Were You Trumpared, Part Deux

Thank you, The Internet! Yesterday I asked you if you were surprised by the rise of Trumpism. Over on The Twitter, some topnotch academic historians shared their experiences. I’ll share a few highlights here for those SAGLRROILYBYGTH who don’t tweeter.

It started with an offhand comment by blogger Peter Greene. As he reflected on the end of 2019, he noted,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Unlike The Curmudgucrat, my experiences in the 2010s left me utterly unprepared for the rise of Trump. The archives I explored for my book The Other School Reformers led me to conclude that Trumpish tendencies were usually quashed by conservative organizations, in the name of “respectability” and “mainstream” appeal.

It appears I wasn’t alone. As Rick Perlstein shared, he had to re-calibrate his thinking. He had written back in 2016,

I’ve been studying the history of American conservatism full time since 1997—almost 20 years now. I’ve read almost every major book on the subject. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Then along comes Donald Trump to scramble the whole goddamned script.

And, as Natalia Mehlman Petrzela noted, the “time and style” of Trumpish conservatism feels a lot different from the conservatism of the later twentieth century. As Prof. Petrzela asked,

There’s no way “F*CK YOUR FEELINGS” as a tee-shirt saying for the winning GOP presidential candidate in 2016 was foreseeable from the 60s/70s, right?

natalia on TrumpIt seems that Trump’s ascendancy has changed the way historians of conservatism approach the topic, or at least pointed us in slightly different directions. As Kevin Kruse wrote, he is now working on a new book about

“law and order” politics as seen through NYC[.]

It doesn’t usually work this way, but yesterday at least Twitter helped me learn a lot about a complicated topic and gave me a new reading list. I just ordered a copy of Timothy Lombardo’s book about Frank Rizzo and blue-collar conservatism in Philadelphia.

From the Archives: Were You Trumpared?

I wasn’t. Studying populist conservatism taught me the wrong lessons—I thought conservatives would never tolerate an anti-strategic leader like Trump, even if they liked his policies. I wrongly believed more conservatives would do anything to maintain their reputations as respectable mainstream traditionalists. Did anything in your background prepare you to have a president who flits from tweet to tweet and treats foreign policy like a reality-TV ratings sweep?

Peter Greene says his did. As he wrote recently,

In many ways, becoming a student of ed reform prepared me for a Trump presidency, because it made me really confront the degree to which many of my fellow citizens do not share values that I had somehow assumed were fundamental to being a citizen of this country.

Here’s where I went wrong: In my 2015 book The Other School Reformers, I looked at the kind of populist conservatism to which Trump appeals so strongly. I didn’t study conservative intellectuals, but grass-roots activists who tried to push schools in conservative directions.

SPL 1

From the American Legion Archives, c. 1936.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservatives refused to be dominated by the anti-strategists in their camp. Time after time, conservative organizations carefully curated their public image to avoid the “extremist” label. Not all of them, of course, but the ones that really mattered. I thought—wrongly—that this pattern would continue.

My surprise is not about Trump’s specific policies. I can see how any conservative would love having Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh on SCOTUS. My surprise is about style and strategy. In the history of American grass-roots conservatism there has always been an element we might call “Trumpish.” Meaning mercurial, impulsive, and unwilling to think through the likely consequences of any given action. Meaning acting first—speaking without reflection—heedless of accusations of radicalism or extremism. In Krusty-the-Klown terms, Trumpism means saying the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.

In the past, that element was always held in check. Not by “faculty lounge” conservatives, but by practical, hard-nosed activists who wanted to win votes long-term.

This morning I’ll share an example from the archives that I hope will illustrate the tradition and demonstrate why I was so un-prepared for the triumph of Trumpism among American conservatives.

Exhibit A: The American Legion and the Student Patriot League, c. 1935. In the mid-1930s, the American Legion had a hard-earned reputation as a tough defender of a conservative patriotism and flag-waving militarism. The Student Patriot League was formed separately as part of a desire to get young people involved in fighting—literally fighting—for those values. The unofficial goal of the SPL was to send uniformed brigades of conservative youth to leftist rallies to disrupt them.

