The war on critical thought – why historians matter in our society

One of my favourite professors always used to say, “A degree in history doesn’t disqualify you from anything.” While true, this begs the question, what exactly does history qualify you for?

I’ve always struggled with justifying, to myself and often to others, my decision to study history. I’m sure nearly everyone in the humanities has had this conversation at some point in his or her life:

“What are you studying?”

“History.”

“Huh, what are you going to do with that?”

“….”

Many people in the humanities, myself included, feel a degree of envy from time to time when they see people working on more vocational degrees. People studying accounting become accountants. People studying medicine become doctors. People studying teaching becomes teachers. I don’t want to trivialize the amount of work and struggle it takes to complete these degrees and find these jobs, but I often feel that other degrees have better defined career trajectories. No person studying veterinary medicine ever had someone ask what they were going to do with their degree.

What do people studying history become? Historians? Professors? Unemployed?

In my darkest hours, it’s easy to feel that history (and the humanities in general) is somewhat frivolous, something that’s interesting but not necessarily vital to the functioning of society. Stop me if this conversation sounds familiar:

“So what’s your research about?”

“Oh, I’m working on (jargon). It has the potential to cure cancer. How about yours?”

“Me? I’m looking at what the size of twelfth-century books tells us about how the readers used them.”

“….”

The necessity of the historian’s role in today’s society is not always apparent. Because of this it’s easy to feel that that the world could go on without historians.

After reading a number of different news stories this week I’m more convinced than ever that historians are vital to the functioning of society. Historians serve a vital role because there are people out there who are actively manipulating history to serve their own political, financial, and social goals. In an age where both information and misinformation travel like wildfire, historians and all those in the humanities, serve society by advocating and educating critical thought and discourse.

In a recent speech, Barack Obama discussed the role of the American government in contributing to the success of individuals, arguing that even ‘self-made’ business owners own some of their success to the hard work of the American government and American people. As an example of this principle he cites the creation of the internet, stating, “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.”

This is a fair assessment of history. American tax dollars contributed to the creation of the internet through military-funded research that led to the creation of APRAnet, the first large-scale packet-switched network. This network was an integral first step in building the internet as we know it today.

In an editorial on the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz wrote his own version of history, saying that “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet.” He concludes his piece with the following statement:

“It’s important to understand the history of the Internet because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It’s also important to recognize that building great technology businesses requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do—not the government—deserve the credit for making it happen” (emphasis added).

Despite noting the importance of understanding the history of the internet, Crovtiz himself seems to completely misunderstand it. As Timothy B. Lee (no relation to Tim Berners-Lee) observes in his article on Ars Technica, Crovitz displays very little understanding of the internet’s history, confusing ethernet, internet, and the web in his article and even misunderstanding how to reference block-quotes.

It’s clear from reading Crovitz’s article that it’s not a case of simple misunderstanding, he is intentionally manipulating the past to serve his present agenda of discrediting Barack Obama and undermining the idea of government sponsorship. It’s not at all difficult to research the history of the internet, it’s an event which happend (largely) within our life-times and is corroborated with ample written records and living witnesses. Unlike many historical topics, there is very little scholarly debate surrounding its creation. Even the bastion of conservative propaganda Conservapedia recognizes the role government funding played in the creation of the internet.

Crovitz’s article is part of a larger attack on critical thought. I realize that I’m starting to sound somewhat like a conspiracy nut, claiming that forces are conspiring to attack critical thinking by using history to manipulate the populous. Thankfully though, the Republican Party of Texas have recently announced that the war on critical thought is all too real. The Texas GOP wrote the following into their 2012 platform in the section on education:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

As far as the party is concerned critical thinking skills challenge ‘fixed beliefs’ and undermine parental authority. In other words, critical thinking skills allow students to think for themselves. Free thought? One shudders at the very thought of this unimagined horror.

Instead of Higher Order Thinking Skills, the party would rather that schools “support a return to the traditional basics of reading, writing, arithmetic, and citizenship with sufficient discipline to ensure learning and quality educational assessment.” 

But what about history? It seems to be left out from the GOP’s list of ‘traditional basics.’ Worry not, the GOP is pro-history. Well, at least pro ‘American’ history. The party outlines its stance on history in the following paragraph:

“Traditional Principles in Education – We support school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded and which form the basis of America’s legal, political and economic systems. We support curricula that are heavily weighted on original founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Founders’ writings.”

History is encouraged as long as it fits the GOP’s approved version of American history. Since students won’t possess the critical faculties to question whether America was actually founded on Judeo-Christian principles, or question why in an increasingly globalized and multi-cultural world an exclusive focus on American history is appropriate, the GOP’s history class would be less about education as it would be indoctrination.

Like the article by Crovitz, the GOP sees history as a political tool. By stripping students of critical thought and expounding a singular historical narrative that revolves around Christ and the Constitution, history class is akin to brainwashing.

Sadly Texas isn’t the only state attempting to use history to brainwash a new generation of voters. A 2011 performance review of public schools in Louisiana gave 44% of the school in the state a failing grade. In an attempt to improve education in the state, Louisiana has implemented a voucher program for low and middle income families, helping more students attend private schools. This policy sounds great in theory, but in practice many of these private schools are little more than indoctrination camps for far-right religious ideals.

As Zack Kopplin notes in his article on Change.org, many of these private schools teach utter nonsense in the guise of fact, including things like the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, that God used the Trail of Tears to bring First Nations communities to Christ, and that the severity of the Great Depression was exaggerated by liberals.

One school participating in the voucher program, called Claiborne Christian School, states in its handbook that students are taught “to  discern and refute lies commonly found in [secular] textbooks, college classrooms, and in the media.” This isn’t the kind of critical thinking that students should be learning in schools.

So let’s bring this back around to the role historians play in society. The internet gives everyone an unprecedented ability to share information, but the ability cuts both ways. Misinformation can be spread just as easily as information. Historians, and all those who believe in the betterment of society, have the ability to think critically and question how and why information is being used.

Historians who have gone into teaching play the critical role of educator, teaching future generations how to question and to think critically. Historians working in other fields also play important roles by taking active roles in their communities and by being politically active.

The study of history equips individuals with the tools they need to make their own decisions and not to follow along blindly to whichever group that speaks the loudest. The cornerstone of any democratic nation is an informed populous and historians play an essential role in informing and engaging this populous.

History is a great thing. It can be used to engage, to education, to entertain, or a host of other positive things. It’s a shame that groups are using history as a weapon in this war on critical thought. Historians have a responsibility to make sure that history is used for the betterment of society and not to its detriment.

It’s often said that history is written by the victors, let’s make sure that we don’t lose the war on critical thought. I’d hate to see how the other side would write our history.

 

- Ryan Hunt (@Ryan__Hunt)

One thought on “The war on critical thought – why historians matter in our society

  1. Pingback: American Mythologies: Grant Wood at the RNC | California Literary Review

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