Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Opposite of the Lowest Common Denominator Approach

But it's still fair.

I am not a history teacher. I teach law, business and political science. And my training is in law and business (JD/MBA/LLM, all from Temple). The nice thing about a "JD" is that it's a doctorate without a dissertation. It permits you to be a lawyer. And the study of law has historical and political science overtones to it. No wonder there are a glut of JDs.

I suggested history teachers at the K-12 level focus more on getting the facts straight -- facts on which all sides could agree.

On NPR I heard a history professor (at NYU) suggest a different approach but still fair. He brought up Howard Zinn's "A People's History," and contrasted it with "A Patriot's History," and suggested students read BOTH books at the same time to see what the controversy is all about. He thought that superior to the more milquetoast teach the facts that everyone agrees on.

He may be right.

To use an example closer to home, assign students BOTH David Barton's books AND Chris Rodda's and see what they think.

He also noted history an imperfect science and that at bottom, much we don't know. On a related note, John Fea notes how the term "revision" properly understood is a good thing. Revision in history, means correcting old errors with better information.

To use an example that I have been involved in: Paul Boller's "George Washington & Religion" is probably the most influential book on GW's personal creed. This is the book Peter Lillback wrote his to refute. Lillback offered more quantity than Boller; but both have the basic facts. Both agree Washington believed in an active Providence. And we have speculations from Lillback (for instance on why GW avoided communion) that push GW in the "orthodox" box to counter speculations from Boller (on for instance why Washington let the one and only reference to "Jesus Christ" in a public address, written by an aide, pass when in all other instances he systematically did not discuss JC) that push Washington out of that box.

I was rereading GW & Religion at the David Library and I'm struck by how many times Boller invokes "Bird Wilson's" argument for why GW wasn't a Christian. The problem is, it wasn't Bird Wilson, son of key Founder James Wilson, but rather a Calvinist covenanter named James Renwick Willson.

If Lillback wanted to make Boller look like a real doofus, he could have pointed that out. But...Lillback makes the same error. And so did Michael Novak, Brooke Allen, David Holmes, and many others.

That was the standard belief among scholars. And the error didn't originate with Boller either.

The error was caught relatively recently by James Kabala, a Brown PhD in history and currently, a community college professor. He did manage to recently put that revision in a peer reviewed scholarly article. But that revision is still in the process of taking affect.

But because Boller's work was so influential and because the early 1830s dialog that occured among Origen Bacheler, Robert Dale Owen, Rev. James Renwick Willson and Rev. James Abercrombie is central to Boller's analysis, we should study the primary sources and arguments they used very carefully. You can read the debate between Owen and Bacheler here. You can read Abercrombie's smoking gun letter here. And you can read Willson's infamous sermon here.


King of Ireland said...

I think this is fair too Jon? The problem is:

Who gets to choose which two books give the information to make the evaluation from.

I think that a Gregg Frazer vs. Daniel Dresibach thing would be more interesting and accurate than Rodda and Barton. I disagree with Gregg but he knows his stuff.

King of Ireland said...

Question mark above is misplaced. I am agreeing with you.

January said...

Thank you for the this article and the link to Positive Liberty. Not that the issue excites me; rather it is watching competent scholars do their work that thrills. Congratulations.

Tom Van Dyke said...

By what legal theory are the taxpapers of Texas obliged to have Howard Zinn's version of history preached at their kids?

I would ask the same question if the colors were reversed, and a duly-elected BOE opposed the Lilliback version.

Tom Van Dyke said...

To get to the history of hagiography, or vice-versa, how Christian was Washington thought to be during his public life?

My answer would be Christian enough just the way the sly "old fox" planned it.

Next comes the question of who created these controversies. It seems it's always the clergy, whether trying to pin down the "old fox" while he lived, or in the immediate post-Founding era, when the Parson Weems-type mythmaking began.

So as a point of order, I wonder how much success these troublemaking clergy had in stirring up the general populace. Were these questions of orthodox of general interest to the republic?

Next, this Rev. Willson, et al., controversy really belongs in the immediate post-Founding folder. Clearly, he's a remnant of those anti-Federalists who wanted God in the Constitution. Further, one of them attempts to trot out our old favorite dead horse, that the Revolution violated the Bible under Romans 13, a proposition that clearly bothered few of the Founders.

Now, there was definitely a move in some quarters to make the young republic more Christian, but as we see in the post office controversy [the attempt to close them on Sundays failed], that didn't fly.

Now, perhaps Willson was as important as our latter-day AJ Rushdoony, or even Pat Robertson, but a few generations from now, I believe history will consign them too to the same footnotes as Willson and the post office preachers.

As for the hagiography of succeeding eras [the 19th century made the Founders more devout; the 20th more "deist"], that tells us more about those eras then the historical truth, and are of interest on that level. Mythmaking---hagiography---and which myths they chose to believe, can tell us something about the spirit of the age.