How did the American Legion respond? At the time, the obstreperous head of the Americanism Commission, Homer Chaillaux, engaged in a careful two-sided interaction. Officially, the American Legion had no relationship with the SPL. Chaillaux was worried that any violence would ruin the Legion’s already-shaky reputation as a reputable mainstream group. Publicly, Chaillaux maintained a careful distance between the SPL and the Legion. He told SPL leaders that he could not officially endorse their activities.

Unofficially, however, Chaillaux distributed SPL materials among his friends and allies. Chaillaux privately told his friends the SPL was a

splendid organization of scrappy young Americans who are students in high schools and colleges of the United States.

So what? The interactions between the Legion and the SPL demonstrate the ways grassroots conservative organizing used to work. There is no doubting Chaillaux’s dedication to his conservative principles. When it came to a new and untested youth organization, however, Chaillaux maintained a cautious official distance.

SPL 2

Conservatives used to care about their reputations for mainstream respectability.

That has always been the strategy of (most) conservative organizations. They have thought carefully and deliberately about their public image. They have been leery of losing credibility and ending up dismissed as extremists, like the Ku Klux Klan or eventually the Birchers. Or even Barry Goldwater or Curtis LeMay. Mainstream respectability used to matter to conservatives. A lot.

Trump doesn’t seem to care about his respectability. He doesn’t seem to mind the outrage and consternation caused by his last-minute decisions, even when the outrage comes from his own conservative allies. Instead, Trump does Trump and lets the chips fall where they may. That’s what I was unprepared for.

How about you? Were you like Peter Greene, prepared for the triumph of Trumpism? Or were you more like me, expecting GOP leaders to care primarily for their public image as respectable maintainers of the mainstream status quo?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

We gathered another week’s worth of stories from around the interwebs, in case you missed em:

Weird story of the week: Corrections cadets gave Hitler salute to an instructor…because the instructor told them to (?) At NBC.

The secretary stated that Byrd directed her to caption the picture “Hail Byrd,” according to the report, and told the secretary the students say that “because I’m a hard-ass like Hitler.”

WV corrections Hitler saluteConservative students at an elite college in an age of anti-elite Trumpism. The Atlantic.

“The primary emotion, I think, on Princeton’s campus is apathy. Or apathy fused with resignation.”

The evangelical Trumpist responds to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial. At Townhall.

I do not think a man of “grossly immoral character” (as Galli alleges) could produce this many good results. . . . Trump’s character is not perfect, and I will not try to defend every single thing that comes out of his mouth. Sometimes his words are coarse and even vulgar, and I object to that. But no leader is going to be perfect, and such coarse language fades in significance compared to these massive actions for the good of the nation. Therefore I still think these results show that he is a good president. A very good president. And I am eager to vote for him again in November.

Gallup asks Americans who they most respect. This year, Trump ties Obama.

Trump obama gallup tieMethodists split over LGBTQ rights, at RS.

Whatever happened to Michelle Rhee? At Curmudgucation.

Rhee entered the decade as the quintessential reformster. She possessed no actual qualifications for the jobs she took on, had never even run a school, let alone a major urban district., She championed every reformy idea beloved at the time, from charters to test-based accountability to gutting teacher job protections and, as was the common back then, the notion that the real problem with schools was all the shitty teachers protected by their shitty unions. . . . Rhee was the Kim Kardashian of ed reform, the popular spokesmodel who did not have one actual success to her name.

Trump tries to rally evangelical support, at RNS.

“Above all else in America we don’t worship government, we worship God,” Trump said as the crowd erupted in applause.

evangelicals for trump

The Greatest Ed-Tech Goof of All Time

I admit it. I only read one year-end top-100 list–Audrey Watters’ “100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade.” And it got me thinking: What have been the top ed-tech goofs of all time? The top choice from my current research is pretty clear, c. 1804.

