History Department
History Department

In commencement address, Brian Levack urges history graduates to be on guard against distortions of the historical record

Mon, May 22, 2017
In commencement address, Brian Levack urges history graduates to be on guard against distortions of the historical record
Professor Brian P. Levack

On May 19, the Department of History recognized the graduating class of 2017 at Hogg Memorial Auditorium. Brian P. Levack, Professor of History at UT Austin since 1969, John E. Green Regents Professor in History, and Distinguished Teaching Professor, delivered the Commencement keynote address.

Professor Levack (B.A., summa cum laude, History, Fordham College; and Ph.D., History, Yale University) writes on the legal, political, and religious history of early modern Britain. His books include The Civil Lawyers in England, 1603-1641; The Formation of the British State: England, Scotland and the Union; and Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics, and Religion. His most recent book is The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West. He is currently writing a book on the development of trust in public institutions in early modern Britain and colonial America. After nearly a half-century of teaching and service to UT History, Professor Levack will retire this spring. Read more about his work, and watch his interview on Possession and Exorcism on Not Even Past.

Below is a transcript of Professor Levack’s speech in its entirety. 

“I feel a need on this happy and celebratory occasion to express my deep concern that history, the subject that our graduates today have studied intensively, is being misrepresented, misused, and in some cases deliberately distorted by politicians. The basis for my concern is the ignorance of history among those who, because of their prominence in public life, receive press coverage for their ahistorical statements. This group of politicians includes our president, who admits that he doesn’t read history, or anything else, and gets all his information from watching TV. During Black History Month this year, Trump revealed that he did not know who the great 19th-century abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass was. The president also implied that Douglass, a former slave who dies in 1895, was still alive and getting recognized more and more for the “amazing job” he has done. More recently, Trump said that President Andrew Jackson, with whom Trump often compares himself, was “very angry” about the civil war, which began 16 year after Jackson’s death. One might hope that since Trump watches so much TV, he might have occasionally tuned in to the History Channel, but that channel does not seem to be on his TV remote.

Historical ignorance of this sort exists not only among politicians but in society at large. This situation makes me pessimistic about the ability of our electorate, which gets most of its knowledge of history from the popular press or the internet, to make informed decisions about public policy. We know that history does not repeat itself, but as the historian Timothy Snyder writes in his recent book, On Tyranny, it instructs, and the failure to learn from history makes the survival of our political institutions problematic.

I am even more concerned about the deliberate distortion of the historical record for political or ideological purposes, an enterprise that has gained considerable strength in recent years. Let me give a few examples.

The first is the denial that the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews during the Second Woled War, never took place. Such denials, which are inspired by virulent anti-Semitism, appear to be gathering strength in recent years, especially on websites that indulge in conspiracy theories and stoke hatred of racial, ethnic an religious minorities. One wonders whether any Holocaust deniers have ever visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C..

The second deliberate distortion of the historical record was the recent claim by Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, that the founding of historically black colleges and universities in the United States in the 19th century was inspired by a commitment of their founders to school-choice, which of course is DeVos’s political agenda. Surely the secretary should know that those colleges were established in response to the refusal of white colleges to admit African-Americans. Black students who wished to attend college had no freedom of choice.

The third historical distortion was the claim by Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, that the millions of Africans who were forced to come to this country on slave ships, where they were subjected to unspeakable barbarity and then sold to white masters, “immigrated” to America so that they and their children could have a better life.

The most recent distortion of history was made by President Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, when he said in a press briefing last month that Adolph Hitler, unlike Bashar al Assad of Syria, never used poison gas to exterminate millions of Jews in concentration camps, which Spicer, in a series of retractions, referred to as Holocaust centers. Spicer’s remarks combined historical ignorance with a blatant misrepresentation of history for political purposes.

I want to emphasize that distortions of the historical record such as these cannot be justified as mere differences of opinion regarding historical developments. Rather, they are deliberate misrepresentations of history in order to support a political or an ideological agenda. They are, quite simply, fake history, for they have not a shred of evidence to support them. Whenever anyone does history, whether it be for an academic or a popular audience, that person has an obligation to get the story straight before interpreting it. This is an obligation that an increasingly large number of influential people who have no commitment to the truth simply do not respect.

As you know from having written history research papers, providing evidence to support your argument lies at the methodological core of our discipline. Of all the humanities and social sciences, history has the most demanding standards of evidence, which are even more exacting than in the study and practice of law. This demand for evidence is the reason why historians place such emphasis on footnotes in their writing and why, when you wrote those research papers, you had to indicate your sources—to show that you had not simply made up the facts. This alone gave your research paper credibility, regardless of the interpretation you placed upon the events you documented.

I know that one of the traditions in giving a commencement address is to offer some kind of advice to the graduates regarding their future lives and careers. I regret the I have no words of wisdom in this respect. The advice I do wish to give you, however, concerns the subject in which you have successfully majored. I urge you to keep reading history after you graduate if you can find the time in your busy lives. More specifically, I urge you to be on guard against popular distortions of the historical record, which you as historians are in a unique position to correct. I urge you, whenever someone peddles blatant falsehoods (or “alternative facts” as Kellyanne Conway labels them) to call that person to account, either on Facebook or other social media, in conversations with friends and family, by writing to the editor of your local newspaper, or for those of you you may go into teaching, by correcting such distortions in the classroom. In doing so, you can help maintain the integrity of the subject that we all love so much.

Congratulations, young historians!”

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View a photo gallery of the day's celebration on History's Facebook page, and check out History's Twitter feed featuring a live tweet of convocation. Did you attend History's ceremony last Friday? Hashtag your photos with #HistUT17.

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