The 2012 Election and Misuse of History: Why Historians Matter

In the past few weeks, I have witnessed excessive misuse of history to justify political opinions.  The presidential election seemed to bring out the historian in everyone, much to my chagrin.  Generally, I try to avoid debating people on social media (a wise suggestion for everyone), but I couldn’t stand it anymore during the election returns.  Way too often people used quotes taken completely out of context (as I’m screaming, “But context matters for understanding that properly!!!”).  On every Facebook status that made me cringe, I put in my two cents and tactfully acted as a caped crusader correcting gross historical inaccuracies and rabid attacks on the historical profession.   The lack of rational discussion I expected to a degree, but the low level of respect for historians was shocking.  I wondered, as many of us often do, how to maintain the accessibility of history to the public and yet still retain authority over our expertise?

In one post, a Facebook friend, who is not a historian and is very conservative, wrote, “The Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves.”  My response: “Well, there is an intense debate in the historical profession about the Founding Fathers’ (and Founding Mothers’) beliefs.”  All I sought to do was problematize such an assessment.  I mean, heck, the Founding Fathers didn’t believe in extending the franchise to everyone, including women, so that alone would make them “roll over in their graves.”  The result?  A third party decided to lecture me about how historians are subversives who attack the living tradition of the Constitution and have nothing of importance to say to the present….. Historians, let that sink in for a second…. I decided not to co-opt my friend’s status by having a “debate” with this anonymous person, but this individual’s comments sounded hauntingly familiar.

The GOP’s 2012 Platform in part states that it wants “renewed focus on the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers, and an accurate account of American history that celebrates the birth of this great nation.” According to the Republican Party then, historians do not “accurately” teach U.S. history. Republican Rick Santorum, for example, gave a speech about California schools not teaching American history, and, in a later interview with Glenn Beck, stated that historians distort actual fact.

Any historian will tell you that in a graduate seminar on historiography, they spend an entire semester (at least) discussing what Peter Novick called “that noble dream” ⎯ the quest for complete objectivity.  Is it entirely possible? No. We all look at the world through the lens of our ideological framework, influenced in part by the events in our lifetime.  This goes for everyone in any field.  As historians, we enter into a dialogue with the past.  We strive for objectivity and try to acknowledge and limit our biases to the utmost, but we can never fully know the past or completely step outside our views as we interpret what has happened.  The American Historical Association has a wonderful discussion of this concept here, and they present the material far more eloquently than I just did.  The point, however, is that historians know a certain amount of subjectivity enters into our readings of the past.  All of us do not agree on everything, but with training and intense (and I mean intense!) scrutiny from our peers, historians have accountability and cannot simply “create history.”  As a result, the misuse of history is not as much of a problem in the historical profession as it is in the general public, unfortunately.

The Republican Party’s platform attacked academia, in general, and history, in particular, for acting as “liberal indoctrination mills.”

      “Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution in private institutions may be, in State institutions the trustees have a responsibility to the public to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination. We call on State officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the Left.”

All of this only serves to discredit the historical profession in the public’s eyes.  It disregards the numerous conservative historians that do in fact exist, and it asserts that the GOP is somehow devoid of an ideological bias.  The celebratory American history and American exceptionalism they espouse is in itself a definite prejudice lacking the objectivity claimed necessary.  Not all of American history is something to take pride in.  Look at slavery.  There is no justification for racism and the enslavement of human beings.  But, this seems to be lost on groups arguing for an American exceptionalist framework in the classroom.

This push to “balance” the historical profession has serious ramifications.  In Louisiana, a proposed voucher system would drastically change public education and allow for ideas to be taught to students like the following: “A few slave holders were undeniably cruel. Examples of slaves beaten to death were not common, neither were they unknown. The majority of slave holders treated their slaves well.”  Historians have uncovered countless examples of the mental and physical abuses in slavery.  To argue slavery “wasn’t bad” is not only wrong but also frightening in its agenda.  Other “facts”  that could be taught to students under the Louisiana voucher system can be seen here.  In Texas, the debate over “balance” has already led to revisions in history textbooks; excerpts are here.  These Texas textbook publishers distribute materials throughout the country, which makes the problem more than a Texan issue.  Historians, such as the chairman of the National Council for History Education, tried to speak out against the changes, but to no avail.  To see U.S. history as nothing but forward progress to perfection (if not perfection itself) detracts from the lived experiences of so many.  Think of Columbus and westward “progress” with its impact on Native Americans.  To celebrate every single aspect of American history is simply not responsible history.

When politicians attack the historical profession and make changes to the teaching of history, they do not do the public any favors.  The result is not a more objective form of history.  In reality, the celebratory approach will lead to a decrease in value of critical thinking skills.  If there is any question about this possibility, see the 2012 Texas GOP Platform:

            “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Perhaps most importantly, politicians devaluing historians will likely result in less toleration for differences whether it be differences of political opinion, differences of race or ethnicity, or differences of religion.  The consequences become dire and the importance of respect for historians and their professional authority takes on new meaning.

Take a look at how states are petitioning for secession.  I sarcastically told friends, “you know because that went so well the first time,” but even worse than overlooking that fact, these documents are worded in a way that misuse history.  Celebrating the American Revolution, the authors of these petitions do not examine the context of the War for Independence (or the whole Civil War deciding the secession and federal power thing….).  History obviously matters, and so does the responsibility to use history properly.

Historians study a subject that is accessible and relevant to the general public, which is a definite positive.  Not all professions can claim that, but then again, those subjects less accessible to the public tend to have increased authority and respect.  How many times has someone commented science “goes over their head” and they leave the interpretation of medicine and science “to the professionals”?  The same generally is not said with history.  This is a problem, especially when politicians and the public misuse history.

Let me just say I’m glad the presidential election is over.  Now, we can all go back to LOL cats (just joking).

The hatred spewed by people on both ends of the political spectrum made me doubt my faith in humanity for a moment.  But, this situation offers historians and the rest of the public an opportunity to reflect on the value of the historical profession, and I think we should capitalize on that.

Ashley Baggett is a co-founder of Nursing Clio and is an assistant professor at North Dakota State University. She earned her PhD in history from Louisiana State University in 2014, and specializes in women’s history, gender studies, medical history, 19th-century United States, and southern history. She graduated with a BS in Secondary Education, Social Studies in 2003 and then taught middle and high school for five years before returning to grad school.

1 thought on “The 2012 Election and Misuse of History: Why Historians Matter

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      Most people have been proud to live in this country but how would they even have that feeling without learning about history? I think its one of the most important subjects in school–to learn about your country and why we are here. It gives you purpose!

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