Reading sticks sketch

What was the biggest ed-tech goof of all time? Not these “reading sticks”…

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about Joseph Lancaster. And I’m sorry. But his plan was such a perfect mix of tech-naïveté and Zuckerberg-level hubris that I can’t stop marveling over the 21st-century feel of Lancaster’s tech-obsessed school system.

NYC manual 1820 2 diagrams alphabet wheel

…not this either.

If you’re just joining us, Lancaster was a young man who opened a school for poor kids in London in 1798. He tried some new tricks, including banishing corporal punishment and using students as teachers. He really believed technology could solve all the problems of education and therefore of society.

For example, he dreamed of new systems of “reading telegraphs,” “alphabet wheels,” and benches with holes for hats. His assumption—like that of so many of his peers—was that the right machine could eliminate traditional problems with school organization.

None of those failed ed machines, however, gets my pick as the top ed-tech goof of 1804. No, by a landslide, that (dis)honor goes to Lancaster’s “basket.”1810 punishment the basket

The basket was a device that Lancaster used to discipline unruly boys (it was only used for boys) without resorting to lashes. If demerits failed, and other efforts didn’t work, boys would be suspended above the schoolroom in a basket. The other kids were encouraged to mock the “birds in a cage.”

A truly “terrible” way to humiliate a child, to be sure. But did it work? According to one enthusiastic Lancasterian, the “cradle” worked like a charm. As he wrote to Lancaster in 1812,

When [the students] first came, they were like so many wild donkeys of the Common, for they did not care for any thing; I threatened them with the cradle, but that, did no good. So I got the Head of them, put him in, and gave him a bit of a rocking: well! He begged and prayed for me to take him out, and he would not swear nor talk again, upon that condition I let him out & he has kept his word ever since; it took such an effect on all the Boys, that I have never had to punish one since: so, out of a set of wild donkeys, they are made a set of good behaved orderly children.

There was a cost, however. For understandable reasons, students did not like the cradle/basket/birdcage. They eventually stopped coming to Lancaster’s schools and their parents didn’t force them. Why? As one outraged African-American parent from New York wrote in 1827, their children should not be subjected to cruel teachers who only harped on the students’ “dulness and stupidity” all day.

Perhaps as a result of such gripes, Lancaster got rid of the basket. Though it plays a prominent role in early editions of his manual, by 1817 he had excised it. Like so many of the other ed-tech goofs we see in our decade, this technology came in with a blast of trumpets, only to exit with a whimper.

From the Archives: “The Ku Klux Klan: Is It of God?”

Will they or won’t they? Ever since editor Mark Galli broke the internet by denouncing Trump in Christianity Today, pundits have been struggling to decide if white evangelicals will turn anti-Trump in 2020. Historians like me can’t help but notice the pattern: When it comes to political controversy, interdenominational evangelicalism has always been hopelessly divided. From the archives today, a look at a similar division back in the 1920s.Gospel-According-to-the-Klan-Cover-320x483

First, in case you’ve been living under a holiday rock, a little context: White evangelicals voted for Trump in droves in 2016, and they remain as a group one of his most solid voting blocs. So when “flagship” evangelical magazine Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal, it caught people’s attention. Outgoing editor Mark Galli looked his fellow evangelicals in the eye—so to speak—and offered this blandishment:

Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

Would evangelicals listen? Some evangelical Trumpists immediately fired back, doubling down in their support for Trump. As Wayne Grudem wrote,

On issue after issue, President Trump is changing the direction of the country for the better. When I weigh these results against his sometimes imprecise and coarse speech, there is no comparison. . . . I’ll vote again for Trump.

I know people won’t like the comparison, but this 2019 debate sounds a lot like a 1920s debate among white evangelicals. Back then, white evangelicals engaged in a similarly vituperative political debate. Back then, white evangelicals wondered if they should support the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. I’m not saying Trump is a 21st-century Hiram Evans. Or even a 21st-century Warren Harding. But I AM saying that evangelicals have always been divided on similar sorts of political issues.

