. This is something that historians must take careful consideration of when upholding “objectivity” and “truth” in the conduct of their profession. Historical events are not static, after all, but an accumulation of events, not people, of experiences, not single victories.

Regarding his treatise on passivity and quietism, Butterfield no doubt shares the brand of Christian helplessness when it comes to appreciating world events. I agree with the second student response on his critique of Evans, who promotes value-free interpretation of history as a duty of the ideal historian. I believe that duties of historians extend far more than writing history, but of injecting analysis and viewpoints as well, as long as he does not distort or invent historical fact in doing so. On being “politically neutral”, I have to disagree.

It is true that historians possess a great deal of influence in shaping public perception of how events should be interpreted. In analyzing historical facts, the historian must take a stand, and in this manner, he loses his neutrality. He cannot claim the correctness of two contradictory interpretations but must determine which interpretation finds basis in fact. Indeed, historians cannot exempt themselves from ethical responsibility just because they feel a presumptive need to produce a “dispassionate” account of history.

I think Gorman wrote this essay assuming essay that historians today are a vast and eclectic mix with varying dispositions. He preempts those who have an overly “institutional” view of ethics in saying: “As business people or historians, we surely all share the same moral world. ” I agree that historians have the ethical duty to pass moral judgment and those who find themselves incapable of deliberating such must undergo “moral education. ”


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