Saturday, June 5, 2010

Everything old is new again, part 2

The Washington Post is running a story on a series of classes being held around the country; the classes are based on the premise that the wisdom of the Founders contains the answers to the problems we face today.  Here's the story:  Conservative class on Founding Fathers' answers to current woes gains popularity.  (Hat tip to The Western Confucian.)

While the background and content of the courses looks more than a little dodgy, the impulse behind looking to the wisdom of the Founders is a recurring phenomena in American civic life, and is one of the reasons why balanced historical scholarship on the Founding period is so important.  Bad scholarship can lead us to draw the wrong conclusions about the past, and when we look to the past to guide us in future behavior, bad scholarship can lead us seriously astray.  While the idea of having civic groups meet to study the Founders' ideas and their relevance for today is a great one -- I wish these sorts of study groups were very common across the country -- they really won't do much good if all they offer is a candy-coated and ideologically-driven presentation of the Founders' ideas.

And of course, this isn't just a problem that bedevils conservative groups that are getting all the attention today.  The ideological manipulation of American history is as much a part of the tradition of the Left as it is of the Right.  And in either case, it isn't helpful.  Again, this doesn't mean that history can be presented in a completely neutral fashion -- but it does mean that a white-washed view of history, one that overlooks aspects of of the Founding period that is uncongenial to one's own ideological views, isn't being honest to the Founders as they actually were.

So, along with the good things about the Founders (however me might define those things), we need to address the bad things about them as well.  For every scrappy Alexander Hamilton working his way up from poverty to influence based on his wits and the sweat of his brow, there is an aristocrat like Thomas Jefferson propounding the principles of liberty while his slaves toil by the sweat of their brows to afford him the luxury of his principles.   We need to tell the full story, to see the Founders as great men, but like all men limited and frail and (if I am allowed to use some religious language) sinful.  Otherwise, in our ideological narrowness, we will miss some of the most important lessons that the Founders' have to teach us.

8 comments:

King of Ireland said...

Mark,

This is good and exactly what I have been talking about. That is exactly my target audience for the class I am working on.

King of Ireland said...

"For every scrappy Alexander Hamilton working his way up from poverty to influence based on his wits and the sweat of his brow, there is an aristocrat like Thomas Jefferson propounding the principles of liberty while his slaves toil by the sweat of their brows to afford him the luxury of his principles."

This is why Ray's post about Washington and his slaves a while back is so important.

King of Ireland said...

I also might at that my target audience will probably not like some of the things I would bring up like how having armies all over the world today jives with the founders mistrust of standing armies. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists had some disagreements on some minor things but no one can doubt that our interventionist foreign policy now looks nothing like theirs.

Mark in Spokane said...

Amen to that.

King of Ireland said...

I went to read the article and my fears were confirmed that this is the Glen Beck/Barton version. Which when it is all said and done is the Republican party version. The truth has got to get out there.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I went to read the article and my fears were confirmed that this is the Glen Beck/Barton version.

It's impossible to have any other impression by reading the article. But the article tells us nothing about what was actually said in the class.

Now it may be true it's got bad history in it, but the article's jump-off point is W. Cleon Skousen and his book "The 5,000 Year Leap," which is "a far-right anti-Communist Mormon fundamentalist and professor of religious studies at Brigham Young University whose historical work has been criticized by academics as ill-conceived and inaccurate."

OK, got all that? How could you have anything but a bad impression?

Now, I haven't read the damn thing, but Rod Dreher, the "Crunchy Con[servative]" who's pretty acceptable [for a conservative] by mainstream [read "chattering class"] types, wrote:

Yesterday I wrote a post disparaging W. Cleon Skousen and his book "The 5,000 Year Leap," which changed Glenn Beck's life, and which Beck has been praising to the skies. The late Skousen had a reputation as a far-right weirdo and anti-communist conspiracy theorist. I bought a copy of "Leap" on the way home from work yesterday, to see exactly what it says. I read most of it last night, and skimmed through to the end.

Skousen must have developed his unsavory reputation from his other books, because none of his is in "Leap." If all you knew about Skousen was "Leap," you would be completely oblivious to the bad stuff about him. "Leap" is a work of interpretive history, one that treats the American founding as a "miracle," and renders the Founders as having an air of semi-divinity about them. In its worshipful tone and substance, it blurs the line between religion and nationalism -- not in a frightening way, but rather in a hokey, 1950s civic-religion way.

