As we explore the concepts of religion and morality in early American history, to what experts or authorities should we turn? How do we decide whether a certain speaker, activist, or writer can be considered an "expert" or "authority"? Who deserves our attention and respect?
If you've spent much time here at American Creation, you've probably seen several cases where the above questions have been debated -- if not openly, at least in the subtext of the comments. How often have we read someone say that a certain activist, writer, or even blog contributor has dubious or suspect qualifications to address matters of history, because...well....he or she "is not a historian." Not a real historian anyway.
These kinds of exchanges raise some important questions. Does a person need to have a master's or doctorate in history specifically in order to warrant our respectful consideration? Or is a degree even enough? How many books must be published or awards received, before a person is considered sufficiently "credentialed" to warrant our respect?
My thesis is that a speaker, writer, or activist should not be judged (and certainly not dismissed) based solely or even primarily on his or her resume. A person should be evaluated based on character and performance, not on credentials. Having a resume full of degrees, awards, etc. doesn't give someone a monopoly on truth, nor does it exempt him or her from making mistakes or errors in judgment.
To dismiss someone out of hand for a lack of certain credentials can fairly be called "academic elitism" and it has unfortunately raised its ugly head on too many occasions in our society, including here at our American Creation blog.
Scholarship and Credentialism - They Are Not Always The Same
Effective, credible analysis of history requires patience, discipline, careful research, and some form of system designed to compensate for the individual's or group's bias. Regarding the latter, that a person or team will have a bias is natural. No one is free from some kind of bias. But it is possible to account for that bias and put in "checks and balances" to channel and control for it. Thus, it is not elitism to insist that a writer or reseacher employ such skills or disciplines.
On some occasions, activists have failed to employ these skills and have encountered reasonable criticism and scrutiny as a result. David Barton, for example, has acknowledged that his past use of quotes landed him in hot water, because he too casually accepted secondhand or thirdhand sources, rather than confirming the authenticity of the quotes themselves by combing through the original source material. It was a layman's error and a costly one, for it continues to dog his credibility in some circles to this day.
The Internet is full of examples where activists, on all sides of the political spectrum, have lifted quotes out of context or clipped quotes to suit their own purposes. This kind of shoddy, agenda-driven "research" should be called out.
Principles and practices of sound scholarship are certainly needed. But credentialed historians are just as capable of flawed or deceptive "scholarship" as any layperson. Remember Ward Churchill? And how about the late Howard Zinn? Both guys had the official credentials, but their "scholarship" left much to be desired.
It's one thing to demand sound, credible scholarship. It's another to demand that a writer or speaker have a certain resume before you'll give her a hearing!
The Dark Side of Elitism
In a recent article "Judge the Person: Not the Resume," film critic and conservative writer Michael Medved deplored elitism in American culture, writing: "The poisonous polarization of the culture has produced some ill-considered attacks that call into question one of the most fundamental American values: the notion that each individual deserves to be judged on ability, not background, and evaluated on performance rather than credentials.
K12 Academics, an education resource website, defines academic elitism as a belief that "only those individuals who have engaged in scholarship are deemed to have anything worthwhile to say, or do."
Once again, it's not unreasonable to demand that a person "engage in scholarship" insofar as his or her specific studies are concerned. But, all too often, a person is considered to have not "engaged in scholarship," unless he or she has the resume to prove it. Scholarship is too often based on resume.
I grant that a credentialed, professional historian deserves a certain presumption of respect. Nevertheless, a journalist, minister, philosopher, or even one completely outside of social studies can still offer something of value to the study and discussion of history. In fact, at times, such a contribution can be of great value.
David McCullough comes to mind. McCullough's award-winning books are well researched and immensely popular. Yet many deride McCullough, because he lacks a degree in history. To them, McCullough is not a REAL historian. Of course, what this usually means is that the Howard Zinns and quasi-Zinns of the historical scholarship community sneer at McCullough's unabashed patriotism. I mean, a historian - a REAL historian - would never be patriotic, right?
Can Ministers, Theologians, or Activists Offer Good History?
Let's take Dr. Peter Lillback, author of George Washington's Sacred Fire and several other books. A few here at American Creation have dismissed Lillback on the grounds that "he's not a real historian."
Well, Lillback is the president of the renowned Westminster Theological Seminary and head of the Providence Forum. He possesses three degrees: a Bachelor's from Cedarville University, a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Westminster. In addition to serving as president of Westminster, he also teaches a class in historical theology.
It's true that Lillback doesn't have an advanced degree in history specifically, but I can tell you that a degree in religion or theology (and Lillback's degrees and schools are quite impressive in their own right) is similar to one in philosophy, political science, and, yes, even history. Not exact, mind you, but similar in some respects.
I would submit that a minister or theologian, with training in scholarship (be it in the form of an advanced degree or otherwise) can offer something of value to the study and analysis of history. As self-serving as this may sound, a minister or theologian should not be dismissed out of hand for their contributions to the field anymore than a philosopher, political scientist would be.
Of course, scholars like Lillback or activists like David Barton are often dismissed not simply for their lack of history-specific credentials (or lack of "sufficient" history-specific credentials), but because they....heaven forbid...have an agenda!
Anyone who dismisses Lillback or Barton because they have an agenda should never, under any circumstances, pick up a book written by the likes of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or Ward Churchill or ever watch a documentary by Michael Moore. If having an agenda disqualifies someone from being taken seriously, then, frankly, you're out of luck until Mr. Spock is born or we invent Data. (That's a wink at my fellow Star Trek fans. And frankly, even Spock and Data had agendas!).
So, knock off this nonsense about agendas! I have no problem with scholars having agendas. None whatsoever. And you shouldn't either.
What matters is how a person HANDLES his or her agenda. Are they honest, disciplined, reasonable, and rational in doing the research and laying the intellectual groundwork for the pursuit of their "agenda"?
Let's Not Forget Common Sense
And, frankly, while I agree that it's important for us to exercise some scholarly discipline in our exploration of these subjects. And I'd certainly hate to see American Creation degenerate into partisan mud-slinging or sloppy, superficial articles that are long on agenda and short on research. Nevertheless, let's not ignore the wisdom of common sense!
There are times when average, ordinary Americans without an Ivy League education have something to offer our society. In fact, there are a LOT of such times. I would submit that our greatest Presidents in American history (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) were not intellectual giants, when it came to academic training and certainly not when it came to "credentials." But they possessed character, wisdom, and a driving desire to learn and grow. This made them great.
So, again, I am not devaluing the importance of knowledge, education, and wisdom. On the contrary, I'm a big believer in all those things, and in the need for honest, painstaking, disciplined research and analysis. But I categorically reject any implication, assumption, or tendency to automatically extend favor to those with certain CREDENTIALS at the expense of those who may not have them.
I'll allow the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. the last word. Alluding to the Left's unfortunate bias toward intellectual elitism at the expense of common sense, Buckley famously remarked: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."