Rachel Maddow on Why Historical Thinking Matters

Watch this video:

Granted, Maddow is not talking specifically about historical thinking here, but almost everything she says can be analyzed using skills that we learn from studying history.

Some comments:

  • The person in this video is Rachel Maddow.  Her politics lean left.  We should keep this in mind as we interpret the video. This is what historians refer to as “sourcing.” Maddow is a political commentator and is motivated here by her anti-Trump views. This should not taint the validity of her argument or her work as an interpreter of this intelligence report, but it is something we should be aware of even if we conclude in the end that it has no effect on whether the case she is making in the video is right.
  • Having said that, let’s turn to the content.  Maddow compares Trump’s statement about the report with the report itself.  In other words, Maddow is turning to the primary source. She is not allowing Trump’s statement (which is a secondary source in this case) to be the final word on what the primary source says. Nice work.  This is something akin to what history educator Sam Wineburg calls “opening up the textbook.”
  • Maddow notes a contradiction between the primary source and the secondary source. She thus evaluates the accuracy of the secondary source (Trump’s statement) based on what the primary source says.
  • If she is handling these sources fairly, and looking at them with a sensitivity to context (which is hard to do in a TV segment like this), then we can conclude one of two things.  1). Trump needs to improve his historical thinking skills because he is unable to interpret what is in the intelligence report. We know this because he is unable to write an accurate statement summarizing what the report says.  2). Trump has blatantly lied to the American people.  He, in his statement, is not telling the truth about what is in the intelligence report.
  • Whether Trump is a bad interpreter, or whether he is flat out lying, he should make historians cringe.  Historians tell stories about the past, but they also teach students how to take primary sources and interpret them accurately.  This is a skill that a K-16 student should get in any history class.  It is why we teach history in schools. Historians also do their best, through an analysis of primary documents, to tell the truth about the past.  Trump fails on both accounts.

11 thoughts on “Rachel Maddow on Why Historical Thinking Matters

  1. I loved that segment & you make a great point about it! It’s also a great example of legal analysis – comparing the testimony to what the document says (or doesn’t), which is the heart & soul of any good deposition or cross examination. Looking at the documents or other underlying evidence is so much better than the transcription-style he-said/she-said-style reporting we see way too often.

    You may know this already (apologies), but she’s a Rhodes Scholar, completing her PhD in political science at Oxford. http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=32080

    I don’t always agree with her, even though I’m mostly a lefty too, but I think her academic background has given her a well-honed, follow-the-evidence approach.

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  2. As is usually the case, my objection to this polemic is formal, not substantive:

    Not sure hiding the actual argument behind a link or video is cricket, esp this one. Maddow spends the first 2:45 calling Trump a liar before even beginning to present her case, which after all that puffery, is IMO quite weak tea–Trump said the Russkies had no effect on the election, but the report says it makes no assessment on that issue. True enough. This hardly justifies calling him a liar 4 or 5 times, a rude and beastily uncivil word, but one that unfortunately is now common currency. Although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it’s hardly a “lie” for Trump to assert that the Russkies, via WikiLeaks, didn’t swing the election.

    So although Maddow presents this formally as a primary source against Trump, what we’re really dealing with is secondary source Maddow’s characterization of the high importance of the issue [according to her opinion high, in mine nil] and her definition of a “lie.” I say he simply changed the subject with the point he wanted to make, a technique that’s the lingua franca of politics. Upon further [and painful] review, Maddow’s charge of a lie is itself a lie–the Trump statement does not invoke the authority of the intelligence community or pervert the original message, it simply overrides it.

    “While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.

    Verdict: FAIL

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  3. If Trump was referencing the document itself, then he was lying. But–it appears to me–he is simply offering an assessment on what is not there. He does not say that the document proves this or that. He simply says there is no evidence that the election was in fact impacted one way or the other. That is actually correct (as far as anyone knows). Granted, this may be an argument from silence or simple wishful thinking, but it does not follow that he was ergo blatantly lying. For Maddow to jump to such a conclusion of “liar, liar, pants on fire” is not good historical thinking, but emotive vitriol. Interesting that she is now so taken up in combating liars. Where was this ethic during Hillary’s escapades?

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    • Sam: The post was about historical thinking skills and how to read and analyze documents. The fact that you end your post with “what about Hillary?” seems to suggest that you are more interested in the politics of it all.

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      • Thanks John. I guess I did veer a bit from the original intent of the valid and good point you are making about correct use of documents, etc. I am sure there is some political motivation in that last sentence. Having said that, the original post itself seems to intermingle politics and historical method quite directly. That is fine with me. But a response to a piece of this nature (Maddow on Trump!) that has no political overtone seems almost impossible–at least for me–and that may be my own fault. I actually like you taking examples like this to make a methodological point. Very helpful and thought provoking. My point is that historical use of sources and evaluation requires some level of consistency–both in what we choose and do not choose to evaluate. Thanks again.

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    • The sentence Maddox quoted was in a short press release issued at the conclusion of the briefing, specifically about the briefing. He wasn’t changing the subject or offering his opinion on something else.

      And, just to prove Maddow understood precisely what he was saying, Trump made it explicit early this morning in a tweet: “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results.”

      That’s verifiably false since the report says explicitly that “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”

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      • But there is no evidence. Enough with this nitpicking, now of tweets, which are by their 140-character limitation are incapable of the precision required to hold up under these manifestly hostile–not charitable–readings.

        [Per Mr. Smith above, it is disingenuous to deny a partisan motivation in these polemics.]

        The LA Times’ top headline today is

        Does Trump Owe Victory to Russia?

        …then answering it own question, that we don’t know. Let’s not pretend this is all innocent and nonpartisan.

        And FTR, Dr. Maddow just got away with her own whopper. No hell to pay for this intellectually dishonest, failed gotcha. She’ll just tee up the next one, lather, rinse, repeat. No accountability.

        Quis custodiet ipso custodes?

        Sad.

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      • Tom – Enough with misstating the statement Maddox was calling a lie. Trump didn’t merely conclude the election result was affected. He represented that *the report/briefing concluded* the election wasn’t affected. Since the report explicitly said it wasn’t making any such conclusion, Trump’s statement is a lie. Debating about whether there was evidence from which a conclusion could be drawn is irrelevant since, contrary to Trump, the report expressly avoided drawing any conclusion at all.

        Part of historical, or legal, thinking is to honestly report the thesis being debated.

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  4. He represented that *the report/briefing concluded* the election wasn’t affected.

    “Represented” is a term of art, subjective. I disagree with your characterization. Further, Maddow’s explicit case fails, for reasons given by me and Mr. Smith above.

    And she’ll get away with it, because there is nobody to hold her accountable. We do not judge facts, we judge characterizations: How many looked at this very essay, did not sit through Maddow’s attack and evaluate its validity for themselves, and still went away with the conclusion that Trump “lied?”

    This is the current epistemological crisis, not whether a politician BSed or not. I say the lesson here is to never give Dr. Maddow’s critical thinking skills–if not her honesty–the benefit of the doubt ever again just because she holds a graduate degree.

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  5. John, does historical thinking include teaching students not to be shocked that people of authority (politicians and even journalists) intentionally misinterpret sources? Seems to me in my study of the past that this happens all the time.

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