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History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

by Mary Lefkowitz

Yale University Press, 208 pages, $25

In History Lesson Mary Lefkowitz tells a story that has three distinct themes. The story itself is particular and local, largely involving some nasty academic politics at Wellesley College, but the themes are of much larger significance for both the American university and our national culture.

Lefkowitz is the protagonist of her memoir, and her antagonist is a man named Tony Martin. Both of them taught for many years at Wellesley”Lefkowitz as a classicist, Martin in Africana Studies”and both have recently retired. They came into conflict over two issues. The first stemmed from an incident in 1991 when Martin, who was attending a meeting in one of Wellesley’s dorms, was stopped by a student while he was on his way to the men’s room. “It is an established rule” at Wellesley, Lefkowitz explains, “that students in residence halls must ask unescorted male visitors to identify themselves.” This much is agreed on by all, but the student, and other students who witnessed the scene, claim that Martin grew violently angry and verbally abusive when he was questioned. Martin by contrast claims that the student who questioned him was rude and confrontational, and that he merely grew “very annoyed,” and justifiably so. Martin loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that as a black man he was the victim of racism; the student fell into depression and, when Martin continued to accuse and mock her in public venues, withdrew from Wellesley.

Lefkowitz thought the college had treated the student shabbily, letting Martin get away with inexcusable behavior, and she wrote an article saying so. Martin’s response was to sue Lefkowitz”not the first lawsuit he had filed against someone he perceived as an enemy”which was ultimately dismissed, though only after several years.

The second conflict between Lefkowitz and Martin occurred because Lefkowitz objected to a course Martin taught called “Africans in Greece and Rome” and, more generally, to Martin’s Afrocentric views of the ancient world”views that, in Lefkowitz’s judgment and that of almost the whole discipline of classical studies, have no historical validity. For instance, Martin was (and presumably still is) a staunch advocate of the claim that some of the major works of Greek philosophy were actually written by Egyptians and stolen from the Library of Alexandria by Aristotle, who then put his own name on them. That the Library of Alexandria did not exist until several decades after Aristotle’s death has not proved much of an impediment to the continuation of this belief.

The issues surrounding this dispute, as Lefkowitz tells the story, have both universal and local dimensions. The larger context”the scholarly debate about Afrocentric history, and especially the claims that Africans created the great cultural heritage that Greece and Rome later claimed for themselves”does not get much play in History Lesson, because Lefkowitz has written extensively about it elsewhere, first in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the New Republic, and then in her 1996 book Not Out of Africa. So it is the local dimension that she focuses on here, and her account should be of interest even to people who care little for the inner workings of Wellesley College: It is important for us all to understand how the consequences of ideas play out in the lives of particular academic communities.

Which leads me to the three major themes of the book. First among them: the ineptitude and cravenness of academic administrators. (Those are stronger terms than Lefkowitz herself uses, but I think they fairly summarize her account.) When Lefkowitz objected to the title of Martin’s course on the grounds that there were almost no Africans in ancient Greece or Rome, and indeed got a faculty committee to change the course’s title, a dean reversed that decision and told Lefkowitz, “He has his view of ancient history and you have yours,” clearly implying that there was no reasonable way to adjudicate such disagreements”even though Martin is no classicist, indeed has no training at all in ancient history or languages. “In effect,” writes Lefkowitz, “she was saying that credentials, knowledge of ancient languages, familiarity with archaeological sites, everything I had worked for years to acquire, no longer had any intrinsic value.” The consistent approach of Wellesley’s administrators, as Lefkowitz tells the story, was to strive for mediation, conciliation, and, if not mutual respect, then at least a kind of mutual benign neglect. They were therapists, not educators: Why can’t we all get along?

And this view was shared by at least some of Lefkowitz’s faculty colleagues. After she had begun to challenge Afrocentric views of the classical world, both in print and on campus, one of her colleagues approached her, “visibly angry” with her for causing so much ruckus. When Lefkowitz pointed out that Tony Martin was “teaching people that Aristotle stole his philosophy from the library at Alexandria,” the colleague replied, “I don’t care who stole what from whom.”

This is Lefkowitz’s second theme: indifference to truth. Along the same lines, a historian named Wilson Jeremiah Moses, though unwilling to endorse the claim that Aristotle stole his ideas from Egyptians, nevertheless described the book that first made that claim ( Stolen Legacy, by George G.M. James) as “an exotic but poignant attempt to unite African peoples with the rest of humanity.” In other words, the author’s heart was in the right place, and Moses condemned Lefkowitz’s critique of James’ well-intentioned claim as a “hateful” one coming from “an obscure drudge in the academic backwaters of a classics department.” Only a drudge, presumably, would say that truth is more important than good intentions.

