Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”

Vietnam

Yesterday I had the chance to be part of a small group discussion with Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch.  During the course of the conversation someone asked him if his work had been criticized by academic historians because he wrote in a narrative style and he did not have a Ph.D in history.  Branch said that many academics don’t like his books in the same way that they don’t like the work of David McCullough or Ron Chernow.  He took the criticism in stride and didn’t seem to be bothered by it.

At this point in the conversation I chimed-in and told him that I was one of those “academic historians” who happens to like (and read) narrative history.  I also told him that the criticism of narrative history writers could be best explained by jealousy.  He laughed out loud and said thank you.  My day was made and my reputation as a suck-up was firmly secured.  🙂

What about Ken Burns?

I have had more conversations about the Vietnam War in the past two weeks than I have had in my entire life.  People are talking about history.  Last time I checked, historians usually think this is a good thing.

As I have written here before, I thoroughly enjoyed Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War.” I am thus in full agreement with Jonathan Zimmerman‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Bad About Ken Burns.”

Here is a taste:

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on Burns’s recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.

That’s the only way to understand the dismissive, vituperative tone of our profession’s reaction to Burns’s series. Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

Read the entire piece here.

Donald Trump’s American History Textbooks

Trump militaryWhat did Donald Trump learn about American history during his childhood in New York?  Matt Ford, a writer at The Atlantic, decided to go back and take a look at the American history textbooks assigned in Trump’s history classes.

Here is a taste of his piece “What Trump’s Generation Learned About the Civil War.”

Until the late 1960s, history curricula in Trump’s home state of New York largely adhered to a narrow vision of American history, especially when discussing slavery, the Civil War, and its aftermath. This was true in the predominately white public schools throughout the country. The African American experience and its broader significance received little to no attention. When textbooks did cover black Americans, their portrayals were often based on racist tropes or otherwise negative stereotypes. Trump’s understanding of the Civil War may be out of step with current scholarship, but it’s one that was taught to millions of Americans for decades.

“The dominant story was that secession was a mistake, but so was Reconstruction,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor who studies the history of American education, told me. “And Reconstruction was a mistake because [the North] put ‘childlike’ and ‘bestial’ blacks in charge of the South, and the only thing that saved white womanhood was the Ku Klux Klan. When African Americans read this in their textbooks, they obviously bristled….”

Many of these textbooks still taught something akin to “The Dunning School,” an approach to the Civil War and Reconstruction that was critical of Northern efforts to bring racial equality to the immediate postwar South.

Racist material permeated other sections of the American curriculum, well beyond the field of history. Geography textbooks depicted Africa as “the dark continent” and either ignored it or portrayed it as a place of cannibalism and barbarity. “[Black] critics condemned biology textbooks, which often reflected eugenic theories of racial hierarchy,” Zimmerman wrote in a 2004 article on U.S. textbook changes after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. “Still other blacks attacked music textbooks for including songs by [prolific 19th-century songwriter] Stephen Foster, complete with Foster’s original lexicon—‘darkey,’ ‘nigger,’ and so on.”

These textbooks shouldn’t be interpreted as reflecting their readers’ views, Zimmerman cautioned me. Instead, they offer a window into what students would have learned in a previous era. “This tells us more about the culture of race as expressed in the curriculum than it does about what any given individual imbibed or not,” he explained.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Are College Students Rejecting Free Speech?

Zimmerman bookWhen Jonathan Zimmerman writes an op-ed I usually read it. As I have said multiple times at this blog, he is the master of the history-informed op-ed.

In his recent piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The University of Pennsylvania education and history professor, and the author of the soon-to-be released The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools, tackles free speech on campus in the wake of Middlebury and Claremont-McKenna.

Here is a taste:

How did two ideas that used to run in tandem – free speech and racial diversity – get pit against each other? Part of the answer lies in the remarkable growth of diversity itself. Between 1976 and 2012, the number of African American college students in the United States tripled. And women now receive 57 percent of undergraduate degrees, nearly double their proportion of 50 years ago.

Over the same span, more and more students reported mental-health problems. That reflected a new and welcome awareness of psychological illness, which lost some of its longstanding stigma.

Finally, new technologies inhibited in-person communication. More than half of community college students and a third of four-year college students agree with the statement, “I pretty much keep to myself socially.” Even phone calls are avoided in favor of texting and social media, which give people more control over any interaction – and less anxiety about its outcome.

