Silbey Grades Burstein and Isenberg

You may recall our recent post on Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s Salon piece on why journalists should not write history.  Borrowing from Kevin Levin’s critique of the piece, I entitled my post “This is So Incredibly Bitter.”

David Silbey of The Edge of the American West and Cornell University has also responded to Burstein and Isenberg’s essay.  In a post entitled “Seven Questions and Comments I Might Write If This Salon Article On ‘America’s Worst Historians’ Was A Student Paper And I Was Grading It,” Silbey writes:

1. Why do you assert that journalists aren’t able “to investigate in depth”? Whether they do it well or badly, isn’t that exactly what they’re trained to do?

2. You claim to be talking about journalists, but, as you note, your two lead examples (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria) are both political science Ph.Ds. Are you critiquing journalism or political science?

3. You cite Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwin. How does Hoffer’s discussion of Joseph Ellis in the same book affect your argument? How does Jon Wiener’s approach in Historians in Trouble differ from Hoffer’s?

4. In your comment “David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated,” what is the connection to SI intended to evoke?

Read the rest here.  HT: Jacksonian America

Why Do Bad History Books Win Us Over?

Writing in The Atlantic, Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens reflect on the recent History News Network poll on the least credible history books in print. (See our post on this poll here).

The authors attempt to explain why “historians” such as David Barton and Howard Zinn are so popular. Certainly politics is part of the appeal, but there is more.  I will let Beneke and Stephens explain:

In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.