Gilder-Lehrman Turns Historians into Liberaloid Fanboys

And regarding American vernacular music, there’s a treasure trove of foregone conclusions, overdetermined consensus, thuddingly obvious truisms, and outright falsehoods at the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s The Music and History of Our Times, which the Institute promotes as an online resource for teaching history in a relevant manner — American history, that is, which all of GLI’s efforts ceaselessly imply is the apogee of all history.

What ever happened to teaching against the text? Or, in this case, against the album cover, against the presskit, the songbook, the fanzine, the Hall of Fame? Problems with the GLI approach to roots-and-pop Americana may may be glimpsed in this unfortunate passage from the lede to the overview:

Popular music is the soundtrack to much of our history. When Revolutionary War soldiers went off to war, they did so to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” Abolitionist songs, sung by groups like the Hutchinson Family Singers, brought the anti-slavery message to hundreds if not thousands. As Americans faced each other in battle, the army in blue took heart from the strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while soldiers in grey rallied to “Dixie.” Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals . . .

Mere banality leads — surely unintentionally but nearly inexorably — to a horrible rhetorical gaffe in the last sentence I quoted: “Nineteenth-century men courted their sweethearts to the tunes of Stephen A. Foster, while slaves in the cotton fields found solace in spirituals.” The author doesn’t mean to contrast “slaves” with “men,” but she does, and ironically it’s thanks to her effort to conjure, ever so gracefully, a kind of all-embracing consensus in musical Americana — to presume, say, that spirituals gave solace, and to quick-define slave music in the Negro Spiritual — that she goes so badly head over heels. The way of thinking, and thus of writing (and/or the way of writing and thus of thinking), leads to meaninglessness.

Leave our crazy, beautiful, scary, mean-ass, sad, hucksterish, stomping music alone, GLI (and all the tamed academics you support)!

Here’s my grimmer view of roots music, including Foster and those slaves.

Citation Not Needed: Thoughts on Footnotes

Thanks to Luis Villa for commenting on my post on Samuel Adams and the Boston crowd. Villa asks:

Question about the book – this excerpt leaves me screaming, in the wikipedia sense, “Citation Needed” – both because I want to learn more, but also because strong claims need strong evidence. (Whatever its other flaws, Graeber’s recent Debt was great that way.) Will the book be heavily footnoted?

To answer the question first: No. My forthcoming book Founding Finance (the post in question represents material deleted from that book) will not be heavily footnoted. It will feature bibliographical essays for each chapter, in which my sources will be presented, along with commentary on my interpretation of those sources and on competing and alternative interpretations.

To give an example based on this post, sources would include Hoerder (the most influential on me regarding crowd action in Boston and on Adams’s regard for hierarchical, corporate unity in New England); Maier (whose From Resistance… is a standard text on related matters, and who has written a key historiographical essay on Adams); Zobel (basically a Tory, in my view, who sees Adams as a master manipulator of easily led crowds); Young, who brought the Tea Party and the Boston crowd back to life; maybe Jensen, since I think he’s where I got the stuff on Gage, but I’d have to go back to my notes to be sure; and others. Alexander —  since he’s the only S. Adams biographer who deals directly with the issue of crowd “agency.”

These sources don’t agree with one another, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. So for learning more, I think my essays will be useful.

But for proving a claim? Not so much. No citation will provide proof of anything I’ve said. My sources’ own citations don’t prove what they’re saying. Continue reading

Stanley Bosworth, 1927-2011

One of my first teachers recently died — yet another; I wrote here about Emmett Jarrett a while back — and this one was my teacher early and late, for better and worse, as my problematic relationship with him grew more problematic. Stanley Bosworth was the founding head of Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. I was his student in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, and he was my boss from the late ’70’s to the late ’80’s, when I left the school and left teaching.

But my connections to Stanley were always,  in complex and sometimes weird ways, at least as familial as intellectual, and the familial is always fraught with contradictions, sometimes very rough ones. By way of giving these remarks context I’ll say I was at times, I think, a kind of friend to him (to the extent that he had friends), and I’ll acknowledge that I also had occasion to be his enemy.

But what I want to say about him here is not in that sense personal.

