Lies the Debunkers Told Me: Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens Explain the Allure

Lies the Debunkers Told Me: How Bad History Books Win Us Over – Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens – The Atlantic.

Please, read the above article if you haven’t, yet, written by Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens in The Atlantic.  It discusses the inherent problem in history books of (at best) marginal quality becoming political fodder–as their authors intended them to be–and seem to stir and shake their supporters with rage and “pugnacious” vim and vigor.  In the article, the historians focus on two subjects: Howard Zinn (on the left) and David Barton (on the right).  There are consequences when bad history becomes the source of ideological fervor–we cannot underestimate the strength of such weaponry!  (If you feel inclined to ignore it,  the easiest  way I can think to bring you back to reality would be ask you to make a study of the militant repurposing of the academic world in Germany during the 1930s and 40s.)

The title of the article comes from the critically (politically) acclaimed Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, itself receiving front-cover praise from one of the subjects (Howard Zinn) that academic historians Beneke and Stephens discuss in the above linked-article.  While Loewen makes some valid criticisms of history education, he is similarly guilty of Zinn-like bias.  Beneke and Stephens make the point quite clearly: politically adopted debunkers are too frequently telling lies.  The two wrap up their argument by suggesting that their is a similarity in the psychological buttons authors Howard Zinn and David Barton push to those of the conspiracy theorists.

    “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, theNew 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.”

~ Beneke & Stephens

I’ve written about this before.  These ideas find their way into public school curricula mandated by states, private school curricula of different stripes, and homeschool curricula.  I think it likely explains why a recent study concluded that Americans do not mind if their political side lies to meet its ends (according to an NPR Radio News segment).  It is the fallacy of confirmation bias and no shortage of people are guilty of it–as in, quite likely everybody, though not everyone is always ruled by it.  This is why it is worth teaching history in such a way that we support honest inquiry and quality research.  We should discourage our students from cherry-picking their findings and sources to validate their own predetermined conclusions.  We should teach them to question what they read if the evidence seems lacking or inconclusive, and to follow that questioning with intelligent inquiry.

This very concern is also why historians open with introductions that are intended to be honest disclaimers about their goals and intentions.  Then these works are further subjected to other professionals, who have read widely about the subject and are familiar with the cited sources, and then provide both the public and the academy with professional reviews.  A process that I think is ideally modeled in the classroom, though (unless you are going to do a thorough study of their claims) you can leave Burton and Zinn out of it.


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