To get the gist of the 1920s debate, we have to understand the nature of the 1920s Klan. Most people these days, if they think about the Klan at all, think mostly of the Civil-Rights-Era Klan, when it was a violent fringe group dedicated to upholding Southern racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, the 1920s Klan was plenty racist, but it was a very different organization in a lot of ways from the later 1960s Klan. First of all, it was much, much bigger, with millions of members all over the nation. It was also depressingly mainstream, with members openly joining and touting their membership. And though the Klan has always been devoted to racism and white supremacy, the 1920s Klan was also ferociously centered on fighting CATHOLIC influence.

Back then, as historians such as Kelly Baker have described, the Klan was all about white supremacy, for sure, but specifically more about white Protestant supremacy.

And, as historian Felix Harcourt argued brilliantly in his book Ku Klux Kulture, the 1920s Klan was controversial in ways that sound creepily familiar today. Back then, civil-rights groups felt a need to prove to America that the Klan was a “poison flame,” attracting “bigots,” “busy-bodies,” and “lame-duck preachers.”

Among evangelical leaders—both intellectual and populist ones—the question of the Klan was difficult. Indeed, in ways that later generations of white evangelicals would find eternally embarrassing, white evangelicals back then conducted a high-profile debate that sounds depressingly similar to today’s.

Back then, some evangelical pundits were unwaveringly pro-Klan. Down in Texas, Baptist fundamentalist pundit J. Frank Norris ardently supported the Klan. In 1924, for example, the Texas Baptist Convention planned to debate a resolution denouncing the Klan. As Norris put it in his trademark style,

suffice to say that every Roman Catholic priest and Knights of Columbus would be glad to sign the [anti-Klan] resolution, and the Pope at Rome will have [anti-Klan Baptists] cannonized [sic] as a Saint for all the ‘faithful’ to worship.

Up in Chicago, a similar Klan debate unfurled in the pages of the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. One contributor from Texas argued in 1923 that evangelicals must not fall for the siren song of Ku-Kluxism. As he wrote, the Klan failed the Biblical sniff test in a number of ways. First, the Bible clearly denounces any sort of anti-Semitism. Second, the Klan’s viciousness was not Christian. When it came to Catholics, this preacher wrote,

The Bible says, ‘Do good to them and pray for them.’ The Klan says, ‘Drive them out.’

In the end, this preacher opined, the Klan should not be supported for merely political ends. Yes, they do fight against alcohol, he admitted. And divorce. And gambling. And other sorts of public sin. But those shared goals did not make the Klan Christian. As he concluded,

The great principle of Christianity is love.  The outstanding principle of Ku Kluxism is hatred.

In response, a preacher from Lancaster, Pennsylvania defended the Klan as a good Christian organization. In the tumultuous ‘twenties, he wrote, subversive communism, drug-peddling immigrants, and corrupt politicians called for drastic action. As he concluded,

Investigate the Klan. So far I have found that the churches never had a more active ally, the state a more determined champion; our homes a more resolute defender, and lawlessness and vice a more powerful foe than the Ku Klux Klan.

The debate in MBIM went on throughout the early years of the 1920s. As celebrity pastor Bob Shuler wrote from California, the Klan had its problems, but overall it deserved evangelical support. Shuler offered a careful six-point list: The Klan defended Protestantism, public schools, “women’s virtue,” law enforcement, and American idealism. Plus, all the enemies of the Klan were dangerous types—bootleggers, pimps, and Catholics. As Shuler concluded,

I have for over twelve months conducted a most comprehensive investigation of the ideals, principles, teachings and activities of the Klan and have come to the slow and deliberate conclusion that there is not now organized in America a more hopeful secret society.

What was the upshot? MBIM editor-in-chief James M. Gray was no Mark Galli. He came out against the Klan in 1924, but in a very wishy-washy way. However, by the middle of the decade it was no longer quite so difficult for white evangelicals to know what to think. A series of scandals plagued the Klan organization and it became clear that they were not spotless warriors for Christian virtue.