When you put these factors together, it’s easy to see why there’s less solicitude for free speech at colleges today. Arriving on campuses made up of diverse groups, students are warned that their comments and behavior could cause psychological distress to any of them. That’s a pretty distressing prospect, in and of itself, so we shouldn’t be surprised that many students would rather retreat to Facebook than risk offending someone to their face.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Historical Perspective on Trump’s Inexperience

Trump thunbs up

“Have we seen anyone like him in the White House?”  Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, answers “no.”

Here is a taste of his recent op-ed at Newsday:

To be sure, other business figures have coveted the presidency. The most prominent one was Henry Ford, who traded on his cult-hero status as a car manufacturer. Like Trump, Ford shuttled between political parties: After failing to win a Senate seat as a Democrat in 1918, he toyed with running for president as a Republican in 1924. He also engaged in vicious xenophobia, directed not at Muslims — Trump’s favorite target — but at Jews.

Computer magnate Ross Perot won almost 20 percent of the vote in 1992. Until Trump, however, that was as close as any person from business got to the White House. Herman Cain, the godfather of Godfather’s Pizza, briefly led the GOP field in 2012. Four years later, former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina made a few waves in the Republican primaries before Trump drowned her out.

But none of these modern business candidates touted their businesses as part of their candidacies. Perot and Fiorina had cashed out from the computer industry before seeking the presidency; you didn’t see them speaking from a podium that sold their wares, as Trump did with his strategically placed advertisements for his properties.

Read the entire piece here.

 

More Trump Analogies

Who is Donald Trump most like?

Rick Shenkman of History News Network has asked a few historians at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association to weigh in:

What should we make of these historical analogies?  Here is what we have written about this approach to history and the election at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Historians on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

On the Danger of Historical Analogies

From the Archives: Our historical narcissism indicts us”

History Does Not Provide Easy Answers

Trump and the Know-Nothing Platform of 1856

The 2016 Presidential Election and Historical Comparisons

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Historians on TrumpI have long been a fan of Jonathan Zimmerman‘s  op-ed writing.  He is a model of how historians should engage the public as historians.  We have written about his work here.

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Zimmerman explains why he will NOT be signing the “Historians Against Trump” letter.  Here is a taste:

… I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

Read the rest here.

Zimmerman points to the same issues I raised as I reflected on my FB exchange with Mike Kugler.  I stand by my decision to sign the document for the reasons I expressed in my last post, but Zimmerman is correct in pointing out these flaws in the document.

Jonathan Zimmerman Calls for a "Full Reckoning" with Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive Legacy

A few years ago when I wrote what turned into a controversial piece about Barack Obama’s faith, my office voicemail was filled with angry calls from Glenn Beck supporters.  As it turns out, Beck mentioned my piece on his radio show and his website The Blaze made it front-page news.  Several of callers had some pretty nasty things to say.  They told me that I was just as bad Louis Farrakhan, Adolph Hitler, and Woodrow Wilson.  I at least understood the references to Farrakhan and Hitler. But Woodrow Wilson? At least four different negative messages (there were no positive ones) referenced the 28th President of the United States.

After a quick Google search of “Glenn Beck and Woodrow Wilson” I realized that Beck had been spending a lot of time on his radio program and in his writings attacking Wilson’s “progressive” political views.  In fact, as Jonathan Zimmerman of New York University points out in his recent piece at Politico, Beck was calling for the removal of Wilson’s name from buildings at Princeton University, the place where he served as college president from 1902-1910.

As many of you know, Beck is not the only one who wants Wilson removed from Princeton’s campus.  A few days ago I weighed in on the whole Wilson– racism issue going on at the historic New Jersey university. I joined several of my fellow American historians in sympathizing with the university’s African-American students, acknowledging Wilson’s racism, and arguing against removing his image and name from campus.

Zimmerman’s piece reminds us that despite his racism, Wilson remains an important figure in the history of American progressivism.  He is so important, that conservatives like Beck, and more recently a writer at The Federalist, thinks he should go.

Here is a taste of Zimmerman’s article:

...On balance, though, the federal government has been a force for justice and equality across the past century. That’s especially the case when it comes to African-Americans, who continue to suffer discrimination and poverty in our society. But they also vote in overwhelming percentages for the party of Big Government, the Democrats, because they understand that their circumstances would be many powers worse without federal programs and protections. Public housing, Medicare, occupational safety, mass transportation … the list goes on and on. And they’re all legacies of the Progressive doctrines espoused by Wilson, who understood that modern Americans needed the assistance of a larger, more supple national state.