Try this: Love him or hate him (many did both; few were on the fence), Stanley Bosworth was the only persistently radical head-of-school educator of the post-War era. Continue reading

History as Contest: American Ignorance

An interesting blogger named Sam Ryan responds to my post on the futility of teaching civics by saying:

In other words, history isn’t interesting until it’s contested. Hogeland’s example is the argument that the Articles of Confederation were only really bad for the “founding fathers” and other members of the upper class, and that most of the country didn’t need a new Constitution. Which is an interesting and clever thing to consider, even if it’s wrong.

Nicely put. Although I’m not saying the country didn’t need a constitution. I feel no need to have an opinion about that. The comforting idea that big things happen because a country, for example, “needs” something, in the best judgment of the supposedly most judicious people around, and of those who follow them in the ensuing centuries, just seems to fly in the face of all experience. And the dull, rote foregone conclusion that the country did “need” a constitution, and that that’s why we have one, reveals, under examination, interests that are … interesting.

But I think Ryan gets that’s what I meant.

He did inspire me to fine-tune. What I’m really saying isn’t just that history isn’t interesting until contested. It’s that history doesn’t exist independently of contest.

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The Constitution, the Citizens, and the Futility of Teaching Civics

One of my favorite radio shows, Brian Lehrer’s on WNYC, had Eric Lane from Hofstra University on yesterday to discuss results of yet another depressing study — in this case one conducted by him on behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice — revealing widespread ignorance of the U.S. Constitution, and to lament the threat to democracy represented by people’s ignorance of the founding law that governs our lives every day.

A similar widespread cultural deficit is under discussion at the American Revolution Center (ARC), which has conducted a detailed survey revealing Americans’ abysmal ignorance of the founding period in general.

In both studies, people state that they consider knowledge of the founding and the Constitution to be of the utmost importance. They naturally therefore overrate their own competence in it, and both studies abound with examples of subjects’ almost complete incompetence. Lane’s study shows, for example, that people think the President can declare war. (Wherever can they have gotten that idea?) The preface to the ARC study notes that whereas 60 percent of people know that reality-TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin have eight kids, more than 30 per cent don’t know the century of the American Revolution. [UPDATE: So wait: 40 percent don’t know how many kids the Gosselins have, and nearly 70 percent do know the Revolution occurred in the 18th century? What’s the problem?]

Results of this kind are always presented as dire crises in American life, naturally enough, since democratic participation in republican government is generally supposed to require a citizenry informed about what has really happened and how such governments work. (“Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government,” wrote Jefferson in 1789.) So the results always come with urgent calls for immediate action, especially for more and better education. Lane frames the issue as an “absence of information, of education… it’s what they’re learning or not learning in schools.” ARC concludes that “Americans are not sufficiently informed about the fundamental democratic principles, ideas, and institutions that we have inherited from the Revolution and that sustain us as a nation.” Lane sees such ignorance as “a real challenge to the continuation of American democracy.” ARC goes so far as to say “we are failing our Founders.”

We keep hearing this. I’ve written about aspects of a related story — the ironies involved when people who make major claims on the Constitution, across the political spectrum, don’t know much about it. It’s especially significant to me that such people are found not only among the generally ignorant but among the deeply educated in other areas. People who can read “Beowulf” in the original and do advanced math don’t know anything about how their government got here and how it works. Which rarely stops them from opining.

The depth of ignorance is weird, and it does raise important questions. But reacting to these studies with calls for more and more “education” in civics and history offers a prime example of doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same bad results. Lane says “… children in the public schools … will not be tested in 4th or 8th grade for social studies under the assessment program, and there’s even consideration of giving it up or making it optional in the 11th grade — so no testing, no teaching.” ARC quotes the celebrated biographer David McCullough on the danger of not knowing about the founders: “I don’t think we can ever know enough about them.”

A heavy-breathing, slightly hysterical feeling prevails. It’s as if cultivating an appropriately informed citizenry requires constantly, ceaselessly reminding people of how important all this stuff is, beating into them what happened and how it all works, making certain that the basic facts have been lodged in the maximum number of brains and can never, ever be forgotten.

But addressing the problem of Americans’ ignorance of America that way can never work. Continue reading