Stuff It, Perfesser…

Ouch.  This is what biologists and geologists must feel like when young-earth creationists get aggressive. In the past, I’ve chided mainstream scientists for their unwillingness to sympathize with creationists.  Now that the topic is US History and I’m the one under attack, I feel more sympathetic to the biologists in the room.

Here’s the story: A couple days ago I posted a short essay in the pages of the History News Network.  I compared the history of neo-Confederate attacks on mainstream US history to the decades of creationist attacks on mainstream science.  Why do textbooks still include hackneyed old myths, I asked.  Why insist that slavery was not a leading cause of the Civil War?  Why claim that thousands of slaves fought loyally for the Confederacy?  Such things just aren’t true, and I reminded my history colleagues (and myself) that we must remain active supporters of real history in America’s classrooms.    

A few commenters took me to task for swallowing the myths of false history.  “Whoever this Laats character is,” one James Bendy remarked,

he’s definitely drinking the Kool-aid of the history revisionists. What he calls “revised history’ is actually the unvarnished truth. Yes, there were thousands of free blacks who fought FOR the South, along with thousands of Asians, Spaniards, Jews, Italians, all kinds of Europeans, and several entire tribes of Native Americans. It’s all documented and proven beyond any doubt.

Another commenter accused me of “egotistical presumption and condescension” along with “narcissism and moral blindness.”

Really?

I hadn’t meant to be provocative, really.  I hoped to remind other historians that they needed to remain actively involved in history education in their local communities.  It was an historian from William and Mary College, after all, who discovered woeful mistruths in a textbook used by fourth-grade public-school students in Virginia.  All of us need to serve as this sort of watchdog.   

My surprise reminds me of the ways generations of mainstream scientists felt after engaging for the first time with anti-evolutionists.  As I note in my 1920s book about the first generation of Protestant fundamentalists, when University of Wisconsin President Edward Birge disputed the scientific accuracy of anti-evolutionism in 1921, he found himself under political attack by the wily William Jennings Bryan.  President Birge went on to warn Princeton biologist Edwin Conklin, if you mention evolution, “you will receive an enormous number of letters and much fool printed stuff.”  

President Birge was one of the first mainstream scientists to tangle with anti-evolutionists.  His lesson to Conklin has been repeated by generations of mainstream scientists who engage with the issue of creationism.  Lamentably, in these durable culture-war controversies, conversation has always taken a backseat to accusations.

The same certainly seems to be true in this case.  There really isn’t a controversy here; not a real one.  Neo-confederate histories rely on half-truths and outright fabrication to “prove” their preferred stories.  Activists rely on political pressure to crush out dissent and promote politically palatable myths instead of real history. 

To be fair, I don’t dispute the notion that this sort of anti-historical meddling goes on from the left, as well.  There’s also not much disagreement among historians that the leftist history peddled by the late Howard Zinn is full of misleading half-truths and exaggerations as well.  Yet Zinn’s People’s History continues to be used by activist teachers in America’s schools.  That’s a shame as well. 

So what’s an historian to do?  Do I have to swallow these insults in order to build bridges across culture-war divides, as I have suggested mainstream scientists need to do?  Or is it more important to fight back, to take on neo-Confederate historians and activists on a point-by-point refutation?

What would Bill Nye do?

 

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4 Comments

  1. Apparently you know Swahili better than you know my roots. And don’t forget: Don’t mess with Texas textbooks! That got an audible laugh.

    Reply
  2. By the way, great article. I sent it to my history teacher buddies back home.

    Reply
  3. So, what’s the truth? Did thousands of slaves fight for the Confederacy or not? And where does one go to find reliable sources of the truth? History books exist by the hundreds, if not thousands, and the authors must surely have bias when they put pen to paper–or fingers to keyboards. I am showing my age, aren’t I? I remember getting a typewriter as a young person, and that was the greatest thing since sliced bread at that time! 😛

    Reply
  1. Stuff It, Perfesser: The DINE Response | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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