I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

From “creationist” neo-confederates to whiskey-drinkin tooth-pullers, this week had it all. Here are some of the articles that riled us:

Is there an intellectual wing to Trumpism? Daniel McCarthy reviews some conservative contenders at American Conservative.

Should college students have to PAY for speakers they disagree with? Hechinger looks at the fight over mandatory student fees.

Wow! Whatta week for in-depth profiles of ILYBYGTH personalities:

John Kelly’s comments generated a lot of culture-war heat.Bart reading bible

Does THIS count as school segregation? Or is it just a reasonable attempt to reward good behavior?

Ouch. The Nation profiles the painful lengths people go to in Tennessee when they lack dental insurance. Spoiler: It includes “pliers, chisels, and whiskey.”

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Stuff It, Perfesser: The DINE Response

Cross-posted from Do I Need Evolution

What do we do when we can’t agree?  Evolution, US History, sex, prayer . . . there’s a lot we can’t agree about.  A few days back, I asked what a historian like me should do when challenged and insulted.  Should we fight back? Or try to understand why we’ve been insulted and make some connections between disagreeing sides?  Prajwal Kulkarni of the must-read Do I Need Evolution has offered a response:

I can understand why both historians and scientists get angry and feel they must fight. But to fight or not to fight is not the only question. How we fight matters as whether we fight. It’s possible to fight fairly and treat your opponents with respect, something sorely missing with creationists.

Scientists and educators themselves disagree which topics in science are critical for people to learn, and especially non-scientists. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that there are many paths to science literacy. Since the experts don’t think evolution is absolutely necessary, and since there are many different ways to cultivate science appreciation and literacy, “fighting” over evolution seems particularly inappropriate.

History is different. Adam can comment more authoritatively, but I get the impression historians agree on a canon that everyone should be exposed to. There also aren’t easy substitutions in history education. You can’t legitimately teach mid-19th century US history and avoid the civil war. But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution. “Fighting” might actually be a more appropriate response for history. And even then, we can make sure to to fight fairly and respectfully.

Living in a democracy requires us to draw these types of lines. When it comes to public education, it may be okay to concede on evolution but not history.

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?

 

150 Years Without History Are Enough!

It’s not a “conservative” thing, really.  Or a “progressive,” “liberal,” or “traditionalist” thing.  But I’ve mounted up on my high horse in the pages of History News Network to complain about the sad state of American history education.

Specifically, I’m stumped and saddened by the continuing prevalence of neo-Confederate histories in America’s public schools.  Or, at least, by the continuing desire of some activists and authors to keep neo-Confederate histories alive.

In the HNN essay, I argue that there are clear parallels between this sort of history education and the long campaign against the teaching of evolution in public-school science classes.   Just as in that case, I think there are plenty of conservative intellectuals who will agree with me that neo-Confederate myths shouldn’t be taught as real history, just as there are lots of conservative evangelicals who dispute the young-earth style of creationism peddled by Ken Ham.  Just as I wouldn’t want history teachers to use Zinn’s woefully slanted leftist People’s History of America in their classrooms, I bet there are plenty of conservatives who don’t want American kids to learn that the Civil Rights Movement was no big deal, or that lots of slaves fought FOR the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Take a look and offer your comments over there.  Bonus points if you can make sense of my oh-so-clever title BEFORE reading the essay on HNN!