Now and then an old post suddenly get a lot of clicks. Often this will draw my attention to an essay I had forgotten: such was the case with this post from 2010. Someone on Reddit put it up for discussion, and last week the old post had hundreds of views. I was intrigued and re-read it. Good post!
I would change a few observations—in the intervening years we have learned that Woodrow Wilson was even worse than I thought—and add some, but the post was long, and a thorough evisceration of this embarrassing survey’s results would require a book.
The Siena College Research Institute persuaded over 200 presidential scholars to participate in a survey designed to rank America’s forty-three Chief Executives. There is great deal to be leaned from the resulting list that the Institute proudly released on July 1; unfortunately, very few of the lessons have anything to do with the men on it.
The list shows us that:
- A survey is only as good as its design
- Historians who call themselves “presidential scholars,” working together, could do no better in their supposed area of expertise than to arrive at a ranking that would get most 7th Graders a C in junior high school History, raising serious questions about how history is taught in our universities, but perhaps explaining why Americans choose to be so ignorant of their nation’s past.
- Historians are, as a group, biased toward liberal causes, against conservatives, and in favor of people who are like them.
- They are unable to recognize their biases, even when a list like this one makes them stunningly obvious.
Lists are mostly for fun and to start arguments. When one purports to make historical judgments, however, and the individuals doing the judging are supposed to be experts, there is still a responsibility to try to do the task fairly, competently, and responsibly. Continue reading