None of that has any direct bearing on today’s Trumpist debate, of course. There are a million factors still at play for 2020. In the 1920s, it took blockbuster events such as Indiana’s DC Stephenson’s shocking conviction for a particularly brutal rape to push the debate about the Klan’s virtue off the evangelical front page. Will there be a similar deciding event in the evangelical debate about Trumpism? Has there already been one?

Let’s Not Freak Out about the 1619 Project, Part Deux

So there has been plenty of disagreement lately about the 1619 Project. With apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH for harping on the subject, I have one more question to ask. Namely, though I 100% support the big-picture goals of the project, is it fair to say that children are not learning enough about the history of racism in these United States? I think we’re facing a different problem: America’s children are learning plenty about the contributions of African Americans. But the way they are learning it has two big problems.

wineburg famous americans

From Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), pg. 165

To be clear as possible, I’ll say it again: I’m a fan and consumer of the 1619 Project. I have used and will continue to use their materials in my history classes. Especially with all the mean-spirited debates recently, people tend to want to turn this literally into a black-and-white issue. It’s not. There are nuances that are worth talking about.

For example, what are we to make of the findings of Stanford’s Sam Wineburg? Wineburg surveyed children and adults about their historical knowledge, and found that the three best-known historical figures (presidents excepted) were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman.

Clearly, Americans of all ages are aware of the historical contributions of African Americans. Dr. King is far better-known than figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Henry Ford. Yet two big problems remain. As Nikita Stewart wrote in a 1619 Project essay, children learn about Harriet Tubman in a weird way. Even the history of slavery is somehow twisted into a cheerful, heroic tale. As Stewart put it,

Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing.

It’s not only slavery. Recently, Mattel released a celebratory Rosa Parks doll. As historian Jeanne Theoharis noted, the history that Mattel told was decidedly lacking. As Theoharis wrote,

Mattel, your blurb on how Rosa Parks “led an ordinary life as a seamstress until an extraordinary moment on Dec. 1” is just plain wrong.

So American children—whether in schools or toy stores—are apparently hearing about prominent African Americans. But the stories they are hearing are folded into a traditional tale of heroic American heroism, triumphing over adversity with everything working out in the end. It is a story of racism defeated and slavery outlawed, not one of continuing racial disparities and racial violence.

theoharis on barbieThat’s not the only problem with the ways many children are learning the history of race and racism in America. Some children learn a lot, and that’s a problem. As Nikita Stewart explained, she personally had a much better experience in history class.

I was lucky; my Advanced Placement United States history teacher regularly engaged my nearly all-white class in debate, and there was a clear focus on learning about slavery beyond Tubman, Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, the people I saw hanging on the bulletin board during Black History Month.

Stewart talked with some of the great history teachers out there who are teaching far beyond their textbooks and traditions, teachers like Tiferet Ani in Maryland who expose their students to a deeper, realer version of America’s history.

As Stewart notes, there ARE a lot of great teachers doing a great job of teaching unadulterated history to their students. Unfortunately, too often those great teachers are clustered at high-resource schools. Too many Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors classes are, like Stewart’s, “nearly all-white.” And too many schools in low-resource areas can’t offer the same range of excellent history classes.

So, yes indeed, America is conducting “educational malpractice” when it comes to teaching history. And yes, that malpractice is tied up with America’s history of racism and racial violence. But like all things in America’s schools, the malpractice is not evenly distributed. Richer, whiter students have a better chance at a great history class like Stewart’s. Too many other students don’t.

So what is the problem in America’s history classrooms? It’s not simply an absence of African American history. It comes down to two things: First, the stories about racism end up following the same overly optimistic script as the rest of the history curriculum. Racism is presented as an awkward but impersonal problem, one that has been conquered like smallpox or polio. Second, public-school history classes are not all created equal.  Students from wealthier families have a much better chance at learning much better history. And that is indeed “educational malpractice.”

