My Experts Can Beat Up Your Experts

None of us knows what we’re talking about. That is the problem driving much of our culture-war animus. We can’t possibly understand all the nuances of every field of study, so we rely on networks of competing experts and authority figures to tell us what to believe. I do it, you do it . . . we all do it.

This week, we’ve seen it again with the topic of teaching American history. A coalition of conservative scholars and activists has signed an open letter attacking the new framework of Advanced Placement US History guidelines. They hope to use their collective clout to prove that the “experts” are not all on one side of this debate.

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

Your Experts Will Send Our Kids to Hell!

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, these new history guidelines have proven intensely controversial. Conservative lawmakers in Oklahoma have proposed nixing the new standards for Sooner schoolchildren. Conservative pundits have blasted the framework as biased and warped. Professional organizations such as the National Council for History Education and the American Historical Association have fought back, insisting that the new framework is exactly the sort of thing we need in America’s history classrooms.

And, as I argue in my new book, these battles over the nature of American history have a long history themselves. In the 1930s, conservatives successfully blocked a popular series of textbooks that they felt told a slanted, anti-American vision of the nation’s past. More recently, the attempt in the 1990s to write a set of national history standards was sunk when conservatives made similar complaints.

In those battles as in this one, culture-war combatants have hoped to win their case by compiling intimidating lists of experts who back their respective positions. This week’s letter includes a mix of signatories. Some of them really are leading academic historians, such as George Marsden and Joseph Kett. And they take their inspiration from a recent diatribe by renowned historian Gordon Wood. Other signers are not historians, but conservative scholars who disagree with the general drift of mainstream academic life, folks such as Robert George and Patrick Deneen. Yet another category of signer is that of activist conservative historians, a rare breed including folks such as Ronald Radosh and Victor Davis Hanson. Plus, there are political signatories such as Lynne Cheney.

The letter complains that the new APUSH framework pushes an “arid, fragmentary, and misleading account of American history.” The new framework, the letter argues,

Is organized around such abstractions as “identity,” “peopling,” “work, exchange, and technology,” and “human geography” while downplaying essential subjects, such as the sources, meaning, and development of America’s ideals and political institutions, notably the Constitution. Elections, wars, diplomacy, inventions, discoveries—all these formerly central subjects tend to dissolve into the vagaries of identity-group conflict. The new framework scrubs away all traces of what used to be the chief glory of historical writing—vivid and compelling narrative—and reduces history to a bloodless interplay of abstract and impersonal forces. Gone is the idea that history should provide a fund of compelling stories about exemplary people and events. No longer will students hear about America as a dynamic and exemplary nation, flawed in many respects, but whose citizens have striven through the years toward the more perfect realization of its professed ideals. The new version of the test will effectively marginalize important ways of teaching about the American past, and force American high schools to teach U.S. history from a perspective that self-consciously seeks to de-center American history and subordinate it to a global and heavily social-scientific perspective.

As a professional academic historian, I’m certainly not neutral in this fight. My sympathies lie with the new framework. Don’t get me wrong: I admit that these conservative charges are not without merit. Academic historians really have isolated themselves over the past forty years. Americans love history, but they find academic history simply beside the point. Academic historians have tended to obsess over issues that only other academics care about, leaving high-schoolers and regular folks to learn their history from journalists and from Hollywood. But that has always been the case with scholarly work and it does not mean that the big lessons of the past forty years should not be taught to high-schoolers.

More important here, though, is the way culture-war issues are often addressed by letters like this one. Because none of us can understand the nuances of every issue, because none of us really understands what all the fuss is about, we rely on networks of competing authorities to give us our culture-war positions.

In the creation/evolution battles, for instance, we’ve seen this time and time again. Nearly every pro-evolution argument these days starts with some statement that mainstream scientists all agree on the fact of evolution. Activist organizations such as the National Center for Science Education compile bulletproof lists of all the scientists who agree that evolution occurs via natural selection. It has always been this way. In the 1968 US Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, the National Science Teachers Association submitted a statement signed by 179 leading scientists. Evolution, the signatories told the court, had become a “fundamental scientific principle” supported by all “scientists and other reasonable persons.”

Creationists, of course, have always compiled similar lists of experts. As I noted in my first book, sometimes such lists took over the whole argument. For instance, T.T. Martin’s 1923 book, Hell and the High Schools, was a slim 175 pages. Of those pages, a full 67 were nothing but lists of anti-evolution scientists and experts.

