History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

May 29, 2008

Mary Lefkowitz's History Lesson ostensibly concerns itself with academic freedom of speech, relativism and hate speech but serves as a fascinating example of the ways in which race is played out in US universities. Lefkowitz's bugbear, following her earlier work Not Out of Africa, is that Afrocentrists are incorrect to attribute significant elements of classical Greek philosophy and civilisation to the ancient Egyptians. Moreover they conflate Egyptian and wider African culture.

In large part, though, History Lesson is not a work of classical scholarship. The arguments of Afrocentrists are not given close consideration in the text. Rather than engage with these debates thoroughly Lefkowitz presents them as "myths" as opposed to her own "facts". History Lesson can therefore best be seen in the tradition of other works such as David Horowitz's Hating Whitey: And Other Progressive Causes, arguing that relativism and multiculturalism have replaced fact and the "canon" of great authors as the basis of academia. As a naif on the topic of classical civilisation I did not emerge particularly enlightened, and the approach made me wary of taking Lefkowitz's views at face value. However, this is not a book about classical history - this time (unlike Not Out of Africa) it's personal.

The strength of History Lesson lies in how well the visceral workings of academia are exposed. It shows how academic arguments turn into rivalries and then into lawsuits, and it is fascinating for all of the wrong reasons. The racialised (and I will come to this later) enemy of Lefkowitz in this book is Tony Martin, an African-American who teaches courses including Afrocentric philosophies.

Lefkowitz is concerned about the teaching of Afrocentric ideas and so understandably wishes to raise some questions for her colleagues who teach these theories. Initially, she considers a faculty seminar on the origins of Greek civilisation. However, unable to wait for the seminars to begin, Lefkowitz instead uses the procedural rules of her institution to change the title of Martin's course in a meeting that he did not attend. Martin is aggrieved at this (as I suspect most academics would be), but this lack of collegiality on Lefkowitz's part is depicted as a principled action whereas Martin's reaction is presented as irrational and angry. Indeed we discover much about Martin's character, appearance and behaviour in this book but next to nothing about his ideas. The book starts with an ad hominem attack on Martin concerning an alleged incident where he verbally abused a female student following a potentially racist insult to him. The "facts" of this case are not clear (but are clear to Lefkowitz: Martin is in the wrong). However, the placing of this chapter at the start of the book would not enamour the general reader to Martin, and one has to constantly read through and against the text so as not to accept certain stereotypes and caricatures of African-Americans.

Lefkowitz certainly has a compelling story to tell, and anyone who is interested in debates concerning freedom of speech in higher education would enjoy this odd mixture of critique and invective. Unfortunately, her case is significantly weakened by some ill-advised depictions of African-Americans, namely Tony Martin. The real "history lesson" is that race still matters on American (and British) campuses, and this partial account of Lefkowitz's struggle does not do her intellectual case any favours.

History Lesson: A Race Odyssey

By Mary Lefkowitz
Yale University Press
208pp
£18.00
ISBN 9780300126594
Published 15 April 2008

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