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History Lesson

A Race Odyssey


Mary Lefkowitz (View Bio)
Hardcover: Yale University Press, 2008.

History Lesson

In the early 1990s, Classics professor Mary Lefkowitz discovered that one of her faculty colleagues at Wellesley College was teaching that Greek culture had been stolen from Africa and that Jews were responsible for the slave trade. This book tells the disturbing story of what happened when she spoke out. Lefkowitz quickly learned that to investigate the origin and meaning of myths composed by people who have for centuries been dead and buried is one thing, but it is quite another to critique myths that living people take very seriously. She also found that many in academia were reluctant to challenge the fashionable idea that truth is merely a form of opinion. For her insistent defense of obvious truths about the Greeks and the Jews, Lefkowitz was embroiled in turmoil for a decade. She faced institutional indifference, angry colleagues, reverse racism, anti-Semitism, and even a lawsuit intended to silence her. In HISTORY LESSON Lefkowitz describes what it was like to experience directly the power of both postmodernism and compensatory politics. She offers personal insights into important issues of academic values and political correctness, and she suggests practical solutions for the divisive and painful problems that arise when a political agenda takes precedence over objective scholarship. Her forthright tale uncovers surprising features in the landscape of higher education and an unexpected need for courage from those who venture there.

"Lefkowitz has returned to the fray with a third book, a far more personal one. HISTORY LESSON describes the events that led up to the writing of NOT OUT OF AFRICA, and its consequences. It is essentially a memoir, but it also offers some searching reflections on present day academic and intellectual life.... No one who reads HISTORY LESSON could doubt that she abhors racial prejudice. She is also highly sensitive - as her own work on women in ancient Greece demonstrates - to the ways in which traditional scholarship has slighted or neglected disadvantaged groups.... In opposing the Afrocentrist version of antiquity, her only concern was that students shouldn't be taught false history, or at any rate that false history souldn't be allowed to go unchallenged.... She also points out that the willingness to jettison traditional scholarship was not a simple phenomenon. It was powered not only by compensatory politics but also by postmodernism - 'the idea that facts are really nothing more than opinions.' In effect, as she puts it, she had run into a storm created by 'two different weather systems on American campuses', one political and one intellectual. Postmodernism, far from being a mere fad, can have dangerous consequences. This is one of the things that HISTORY LESSON warns us against. But the book is not just a cautionary tale. It is also a heartening reminder of how much can be accomplished, in the face of intimidation and appeasement, by principled resistance." — John Gross, Standpoint  (Read the full review)

"Enthralling." — Michael Burleigh, Telegraph

"In HISTORY LESSON, Lefkowitz painstakingly unravels what happens when an aggressive political agenda takes precedence over objective scholarship…. The book has all the hallmarks of a thriller, and is grippingly told. The terrible cost, however, is incalculable." — Jenni Frazer, The Jewish Chronicle (London)

"In the early 1990s the acclaimed classicist Mary Lefkowitz stepped into an ugly controversy that would consume a decade of her 50-year association with Wellesley College…. But what hurt more than her tussle with the schoolyard bullies of identity politics was her realization that the college she revered had capitulated to (anti-)intellectual fashion, and that under the banner of ‘academic freedom’ there is no longer truth or falsehood but only opinions to which their proponents are equally entitled. Her account asks—and answers—provocative questions about the limits of that freedom and about what scholars owe their disciplines, their students, and their colleagues." — Amanda Heller, Boston Globe

"A trenchant analysis of…political correctness at the expense of intellectual rigor and truth, timid administrators, and angry, trendy, cowardly professors…. Mary Lefkowitz shows how common administrative and faculty evasion can be when it comes to defending intellectual rigor and integrity…. Still, Lefkowitz's painful struggle and ultimate victory are edifying—and, perhaps, a hopeful sign for higher education. Things might not be as bad as we think, or as bad as they were. Too bad HISTORY LESSON isn't destined for Hollywood." — Robert Whitcomb, The Weekly Standard

"Anyone serious about fundamental principles of education, academic freedom, good and proper racial relations, and the expectation of civil behavior in intellectual controversy must confront Mary Lefkowitz’s chilling account of what happened to her and others at Wellesley College." — Donald Kagan, Yale University

"Lefkowitz makes a passionate and well-reasoned case for the importance of traditional virtues in the writing of history: close attention to evidence, clear argument, the refusal to substitute wish for reality. She also discusses with some subtlety the vexed issue of civility on campus.....Brilliant." — Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago

"Though much of academia is still lost in postmodern theory and relativism, Ms. Lefkowitz insists on what we might call a counter-narrative: Teachers owe it to themselves and their students to get as close as possible to the truth. The academy has still not firmly answered the central question of HISTORY LESSON: What should the university do when a professor insists on teaching demonstrable untruths? No prattle about academic freedom, please." — John Leo, The Wall Street Journal

"What, then, should we do about such nonsense—used in its ‘customary and primary meaning’ of ‘assertion in the utter absence of evidence’? This, in many ways, is the central question raised by HISTORY LESSON…. In the academic climate Ms. Lefkowitz recounts, knowledge and politics were no longer distinct pursuits." — Brendan Boyle, The New York Sun

"It sometimes reads like the story of a small academic squabble, sometimes as a grim narrative of racial conflict and sometimes as a discussion of academic principle. This combination is both striking and revealing; and the principles matter. As a whole, the book is an object lesson in how racial politics can become confused with academic debate, and how much it matters to deal with that confusion with integrity and courage." — Mary Margaret McCabe, Times Literary Supplement

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