Bob and Ray, the great deadpan comedy team that mastered the form of the comedy interview on radio, recordings and TV, once has a routine about a longshoreman without a high school diploma who had written a voluminous “History of the United States.”
“But the book is riddled with errors!” protested Bob Elliott, playing the interviewer. “For example, here on page 214, it says that Abraham Lincoln was born in 1926 in Bailey’s Mistake, Maine!”
“Well, it’s a big book with a lot of pages,” shrugged Ray Goulding, as the longshoreman-historian. “I’m sure I missed some typos. You can’t catch everything!”
I was reminded of the Bob and Ray skit when I learned that a history book used in 4th Grade in Virginia elementary schools, Our Virginia: Past and Present, teaches that thousands of African Americans fought for the South during the Civil War, a discredited claim often made by groups seeking to play down slavery’s role as a cause of the South’s rebellion. Continue reading
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