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.