History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

In the early 1990s, Classics professor Mary Lefkowitz discovered that one of her faculty colleagues at Wellesley College was teaching his studentsthat Greek culture had been stolen from Africa and that Jews were responsible for the slave trade.

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 on Lefkowitz describes what it was like to experience directly the power of both postmodernism and compensatory politics.

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ML is white and her opponent was black, and his subject was Afrocentrism. Who cares if Aristotle stole his ideas from Egyptian works which are now lost? Also not so funny to contemplate some black people seriously believing that the white race was created by a black scientist called Yakub. So ML found that she had drawn the short straw, she must go into battle against what she calls the Myth of the Stolen Legacy, which tells black people that a) the Greeks stole all their stuff from Egypt, and b) that Egyptians were black; and while were at it, c) the Jews funded most of the American slave trade. Meanwhile she found the ur-text of all this incorrect teaching, Black Athena by Martin Bernal, and the rest of the book is an account of why this theory is wrong, is corrosive and must be opposed.

I had read Mary Lefkowitzs previous book, Not Out of Africa, but I was reluctant to post a review for it, and I debated with myself whether or not to post a review for History Lesson: A Race Odyssey. Mary Lefkowitz defines it, in this book, thusly: Afrocentrism refers to those who attempt to rewrite history in order to make Africa play the role in history that had usually been assigned to Europe. Mary Lefkowitz herself writes on this point: People who are unwilling to listen and learn should have no place in academe, but of course they are well entrenched there, as we have seen. In the course of this book, Lefkowitz explains why she decided to speak out against Afrocentrist claims that were demonstrably false, but being taught in some institutions as history, even though she earned the ire of some colleagues and students, and was served with a lawsuit in an attempt to silence her: We owe it to the people of the past to record their history as accurately as we can. If we allow ourselves or anyone to manipulate history, and rewrite it as they see fit, injustice will always be done to some people, either in the past or in the present It is through the use of evidence that we can separate good scholarship from bad, in any field. Throughout the course of Lefkowitz's experiences with Afrocentrism, she was on the receiving end of a good deal of hostility, since, as she writes, many people sincerely believe in claims such as the Stolen Legacy and that professors who express ignorance or refute the claim are 'trained' by a Eurocentric model or worse are outright lying. Lefkowitz wholeheartedly believes that scholarship exists to be re-examined and criticised through open discussion and that academic freedom needs to be protected, and also educational integrity needs to ensure that students are taught to think objectively and not taught what is demonstrably false. I feel it best to allow Lefkowitz to explain in her own words: Even though it might have given some students pleasure to hear that Greek philosophy had been stolen from Africa, by being fed this misinformation they were being short-changed of the kind of education they were entitled to receive, an education that was supposed to teach them to reason from evidence and to think critically and independently Asking hard questions is what educational institutions ought to be doing, because they provide a great opportunity for learning. Why shouldnt similar scrutiny be applied to people who teach or indeed write demonstrably false statements about history and simply ignore the evidence when it is presented to them? Academic freedom does not give us the right to rewrite history without reference to known facts - even if by doing so we imagine that we can bring about social improvement.

She also correctly indicts a lazy postmodernism for the continued academic indifference to professors who indoctrinate their students with socially satisfying myths.

...Paved With Good Intentions Another instance of attempting to rewrite history with a myth or two. Interesting parallels when you read other books on instances of embarkation of rewriting history without evidence only get debunked.

Lefkowitz's ordeal in combating antisemitism and allegedly inappropriate scholarship in Wellesley's African-American Studies Departmentwhich I won't elaborate on here, as Lefkowitz's narrative is worth reading in and of itselfHistory Lesson presents itself as a cautionary tale of the risks of inserting politics into academia.

This book is Professor Lefkowitz's own story of how her questioning of a discredited theory, taught by Professor Martin, embroiled her in an ugly, years-long contest-of-wills between those who believe the teaching of history should be based on credible evidence, and those who invent their own version of history to serve their own ends. Professor Lefkowitz makes a number of points very clear: She is an ardent supporter of academic freedom, which protects those who would teach controversial theories; but does not believe that academic freedom should be allowed as a shield for those who teach ideas that are demonstrably false.

  • English

  • History

  • Rating: 3.96
  • Pages: 208
  • Publish Date: April 28th 2008 by Yale University Press
  • Isbn10: 030012659X
  • Isbn13: 9780300126594