Let’s Not Freak Out about the 1619 Project

Just a reminder: When it comes to the actual teaching and learning in real-life classrooms, even the biggest academic/journalist firestorms tend to sweep by far overhead, leaving the landscape untouched. This week, a group of prominent historians aired their beef with the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Insults flew. In the end, though, none of this ruckus will make any difference to the history that kids learn in school.1619 project

First, a little background: Back in August, the NYT Magazine published a collection of essays, the 1619 Project. Taken together, the goal of the project was—as described by editor Nikole Hannah-Jones—nothing less than to highlight the unique historical role played by African Americans, to flip the standard script and re-center the standard racial narratives. As Hannah-Jones wrote,

Black Americans have also been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom. More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, generation after generation, in an overlooked but vital role: It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy.

A few days ago, a group of prominent academic historians registered a complaint. They did not disagree with the goal of promoting greater awareness of the history of racism, but they thought this particular attempt had some flaws. Big ones. As they wrote,

we are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it. These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.

Maybe to no one’s surprise, the fight was on. Defenders of each side lit up the internet with angry denunciations and defenses. If we have to pick sides, I’m generally on the side of the 1619 Project. I think schools can do a much better job of getting real history into the hands of children, including the uncomfortable truths of America’s sordid and violent racial legacies. We don’t just want to turn bad guys into good guys and vice versa; we want schools to give students the truth, even when it hurts.

But here’s the thing: I don’t expect classroom teachers to care very much about what I think. And I know for a fact that the most important element in teachers’ decision-making is neither the 1619 Project nor the objections of the Prominent Five. In the end, none of these debates will make a big difference in the way history is really taught in these United States. Most history teachers care a lot about history. But in general, history teachers do not adjust their lessons based on the blockbuster publications of the New York Times. They don’t care about MacArthur grants. They do not follow the pontifications of Ivy-League historical rebutters.

The prominent historians seem unaware of this obvious fact. Indeed, the reason for their alarm, they wrote, was precisely because the NYT planned to make 1619 Project materials available to schools for history classes. The historians seem to think that classroom teachers were just about to change over all their teaching based on Hannah-Jones’s essay, but they were waiting for the historians’ ruling before they proceeded to plan their lessons. That’s not how teachers teach.

Instead, by and large, they teach the history that their local community wants taught. How do we know? For one thing, those of us with experience in real history classrooms know how those classrooms tend to look. By and large (though there are exceptions here and there), teachers do not use history to cudgel their students into accepting any particular ideological take. Teachers do not push political ideas on their students. Teachers mostly want students to do four things:

  1. Learn about what happened in the past,
  2. improve their ability to evaluate evidence,
  3. get better at writing about it clearly and convincingly, and
  4. become a better version of their young selves, whatever that means to each student.

Don’t take my word for it. We have harder evidence about how teachers decide what to teach and how to teach it. For example, though it wasn’t about history, Penn State political scientists conducted a big survey of high-school teachers and confirmed our hunch. The most important factor in determining real classroom teaching was local community opinion. If the community wanted teachers to teach something, teachers taught it. If the community didn’t, teachers didn’t. This wasn’t a big dramatic deal—teachers aren’t often bullied à la Inherit the Wind. Rather, generally teachers are part of their local communities and they are fully on board with community norms.

wineburg why learn historyFrom Stanford, too, Sam Wineburg studied the most recent effort to influence history teaching. During the 2000s, the federal government poured bajillions of dollars into the Teaching American History project. They funded hundreds of local programs. What was the result? Not much. (Full disclosure: One TAH program was housed here in sunny Binghamton and I helped direct it.)

What does this have to do with the 1619 Project? Everything. Even with over a billion dollars to spend, organizations have had little success changing the way history is taught in real classrooms. No matter if Ivy-League historians write a sour letter. No matter if the internet overheats with angry tweets and podcasts. History teachers will be focused, as usual, on something else: Their students.

In the end, if the prize is the curriculum, then this is one of those sad slugfests when the boxers go on punching long after the lights have been turned off and the crowd has gone home. Will the 1619 Project change teaching? Nope. Will the prominent historians’ response keep it at bay? Nope. Teachers will go on choosing their lessons based on an array of factors, none of which include consulting with any of the writers involved.