For those few true experts such as Ronald Numbers or Glenn Branch, it is possible to wade through these lists of names to tease out the scientific street cred of each person. For most readers, though, the lists of experts serve only to prove the reliability of writers’ claims.

In every culture-war field, we rely on experts we trust to tell us what to believe. And then we believe it, whether or not we really know what we’re talking about. This doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It doesn’t mean we’re ignorant. As Dan Kahan argues so convincingly, our beliefs about evolution tells us about who we are, not about what we know.

What are we to believe about the new Advanced Placement US History standards? Are they the best wisdom of historians, vetted by true experts in the field and reflecting the latest developments of academic knowledge? Or are they the puerile croaking of a self-satisfied and out-of-touch ivory-tower elite, bent on promoting ideology over true knowledge?

The answer, of course, depends on which group of experts you prefer.

Persecution and the Conservative Academic

Do conservative academics suffer persecution?

NYU professor of history and education Jonathan Zimmerman recently called for affirmative action for conservative college professors, even though, Zimmerman insisted, such professors hadn’t suffered from historic discrimination.

That hit a nerve.

Writing in the higher-education blog Minding the Campus, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Ronald Radosh called foul.

Radosh took exception to Zimmerman’s insistence that liberal professors like himself were not the “wild-eyed Marxists” many conservative pundits had accused them of being.

Radosh disagreed.  “NYU,” Radosh wrote, “is most egregiously guilty of precisely such a bias. Their own history department is dominated by precisely those types, and some of the institutes and centers they have established have gone out of their way to make that crystal clear.”

Radosh complained that his career had suffered for purely political reasons.  At George Washington University, for instance, Radosh claimed that he had been subjected to questions mainly “about my politics, and not about my approach to history or how it should be taught.”  At another school, Radosh said he was buffeted in a job interview with a series of “hostile questions” about his views on Cold-War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

In the end, Radosh concluded that most history professors discriminate actively and self-consciously against conservative academics.  As Radosh wrote,

“The reason such professors will not hire conservatives is precisely because they do not want ‘other right-leading students’ to ‘follow them, into the academic profession,’ as Prof. Zimmerman hopes they will once conservative professors are hired. Does he really think people like Marilyn Young and Linda Gordon at NYU want anyone to challenge the ideological hegemony they now hold over molding students’ minds?”

Other sorts of conservative academics have long claimed to suffer from similar persecution.

The case of Teresa Wagner, for instance, still bubbles along.  Wagner had applied for jobs at the University of Iowa’s law school.  She was one of five finalists, but was passed over for the most desirable tenure-track job.  Was it due to prejudice against Wagner’s loud-and-proud conservative activism?  Wagner had made no secret of her pro-life and traditional-marriage stances.

One unique element of Wagner’s case was the existence of a smoking gun.  Unlike most hiring-discrimination cases, Wagner was able to produce a document that seemed to make her case.  Associate Dean John Carlson had written in an internal email, “Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don’t actually think that, but I’m worried that I may be missing something.”

That email made Wagner’s case complicated.  A group of jurors agreed that Wagner had been treated unfairly.

These conservative claims of academic persecution are nothing new.

Creationist Jerry Bergman collected cases of such discrimination in his 1984 book The Criterion.  Bergman, who claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University in the early 1980s due to his creationist beliefs, described the stories of academics such as Clifford Burdick.  Burdick was allegedly refused his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1960 for including a consideration of divine creation as an explanation for discrepancies in the fossil record.  Bergman argued that such attitudes had no place in a university setting.  Firing a creationist for speaking to students about his or her beliefs, Bergman argued, would be like “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”

Even further back, anti-evolution leader T. T. Martin complained in 1923 that the universities had been taken over.  “We sent our young men to the great German universities,” Martin lamented, “and, when they came back, saturated with Evolution, we made them Presidents and head-professors of our colleges and great universities.”

Of course, the academic politics of evolution are much different than the politics of communism, which are different from the politics of abortion.  I think it is safe to say that a mainstream school will be more open about its discrimination against a creationist than against a neo-conservative anti-communist or a traditional-marriage supporting legal scholar.

However, Professor Zimmerman’s claim that conservatives have not been the subject of historic discrimination still rankles among conservative academics of various backgrounds.  One of the most closely treasured beliefs among conservative intellectuals, after all, is that American universities have been largely captured by a totalitarian and essentially anti-liberal left.