Historians seek to silence their critics
The Australian editorial
July 7 2004
Historians are at risk of being raped by newspapers, especially The Australian . This is Lyndall Ryan's statement and she is free to make it, and see it fairly reported, as it was yesterday in this, the paper she so dislikes. But while her language is extreme, it is her sentiment that is sinister. Dr Ryan is a scholar of indigenous Australian history. The accuracy of some of her work, and that of other historians, on the number of Aborigines killed by settlers, soldiers and police in the 19th century has been challenged by independent scholar Keith Windschuttle. The resulting brawl, extensively reported and discussed in The Australian , has become a major campaign in what is now known as “the history wars”.
For some academic historians, Mr Windschuttle's claim — that they have overstated the number of indigenous deaths beyond what the archival evidence can support — is a heresy. But it is also an impudence. Mr Windschuttle is not an academic professional and as such some think his work has no standing, despite his extensive archival research and reliance on the forms and substance of historical methodology. In other words, he is not a right-thinking, paid-up, member of the discipline's trade guild. And now some in the profession want to do something about people who do not know their place. Historian Cathie Clement proposes a code to govern historians that would require people not to publicly dispute their colleagues' conclusions and to avoid working “beyond their level of competence”. This is the sort of strategy that all sorts of professional associations use to defend the status quo and silence difficult outsiders. And it is not on. The tools of the historian's trade are the evidence they use to present their case and their ability to explain. They are tools free for all to use and while it takes years to learn to use them properly anybody may try. And none should presume the right to silence with rules what they cannot out argue in fair and open debate.