That’s also why Glenn Beck despises him. So does the newly elected speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who blasted Wilson and his fellow Progressives in a 2010 interview with Beck. “I see Progressivism as the source, the intellectual source for the Big Government problems that are plaguing us today,” Ryan told Beck. Progressives, Ryan added, “create a culture of dependency on the government, not on oneself.”

And just last week, the conservative Federalist website praised Princeton students for protesting Wilson. “Asking a private school to stop honoring an authoritarian hatemonger who also happened to be one of the most destructive presidents in the history of the United States is about the sanest thing I’ve heard happening on a college campus in a long time,” wrote senior editor David Harsanyi, in a rare right-wing tribute to the recent wave of campus demonstrations.

The Princeton students ended their sit-in after the university agreed to initiate a conversation about retaining Wilson’s name on its buildings. That’s exactly as it should be. But I hope the conversation includes a full reckoning with Wilson’s legacy, including his expansion of government regulations and services. His conservative antagonists certainly remember that. It would be a pity if liberals forgot it.

Read the entire piece here.

Zimmerman: The Real Problem is Not Oklahoma, It is College History Departments

Jonathan Zimmerman, a history of education professor at New York University, believes that there is a larger problem lurking behind Oklahoma’s rejection of the Advanced Placement United States History course.  How can we expect high school history courses to teach students historical thinking skills when most of our college and university professors are not doing it.  


Here is a taste of Zimmerman’s piece at The New Republic:


In a recent survey of 23,000 undergraduates at 24 varied institutions, half of the students said they were not taking a single course requiring a total of 20 pages of writing. In a field like history, especially, it’s hard to imagine how you could acquire real disciplinary skills if you’re not writing on a regular basis.
Most of all, it’s hard to see how our A.P. history teachers will instruct those skills if our colleges don’t. A growing number of states now require future teachers to major in the subject they teach, which is exactly as it should be. But that won’t do much good if these people aren’t encountering good models of the pedagogy they’re supposed to provide when they enter the profession. 
Advanced Placement, born over a half-century ago in an effort to cultivate a narrow intellectual elite, now caters to a wide swath of American students. Thirty-three percent of public high school graduates took at least one A.P. exam in 2013, up from 18.9 percent just 10 years earlier. 
This increase in test-taking would be fineindeed, it would be fantasticif we could give these kids the tools they need to succeed in college. But we can’t do that until the colleges teach those skills, too. Contrary to what you might have heard on Fox News, the new A.P. history exam isn’t a vast left-wing conspiracy to turn our kids against America. It’s a good-faith effort to bring high school teaching in line with what our colleges are supposed to be doing, but don’t do nearly enough.

Jonathan Zimmerman on Historians and Their Publics

Jonathan Zimmerman

I just received my copy of the most recent The American Historian, a new American history magazine published by the Organization of American Historians.  There are a lot of great articles in this episode and I just might blog on a few of them in the immediate future.  But for now, I want to call your attention to Jonathan Zimmerman‘s article “Historians and Their Publics.”

Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is best known for writing op-ed pieces that connect history to current events.  (His book Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and Memory is also really good).  I greatly admire Zimmerman’s attempts to bring history to public audiences.

In his The American Historian article Zimmerman makes some great points about why it is necessary and beneficial for historians to write for the public.  He argues that this kind of writing not only informs the public, but also has the potential of making us better historians.  Here are a few of Zimmerman’s ideas:

  • Graduate students need to learn to write for the public as a means of survival.  Academic jobs in history departments are drying up.
  • Everyone who writes an M.A. or Ph.D thesis should be required to produce “a piece of work about their projects for public audiences.”  Zimmerman suggests op-ed pieces, a blog posts, TED talks, and videos.
  • Writing for the public allows historians to “distill and clarify” the “central intellectual claims” of their scholarship.
  • Every graduate student of history should get training in how to teach.  Graduate students need to connect with a growing scholarship in the history of teaching and learning.
  • History teachers must be generalists.  As a result, they should feel comfortable writing op-eds and blog posts on topics that they have never researched.  As Zimmerman puts it: “I’m always amused (and, I’ll admit, a little appalled) when I hear a historian disparage colleagues for writing op-eds or blog posts on topics they have never researched on their own….In our classrooms, after all, we routinely teach about many matters far beyond our academic specialties.  Why should writing be any different.”
  • Founders of the historical profession such as Carl Becker and Charles and Mary Beard took it for granted that historians should be public intellectuals.
Great stuff.