How the AHA Killed Viewpoint-Neutral Teaching

The story of academic history in the 21st century is the story of ceaseless politicization.

[Editor’s note: Late last year, faculty at the University of California protested an initiative that would have encouraged the “viewpoint-neutral” teaching of Middle Eastern history. Below, Martin Center contributor David Randall offers his own take on the subject. To read part one of this small series, please click here.]

The October 7 Hamas mass-murder of Israelis highlighted the academics around the world who have a soft spot for Jew-killers, as well as how their bigotry’s gotten into everything they do. At the University of California (UC), Michael Drake, president of the UC System, made a softly-softly statement in favor of “viewpoint-neutral” teaching where the history of the Middle East is concerned. No end of professors immediately wrote to protest the very idea of “viewpoint-neutral history,” by which Drake “appear[ed] to be calling into question the academic integrity of the community of University of California scholars.”

Providing the deep theoretical background, history professor Mark LeVine stated that “teaching history in a ‘viewpoint-neutral’ way is ‘literally impossible.’ He said the concept harkens back to a ‘19th-century idea of objective history’ disfavored by historians for ‘decades and decades.’”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association (AHA), also referred to the AHA’s Statement on Standards and Professional Conduct, which specifies that

practicing history with integrity does not mean having no point of view. Every work of history articulates a particular, limited perspective on the past. […] [T]he very nature of our discipline means that historians also understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience. Because the record of the past is so fragment, absolute historical knowledge is denied to us.

The statement also specifies that “Historians hold this view not because they believe that all interpretations are equally valid, or that nothing can ever be known about the past, or that facts do not matter. Quite the contrary. History would be pointless if such claims were true.”

An old debate is where to place history in the divide between subjective and objective truth.But these are stipulations distinctly in a minor key.

At the core, this issue reopens the old debate about where to place history in the divides between subjective and objective truth (historical truth derives from the interpreter or historical truth derives from the facts themselves) and between absolute and relative truth (historical truth is transhistorical or historical truth is historically situated). Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988) provided a classic articulation of how this debate played out among American historians. In their mutual polemics, the absolutist/objectivist is arrogant and rigid, while the subjectivist/relativist can just say any old thing, usually ideological nonsense, as the requirement to aspire to the truth has been removed.

What Novick’s account couldn’t include is how the professional standards of the AHA themselves have been deformed since he wrote. The year before Novick published That Noble Dream, the AHA issued its first Standards of Professional Conduct (this version, as revised through 1999). These initial standards left open the nature of history by including both options: “Scholarship, the uncovering and exchange of new information and the shaping of interpretations, is basic to the activities of the historical profession.” Although these first standards prescribed “an awareness of one’s own bias,” they also strongly emphasized the objective importance of sources: “Because historians must have access to sources—archival and other—to produce reliable history, they have a professional obligation to preserve sources.” The standards gave measured additional support to history as interpretation but under the rubric of intellectual diversity: “When applied with integrity, the political, social, and religious beliefs of historians may inform their historical practice.”

The AHA’s current Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, written in 2005 and successively revised through 2023, is very different. Generally far more rambling, it introduces a new section on the “Shared Values of Historians.” These values commit the AHA to what was once simply a single conception of history: “We honor the historical record, but understand that its interpretation constantly evolves as historians analyze primary documents in light of the ever-expanding body of secondary literature that places those documents in a larger context.” Then follows the paragraph referred to by the AHA’s executive director and mentioned earlier in this article, absolutely denying the possibility of history that transcends context or achieves the absolute. It also adds this further stipulation:

Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the sources they consult to answer those questions. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.

The revised Statement, having defined philosophical commitment to one half of the old debate as a professional standard, pervasively revises the old emphases on sources. The explicit statement that “historians must have access to sources—archival and other—to produce reliable history” is gone, along with the aspiration to objective history.

“Viewpoint-neutrality” within a profession that has one viewpoint means little.Neither of these Statements, in any case, meaningfully applies the standard of intellectual diversity to the professional self-regulation that would guarantee proper teaching and proper recruitment of new colleagues. Both Statements do say that teaching should not be indoctrination, but neither provides a clear imperative to report teaching misconduct or a clear means by which it should be punished.

Nor do either of these professional standards address the application of intellectual and interpretive diversity to faculty recruitment. The AHA says that teachers should present all points of view fairly and that the field benefits from intellectual diversity. But nowhere does it state a professional imperative to hire so as to achieve intellectual and interpretive diversity. Even if one stipulates that a radical professor could do justice to conservative points of view, the point is moot if radical blackballing has scrubbed the entire profession clean of dissenters. “Viewpoint-neutrality” within a profession that has one viewpoint means little.

The AHA’s 1987 Standard at least provided a weak imperative for professional self-regulation: “Historians also have the responsibility to take appropriate action when confronted with violations of the profession’s standards of conduct.” This imperative remains only in a much-weakened form in the 2023 Standards: “We encourage all historians to uphold and defend their professional responsibilities with the utmost seriousness, and to advocate for integrity and fairness and high standards throughout the historical profession.” The AHA apparently has abandoned even the weak professional self-regulation to which it was committed in 1987. When the AHA opposes any external attempt to regulate the professional conduct of its members, it does so without providing credible internal procedures to do so.

But for any such professional self-regulation to work, you must have a standard of judgment to distinguish between a true teacher and a tyrannical propagandist. Likewise, you must have a standard of judgment to distinguish between faculty who seek intellectually diverse colleagues and those who seek co-conspirators to foist a unified party line on students and the world. Research misconduct can be judged only by reference to those ultimately absolute and objective a prioris: the facts in the primary sources. Teaching misconduct and recruitment misconduct must also have reference to a universal interpretation of history, which itself must be rooted in those same absolute and objective a prioris. Every aspect of a historian’s professional practice depends upon a reference point beyond subjective—hence arbitrary—interpretation.

Historians have never engaged in any substantial self-regulation.The AHA does not deny this entirely. Yet it has drifted very far from the profession’s historical theories and practices of several generations ago and, significantly, even from the standards that governed it one generation ago. Historians’ traditional reluctance to engage in professional self-regulation, married to the philosophical incoherence that follows from rejecting the aspiration to objective and absolute history, means that historians’ so-called professional standards are nothing more than unchecked license.

Historians—and, indeed, professors as a whole—have never in practice engaged in any substantial professional self-regulation. The AHA now has adopted in its professional standards a conception of history that makes it difficult or impossible even in theory to adopt any meaningful conception of professional self-regulation. For want of a better alternative, America’s citizens and policymakers must take on the job of regulating university professors’ conduct.

California has an electrical code, as it has a code for plumbing and for fire. It has a Contractors State License Board that can take complaints for misbehavior. We possess government means to regulate craftsmen for failing to follow the standards of their trade. A profession that refuses to engage in the basic professional task of self-regulation deserves to be treated no better. Let the states establish a University Faculty Code, with means of complaint to state authorities—and, ideally, recourse to private rights of action.

Mortal minds may not be able to aspire to omniscience, but they can aspire to minimum professional standards. If they refuse to do so, then they will have to accept regulation as craftsmen.

David Randall is the research director of the National Association of Scholars.