Real history

David Barton is the Religious Right’s premier pseudo-historian. His claims that the Founders were evangelical Christians and that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation are often touted as academic proof. As a result, I’m thrilled to see psychology professor Warren Throckmorton debunking several of Barton’s claims. In case anyone was still confused, this is what real history looks like. Using original documents doesn’t automatically make something history. Using context, understanding what’s not on the page, and even just being honest about the difference between preprinted words in a fill-in-the-blanks legal document and what was actually written by Thomas Jefferson, that’s real history.

Edited to add: Yet another example has emerged of Barton using a fake quote attributed to John Quincy Adams. There is no excuse for Barton not having checked his sources on this. Using an encyclopedia of quotations without further back-checking is an undergrad mistake, and it belies his supposed interest in primary sources and original documents. He’s not a historian, and he’s not even a particularly good propagandist. Don’t shame my profession by associating him with it, please.

On a similar note, Slacktivist explains why Oklahoma residents who proudly claim the title of “Sooners” can’t criticize illegal immigrants. Or, to put it more simply:

What do we teach? Where’s the proof?

In a recent tutoring session, I told my student the following riddle:

A father is driving his son to a baseball game when they are involved in a car accident. The man is killed instantly; the boy is badly injured and taken to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. While reviewing the case before surgery, the surgeon suddenly cries, “I can’t operate on him! That’s my son!” Who is the surgeon?

I used this simple riddle as an example of unexamined assumptions. One of the great contributions that math makes to a liberal arts education is teaching people how to examine assumptions and construct sound logical arguments. Learning how to write proofs can be frustrating at first, because it means learning to break down every hidden assumption, even the ones that seem pretty basic.

We use the commutative and associative properties of addition and multiplication every day; learning that they have names, and that they’re not necessarily a given in some systems, is so counter-intuitive that it’s hard to absorb. They don’t seem like things that need to be stated or counted among our assumptions. It’s hard to imagine that in some systems a times b doesn’t give you the same answer as b times a. It gets easier after you’ve seen a few examples; not necessarily simple, but easier.

Learning to find the hidden assumptions and then imagine alternatives in math prepares people to do the same thing in the world of human interactions. In human interactions, when cherished assumptions are challenged, and alternatives imagined, the assumptions often get defended as “facts of nature,” or “God’s law,” or “just the way it is.” But once people learn that hidden assumptions aren’t necessarily true, and once they see a few counterexamples, those arguments sound weaker and weaker.

That’s why a proposal to ban teachers from talking about homosexuality will ultimately backfire. The legislator sponsoring the bill claims that he’s trying to give teachers more time to teach core subjects, like math. People trying to defend their unexamined and unsupportable assumptions about human relationships would be better off trying to stop teachers from teaching math, because math is what teaches people to examine their assumptions, imagine alternatives, and recognize counterexamples.

This is why teaching keeps my hope alive, especially when my student was able to come up with three different possible answers to the riddle. It makes me hopeful that it will get easier to imagine that a boy has two fathers or that women, even mothers, can be surgeons.