This is the kind of book you'd expect Opie's civics teacher in Mayberry to assign to him. It's an eccentric book to be sure, and a poorly written, poorly argued and sentimental one. It is, I mean to say, a bad book, but it's not an evil book or a crazy book.

The idea that America is charged by God with a manifest destiny, and is an exception among the nations of the world, is a deeply problematic idea, to say the least, but it is (alas) one well within the historical mainstream f this country. Skousen himself may have been an extremist in his convictions, but you have to look to his other material for evidence of that; it's not in "The 5,000 Year Leap," and I want to make that clear after yesterday's post, which I mean to correct.

"


source

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The WaPo article told us nothing of substance, just recycled the conventional wisdom on Skousen and tarred the class with it.

Mind you, it could be a class full of nutters, like the two guys in the front row passing out nutburger DVDs after class. But we don't know for sure. My point here is simply epistemological: don't believe everything you read in the papers.

Mark in Spokane said...

Tom,

You've been on fire in the comments sections lately! You must be eating your oatmeal!

I'm not familiar with the writings discussed in the article -- and I don't listen or watch Glen Beck at all, and most of my reading in the Founders is either primary source collections (thanks be to the Library of America series!) or to fairly established historians like MacDonald, Wood, Maier, etc.

I am pretty skeptical of the attempt to paint any "conservative" approach to American history as somehow more ideologically biased than any of the "progressive" history that has been stylish for so long. Personally, I have no problems with people having a position when it comes to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy, so to speak. But when ideology drives the scholarship, problems ensue. And that's true regardless of the ideology.

Thanks, though, for pointing out where it looks like the article author fell into some sloppy reporting.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I am pretty skeptical of the attempt to paint any "conservative" approach to American history as somehow more ideologically biased than any of the "progressive" history that has been stylish for so long.

Cool. I'm still waiting to find out the true story of the Texas curriculum fight [and I don't expect we ever will]. I don't trust the accounts from the mainstream media, and certainly not blogs who largely took their info from the highly partisan Texas Freedom Network, whatever that is.

I have no doubt the new standards overstep, but I've seen no account of the flaws of the previous regime either, to compare and contrast.

Via John Fea's blog, I found something called The Organization of American Historians, which wrote a letter of protest against the new Texas standards because it

"supports the efforts of the professionally trained educators of Texas to achieve and maintain a history curriculum that reflects the basic consensus of scholarship."

I do not know what this means. Truth is not necessarily scholarly consensus. I won't go into the political leanings of the majority of the scholarly academy [which would compose that consensus] except to say it cannot be accused of leaning to the right.

The OAH continues,

The Executive Board of the Organization of American Historians, an association with nearly 9,000 members, calls upon officials of the state of Texas to adopt a history curriculum that reflects the understanding of history developed by the historians and history teachers of Texas.

Ah. Leave it to the "professionals," leave your kids to us, and shut the hell up.

That's not how we do things in this here USA. Beware "quangos," "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations," which is to say they are democratically unaccountable, and which are on the verge of running the UK.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quango

I mean, at least we can still vote in a new president or governor or school board to ride herd on the bureaucracy. Quangos are untouchable, run by and for their members. You can't vote a quango out.

Well, Texas just did, and good on them. That's my meta-argument.

As for "scholarly" or "professional" consensus, I'm confident that if Texas' standards followed the relatively uncontroversial and roundly respected Gordon S. Wood [who won this blog's poll as favorite historian], that whole showdown and circus in Texas would never have happened.

[Like you, Mark, I prefer a fresh bite on the study of history based on the original sources, so I only come across academic establishment historians in dribs and drabs. If I were forced to put Gordon Wood on the political spectrum, it would be to the right of center, but not unacceptably so, even to the academy at large. Perhaps I'm wrong on this, tho. I don't keep up with the academy.]

Again, I don't want to get into the tall weeds of what actually happened in Texas, since the points of contention would be drawn largely from newspaper and partisan reports, which I frankly don't trust, and I stipulate in advance they overstepped, which surely they did.

My main desire is for epistemological clarity---clarity being more important than agreement---and to repeat my main argument, that if the Texas schools had been teaching American history in the Gordon Wood vein, this mess wouldn't have happened in the first place.