Writer Levels Low Blows at Harvard Profs

A small package arrived last month at The Crimson’s office with a slender book and a brief handwritten note that read: “Thought this might be of local interest. With compliments, TNP.”

“TNP,” I learned, stands for The New Press, a small New York City not-for-profit outfit that claims to publish “works of educational, cultural, and community value.”

Given those criteria, it’s unclear how the enclosed book, Historians in Trouble, by University of California-Irvine professor Jon Wiener, passed the publisher’s test.

And the innocuous note signed “with compliments” should have mentioned that in fact, Wiener has very few compliments for The Crimson. More accurately, Wiener excoriates The Crimson’s coverage of a 1988 campus controversy that erupted when several African-American students leveled charges of racial insensitivity against Winthrop Professor of History Stephan A. Thernstrom.

Since Wiener specifically takes aim at The Crimson, it’s hard to review his work without at least a twinge of defensiveness. And perhaps Wiener is correct that The Crimson blew the Thernstrom controversy out of proportion, contributing to the politicization of what was in reality a civil disagreement between a teacher and his students over a course syllabus. One chapter later, however, Wiener gets his facts flat-out wrong when he launches an unwarranted attack on Pulitzer Prize-winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Phillips professor of early American history at Harvard.

One could say that Wiener’s book is flawed from page one, but that would be inaccurate. Rather, the flaws start on page viii, in the prefatory “acknowledgments” section, in which the author writes that he is “indebted” to Thernstrom—among others—for agreeing to be interviewed.

Wiener’s profession of indebtedness is patronizing and disingenuous. Thernstrom, for one, won’t ask for that debt to be repaid any time soon. “I once knew Jon well, but we are not on speaking terms,” Thernstrom said last week.

When asked if he had read Wiener’s book, Thernstrom replied, “I haven’t bothered. I don’t think it would be worth my time.”

Thernstrom’s off-the-cuff assessment isn’t far off the mark.

ROTTEN TO THE CORE

In February 1988, several students from Thernstrom’s fall semester core course Historical Studies A-25, “The Peopling of America,” accused the professor of displaying “racial insensitivity” in the class. One African-American student, Wendi Grantham ’89 (who in her subsequent career as an actress appeared on HBO’s “The Wire” and NBC’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets”), told Wiener that she objected to Thernstrom’s syllabus, which included slaveowner’s journals but not slave narratives. Another African-American student, Paula Ford ’88, told Wiener that Thernstrom “said black men beat their wives.”

According to Wiener, the criticism against Thernstrom was limited to three students in total, but The Crimson played up the story, exaggerating the extent of the allegations against the longtime professor. Wiener accuses Thernstrom of using the media attention to his advantage. Wiener writes that Thernstrom “turned these events into a cause celebre for the right, describing himself as a victim of left-wing political correctness.”

Wiener’s thesis seems—at best—implausible. He concocts a conspiracy theory that would make even Mel Gibson’s head spin: that Thernstrom deliberately drummed up charges of racism against himself so that he could come out of the controversy looking like a defender of academic freedom. Wiener suggests that The Crimson played a supporting role in this nefarious scheme by hyping up the allegations against Thernstrom. And according to Thernstrom, the plot paid dividends in 2002, when President Bush appointed the “neocon hero” Thernstrom to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.

A cursory glance through Wiener’s footnotes reveals that almost all of the reporting for his chapter on Thernstrom was done more than 13 years ago. Wiener published an almost identical account of the incident in The Nation in September 1991.

At least—although his reporting on the Thernstrom controversy is more than a decade old—Wiener’s reporting on the topic is thorough, if outdated. The same cannot be said for his next chapter, a poorly-researched piece that slams Ulrich and several other venerable scholars.

FUZZY MATH