We Need LESS History, Not More

With apologies to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, I just couldn’t shut up and enjoy Christmas in peace. Instead, I had to keep brooding over the reasons why Andrew Ferguson’s piece was so silly. trump meanHere’s the upshot at Washington Post. Not only should historians be encouraged to talk about politics, but the best reasons for historians’ engagement can be pulled from history itself. In this piece, I pull from my new book about American creationism to point out the obvious: Historians’ expertise is important and it can move the needle on issues like impeachment.

In this case, America is not suffering from a lack of historical awareness. Rather, we find ourselves with a wide variety of histories to choose from. Like President Trump, we can assume that George Washington would smile on Trumpism. Or like the thousands of historians who support impeachment, we can point out that Trump’s misdeeds fit the Founders’ definition of impeachable offenses.

What does this have to do with creationism? A lot. The problem with creationism is not a lack of science. Rather, it is the fracturing of science. When Darwin first made his claims about natural selection and evolution, some fans assumed that people would accept it as soon as they heard about it. But we all know that’s not what happened. Instead, a bunch of different sciences developed, competing for followers.

We’re in a similar situation with history. There is not one history to learn, but a million. People are forced to pick a history to trust. They can believe Trump’s version, or they can listen to thousands of professional historians who disagree. In situations like this, expertise matters. Historians can help people agree on the historical truths that have the best claims, instead of just picking the ones they find most convenient.

At least, that’s the argument I made this week over at Washington Post. Click on over and read the whole thing.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Take a break from the eggnog and read about some of the big doings from around the interwebs this week:

Petition Condition! All of a sudden we see a burst of culture-war petitions. Which is your favorite?

Wow: evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today calls for Trump’s removal from office.

The typical CT approach is to stay above the fray and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square, to encourage all to pursue justice according to their convictions and treat their political opposition as charitably as possible. . . . But the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.

  • From the ILYBYGTH files: How have other evangelical magazines weighed in on controversial issues? An example from 1957.

earnestine ritterHow do evangelical women make their mark? By falling into safe “types,” at R&P.

The Preacher . . . the Homemaker . . . the Talent . . . The Counselor . . . the Beauty.

Not funny in real life: Why teachers need to learn students’ names, at Chalkbeat.

Texas public school agrees to take down a creationist banner, but they ain’t happy about it. At KSAT.

“Somerset ISD is a place that, well, unabashedly, we keep Christ in Christmas. But this display had been here since the first day of the school year and we didn’t have a single complaint so we’re kind of shocked.”

texas school creationism

Separation of what and what?

Boris, Donald, and the rise of conservative populism, at AC.

The underlying phenomenon of all this is that the meritocratic elites of the West unleashed a political wildfire when they sought to move their nations in directions that large numbers of their citizens didn’t want to go—towards globalism, open borders, anti-nationalism, deindustrialization, anti-religion, and profound transformations in societal mores.

Too soon. Talk-radio guy fired for joking about a “nice school shooting” to distract us from impeachment. At CNN.

Can Jerry Falwell Jr. pull it off? Can big-time football make Liberty U seem like a real university? At the Ringer.

“We talk politics for a minute,” [Falwell] says, “and [Trump] asks about Becki”—Falwell’s wife—“and he says he’s glad she and Melania are becoming friends.” And then, Falwell remembers, after a few minutes of small talk, Trump had a question:

“So, how’s the football team looking?”

Getting to be that time of year: Chalkbeat offers its top-ten list—top ten ed stories of the decade.

Whom do teachers turn to for help? Other teachers. Even the technophiles have noticed.

When it comes to selecting resources for their classrooms, 81% of teachers rate other teachers as their most trusted source of information about what works. . . . Far more than principals (28%) or district staff (34%), more than review websites (39%), and more than evidence-based reports (18%).

Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites behind NJ’s shooting spree? A report from behind bars at the Tablet.

