Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Some Thoughts on David Barton's "The Jefferson Lies"--Part Six

This post is part of a continuing series on David Barton's recent book, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson.  For earlier posts in the series, click here.

As we close out the Introduction of The Jefferson Lies, David Barton calls our attention to the final "ism" that "undermines" our historical understanding of Thomas Jefferson.  It is "Academic Collectivism."

I must admit, that I have never heard this phrase before. I think Barton made it up.  Frankly, it sounds like he has taken the world "academic" (which he always understands negatively) and combined it with Glenn Beck's equally self-created word "collective salvation" (which Beck regularly applies to Barack Obama).  But I could be wrong.

By "Academic Collectivism," Barton means two things:

1.  Peer review, or the idea that in order for a work of history to be published it must be evaluated by other historians.  For Barton, this process is "incestuous."  But he offers no alternative for how historians might be held accountable for doing bad history.

2.  The practice of historians citing secondary sources (books on a given topic written by other historians) instead of primary sources.  Barton has been making this argument for a long time.

I do not have the time or inclination to defend peer review or the historical practice of relying upon the good work of other historians. I have discussed this a tiny bit in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction and hope to say something about it in a book on historical thinking that I am writing.

I will say that I think there is something theologically wrong with Barton's attack on these practices.  Barton does not seem to believe that he can learn anything about history from other historians.  He is implying that wisdom about the past, or any other subject for that matter, cannot come from non-Christians or people who do not share his political viewpoints.  This, it seems to me, contradicts the Judeo-Christian belief that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity, worth, and the ability to creative and produce knowledge that is useful for all people.

Should we be critical of secondary sources?  Of course we should.  (This is why peer review is helpful).  We should do our homework and make sure that the historians we cite use primary sources responsibly.  But we should also have the humility to say that another historian may know a subject better than we do because he or she has spent more time studying it.  Until we can write a book or article on a given subject ourselves, it is wise to accept a responsible interpretation of the  subject, even if it is written by someone with whom we have religious or political disagreements.

Finally, Barton continues to use Isaac Kramnick and Laurence Moore's book Godless Constitution as a straw man.  I say this because I do not think that the Godless Constitution represents the best scholarship available on the relationship between religion and the Constitution.  The Godless Constitution is problematic not for its lack of footnotes (as Barton suggests), but because it is so politically charged that it fails to consider the complexity of its subject.

Barton cannot rid himself of a culture-war mentality.  As a result, he tends to attack cultural warriors on the Left (like the authors of The Godless Constitution) and fails to engage with the more nuanced, less politically motivated scholarship on religion and the founding.

Do academics tend to pat themselves on the back and endorse each others work?  Of course they do.  And this can be a problem for scholars who want to publish their work in important journals, but advance provocative arguments that do not always conform to academic orthodoxy.  At times, this can be a real problem.  But this idea of "Academic Collectivism" is just another Barton bogeyman.  Rather than engaging the academic world of history with an open and critical mind, Barton wants his readers to fear it.

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