Once indifference to truth becomes the longstanding norm of an academic subculture, it becomes impossible for some people even to imagine that other people might be pursuing it. Thus one scholar reviewing Not Out of Africa confidently asserted that the views of Lefkowitz and her critics alike reflect “their personal stances with respect to the politics of culture in our time””that someone might come to believe something on the basis of gathered evidence, whether that evidence supports one’s cultural politics or not, is simply not a possibility in this academic’s world.

In History Lesson , Lefkowitz repeatedly acknowledges that all scholars are culturally located, that their quests for knowledge are shaped by their own personal commitments and stances”but she doesn’t believe that those emplacements disable us from knowing something about the past. One hopes that this is not as much of a rear-guard position as it often looks.

Once the pursuit of truth comes to be seen not as immensely difficult (which it is) but simply futile, then the stage is set for the transforming of academic debates into the politics of personal destruction (to coin a phrase). Tony Martin embraced this turn in two ways. First, he ascribed all criticism of him and his ideas to racism, beginning with his account of his encounter with the unfortunate student. Second, he claimed, and to this day still claims, that opposition to his ideas and his behavior has been organized by Jews, in what he terms “the long arm of Jewish intolerance,” “Jewish assaults on Black progress,” and “the Jewish onslaught.” (Martin likes that last phrase so much that he wrote a book with that title, and published it himself. Martin has done a lot of self-publishing.) Even campus Hillel groups have been marshaled against him: “Hillel operatives””nice touch, that operatives ”“are formally trained in the art of deception and dirty tricks.”

So when Mary Lefkowitz (Jew) was asked by Leon Wieseltier (Jew) to write something on Afrocentric views of ancient history for the (Jewish-owned) New Republic ”well, what more need be said? The ethnic facts speak for themselves.

And why should Tony Martin not broadcast his Judeocentric theories, in their local and universal versions? In today’s university there are no agreed-upon standards of evidence and judgment that would allow a general repudiation of his claims, poisonous and fantastical though they be. “He has his view of ancient [and modern] history and you have yours.” Academic governance structures are such that departments are small fiefdoms: No one outside the Africana Studies department of Wellesley has the authority to prevent Martin from assigning and celebrating The Stolen Legacy and books that describe “the Jewish onslaught.” On the other hand, Wellesley’s history department was, by the same standard, free to refrain from granting credits in history to students who took Martin’s courses.

But departmental autonomy is only part of this story. Selwyn Cudjoe, the chair of the Africana studies department itself, bluntly stated that one of Martin’s favorite texts”a Nation of Islam-sponsored tome called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which assigned to Jews the primary responsibility for “the black holocaust” of slavery”was “patently and scurrilously anti-Semitic.” Yet Cudjoe did nothing to prevent Martin from teaching the book and endorsing its conclusions. Nor is it clear that he could have, since in the face of any challenge Martin would have pled “academic freedom,” and in the face of any discipline would have taken refuge in the impregnable fastness of tenure. For these reasons, Wellesley’s then president, Diane Chapman Walsh, though she denounced Martin’s book The Jewish Onslaught for its “recurrent and gratuitous use of racial or religious identification of individuals,” felt, probably rightly, that she could do no more.

In this lamentable situation, certain dominant structural features of the modern university are far more responsible for the Wellesley debacle than any particular administrators’ actions or inactions. There is something rather naive in Lefkowitz’s surprise that she got little or no support from her institution’s leaders: She seems to have supposed that they would have been standard-bearers for sound scholarship and intellectual respectability. In the memorable words of Daffy Duck, “It is to laugh.” Wellesley’s administrators could not have disciplined Tony Martin and kept their jobs, any more than they could have prevented him from getting tenure, or from being hired in the first place.

Some aspects of this situation are no one’s fault. Over the past two centuries, knowledge has proliferated so wildly that even the chairs of, say, biology departments at major universities find it impossible to understand the work of most of their colleagues. If the dean is an astronomer, how can he possibly question the hiring and retention decisions of the biology department? And if the provost is a historian? And if the president is an economist?

But these uncomfortable yet inevitable facts simply remind us that if individual departments”the representatives of the various academic disciplines ”do not take care to discipline themselves, and to do so by formulating clear standards of scholarly competence and holding themselves accountable to those standards, then no one else will do it for them. Within the structures of the modern university, no one else can .

Consider this: Mary Lefkowitz retired from Wellesley in 2005 and was granted the title of professor emeritus. Two years later Tony Martin retired, and, as a webpage devoted to celebrating his work proclaims, “Professor Martin Retires from Wellesley”VICTORIOUS! Leaves With Honored EMERITUS Status.”

Some may look at Wellesley’s treatment of these professors and conclude that there’s little to choose between them. Fair enough. They have their view of academic achievement, and I have mine.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College.