Horribly embarrassing the rabbis and families of Jewish prisoners who could visit on these holidays, the Israelites would use these opportunities to aggressively claim the core tenet of their belief: That Jews as we know them are not Jews at all, and that the only real Jews are, of course, the Black Hebrew Israelites themselves.

At The Atlantic, Andrew Ferguson says historians should avoid petitions like the one they signed to impeach Trump.

Scrolling through the endless list of obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts, I could just imagine them running home that evening to humblebrag to their wives or husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends: “Yeah, me and Bob Caro, we just figure enough is enough—impeach the bastard!”

Should Historians Talk Politics?

The question is not whether or not historians should get into politics. The proper question is whether or not historians should get into history. In case you missed it, journalist Andrew Ferguson just antagonized historians by mocking their attempts to weigh in on impeachment. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, sometimes the intellectual “sloppiness” Ferguson condemns is right on the money.

president supervillain

Should cartoonists weigh in on cartoons? Should Red Skull weigh in on villainy? [Side note: If you’re not following President Supervillain (@PresVillain) on Twitter, you’re missing the best part of today’s politics.]

Full disclosure: I signed. Ferguson was fluffed about the petition signed by over 2,000 historians in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal. And, no doubt intentionally, Ferguson used provocative language to condemn activist historians, calling them merely “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

Beyond my hurt feelings, I think it’s fair to wonder if Ferguson’s accusations have any merit. The basis of his complaint is that historians are calling for impeachment based only on an argument from authority. As he puts it,

It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick.

In this case, though, Ferguson misses the central point. Historians are not merely weighing in as credentialed experts who have a certain political belief. Rather, in an age of fractured truth, historians are weighing in on an historical issue, as credentialed experts who have earned their expertise at great cost and toil. They are signaling to a bewildered public that not all forms of history have equal merit. All historical claims are tentative, but some are far more wildly bogus than others.

Trump letter pelosi

It is no longer self-evident that all historical arguments are not born equal.

The disagreement in this case is not merely whether or not historians as individuals think Trump is a dangerous lout. More specifically, the impeachment case hinges on the nature of American history itself. In his self-defense, for example, Trump has made all sorts of claims based on his reality-TV-level understanding of history. As he wrote in his recent letter to Speaker Pelosi,

You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.

In other words, Trump is leaning on history to make his case against impeachment. Trump is not only defending his “perfect” phone call, but insisting that his actions are in line with the intentions of America’s founders centuries ago. The fight here is not only about today’s politics, but yesterday’s. To say that historians should not weigh in on events of the past seems more than a little silly. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse put it,

The GOP invoked “history” repeatedly in their defense of the president — making claims about the Constitution, Franklin, Hamilton, past precedents of impeachment, etc. Don’t get angry when actual historians respond to those claims to point out they’re wrong.

Right on. In this case, historians are not merely voicing their views about politics based on their PhDs and institutional authority. They are speaking to the public on issues in which they have reasonable claims to expert authority.

Consider a parallel from another field of fractured truth. As science historian Adam Shapiro noted, telling historians not to speak politically is similar to the ways scientists have been told to stay in their labs. And it is just as meaningless.

Back in 1968, for example, SCOTUS was considering the constitutionality of a bunch of 1920s anti-evolution laws. As SCOTUS considered, scientists weighed in. The scientific case was clear. Leading biologists, 179 of them, signed a brief informing the justices that “scientists and other reasonable persons” no longer doubted the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. The justices eventually agreed.

These days, too, mainstream scientists happily lend their authority to the prestige of mainstream evolutionary theory. As the National Center for Science Education playfully demonstrated with its Project Steve, the number of scientists who support evolution—JUST NAMED STEVE—stretches to over a thousand.

Are these arguments from authority? In a way, but what Ferguson misses is that in an age of fractured truth, when politicians and preachers make outlandish claims about history and science, the authority of historians and scientists has real value. To a public confronted with bogus ideas about the past or about DNA, arguments based on the number of experts who attest to the truth of the matter is not only acceptable, but absolutely vital.