Sunday, March 01, 2015

Guest Post By JMS

On the recent AP US History controversy. The author's name is John Shaw, a college history teacher from the western side of the United States.

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Since its 2014 release, there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the revised AP U.S. History "framework." At their  summer meeting in August, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution, branding the curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Similar complaints and attempts to prevent its implementation at the state level have arisen in Texas, Georgia, Colorado (that generated significant student and parent pushback in Jefferson County), North and South Carolina.

I’m guessing you have heard about the latest AP U.S. History brouhaha (Rod Dreher provides a fair overview), this time in Oklahoma. Representative Dan Fisher proposed defunding AP U.S. History because it fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” But this complaint is a misreading of the AP history “framework,” and as in Colorado, students, parents and teachers are pushing back, at least because they earned a million dollars’ worth of college credits last year via AP history classes. This has led Fisher to shelve a committee-approved defunding bill for now. Too many detractors like Fisher mischaracterize the new AP approach to history. It is not a curriculum, it does not mandate any list of groups, individuals, dates, documents or historical details, and it does not “teach” any particular political position or interpretation of U.S. history. It is each AP history teacher’s responsibility to select the relevant historical artifacts that explore the key concepts and develop historical thinking skills.

But, relevant to American Creation, Mr. Fisher is a “pastor” and member of an organization called, the Black Robe Regiment, whose website states that, “although we are not affiliated with David Barton or the Wall Builders organization, David serves as an inspiration and Wall Builders is a great resource of historical knowledge.” They claim, “the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists,” and attack the “false wall of separation of church and state” resulting from a “growing tide of special interest groups indoctrinating our youth at the exclusion of the Christian perspective.”

But the inclusion of more or alternate viewpoints does not necessarily exclude other perspectives, Christian or otherwise. Should claims about “a divinely inspired US Constitution” be accepted at face value? Any study of U.S. history that utilizes the “historical thinking” skills the AP U.S. history framework seeks to develop, will result in divergent conclusions, which strikes me as a very positive learning outcome. Mr. Fisher reminds me of some students who complain that there was no single “right” answer, but that is precisely the point. It does not mean that “everything is relative,” or that “history is just an unending argument. Historical reasoning does not lead to a simple True/False dichotomy, but prompts weighing claims and lining up arguments based on all of the available evidence (i.e., not “cherry-picking”). If conflicting interpretations result in creative tension, so much the better, or at least better than history shaped to fit an ideological agenda.

As noted by the American Historical Association, Historians and history teachers know that the honest, nonpartisan study of history will turn up episodes that are inspirational and episodes that are deeply troubling. Studying history challenges anyone’s beliefs, whatever their political commitments may be. This makes it even more important that history teachers know they are free to emphasize independent thinking, cooperative inquiry, evidence, and open discussion. The AP U.S. History Framework is a positive step in this direction for all teachers of history.”

I’m sure there is room for improvement in the new 142-page AP U.S. History “framework.” In fact they have created a U.S. History Curriculum Framework Public Comment Form. But all of the critics I’ve encountered (except Professor Joseph Kett) are guilty of exactly what AP History is trying to forestall: selective use of evidence to support pre-conceived notions and ignoring evidence that does not support their particular cause or partisan bias.

And, in case anyone wants to tar me with the broad brush of being a “liberal academic,” please note that I abhor Obama’s “Race to the Top” as much as Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.” They promote a “test and punish” agenda (of students and teachers) that is inimical to the type of education AP History strives for: to “draw out or unfold the powers of the mind.” The emphasis of history teaching should be inculcating habits of historical thinking so students become lifelong learners and engaged citizens.

Gitlin: "Why ‘The Enlightenment Project’ Is Necessary and Unending"

The whole thing is worth a careful read. A taste:
Subsequent philosophers and historians have made plain that the Enlightenment was not, and is not, a monolith. It was not even a proposition. Rather, it was a force-field of often conflicting arguments (Peter Gay), and it came in two main flavors, “moderate” and “radical” (Jonathan Israel). But what these variants of Enlightenment share is a commitment to reason—not as a cure-all or a final curriculum but as a means to know the world and, in the process, increase human well-being. This is not to say that a religious person is intrinsically unenlightened. It is to say that religious belief is not the way to ascertain, for example, the paths of the planets or the value of measles shots. It is also to say, whatever climate-change-denying cranks and perpetual-motion machine designers may think, that science does not produce graven tablets for eternal truths. It rightly revises ideas previously held firmly, even by scientists themselves. It’s not an end-point; it’s a journey.
...

... None of the attempts to build Enlightenment into the political world were without grave flaws. The American Constitution accepted the abomination of slavery, while the French abolished it on their territory, as did the Haitians, whose Constitution of 1801 fell rather far short of democracy by installing Toussaint Louverture as governor general for Life. So it goes in the Age of Enlightenment. ...
I think George Washington, who I see as a man of the moderate Enlightenment, had some of these folks in mind when he referred to "minds of peculiar structure" who didn't need conventional religion in order to behave morally. But some of those minds were really freakin' "peculiar." 
It is also true that Newton was a devout Christian who found secret messages hidden in the Bible and that the great mathematician Kurt Gödel was obsessed with the fear that he would be poisoned if he ate any food not cooked by his wife—so much so that, when she was hospitalized, he starved himself to death.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Throckmorton Quotes Benjamin Rush

in the context of criticizing WorldNetDaily here. There's some good quotations from Benjamin Rush, a Trinitarian Universalist and liberal Christian for his day. From the original piece quoting Rush:
... Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World: “Cease from your political labors-your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor , or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.” From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever shall exist in the World.
The emphasis is Throckmorton's. The WorldNetDaily piece doesn't reference Rush but does favorably quote David Barton.

On a personal note, I like Tullian Tchividjian much more than D. James Kennedy. 

Update: I just left a comment at Throckmorton's. I responded to someone who argued Benjamin Rush seemed to be misrepresenting St. Paul's sentiments. I wrote to a fellow commenter:
I think you've hinted on a problem with the difficulty in interpreting the Bible. As I read Rush, I see him as mirroring exactly St. Paul's sentiments on Romans 13. The ruler to whom he instructed believers to submit to was the pagan psychopath Nero. And there was no call for revolution in St. Paul's writings.

The irony is the Founders did revolt and clergy with a "different" understanding of Romans 13 helped them so do. Now, after the revolution is over, that the clergy continued to give the too freethinking Jefferson and Rush trouble, Rush uses St. Paul to tell them to settle down because, after all St. Paul told believers to live under the legal peace of a pagan tyrant's rule.

Timothy Gordon: "Plagiarizing Catholicism: Algernon Sidney and the Whigs"

This is another interesting piece by Timothy Gordon here. A taste:
But the next in line, Samuel Pufendorf “corrected” that. Because Pufendorf was primarily a Grotius and Hobbes scholar—not much of an innovator—the fact that he “found” a right of revolution in nature (“missed” by Grotius) must more or less be chalked up to…more Scholastic plagiarism. Or at least to a willingness to embrace the justifiable regicide posed by Thomism which his forerunner Grotius repudiated. Even the English proto-Whigs before Pufendorf’s time like Buchanan and Rutherford struggled over Biblical passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter, which admonished the Christian to pay his taxes, however high, and forebear earthly tyranny. Wouldn’t you know it: Pufendorf, a Protestant, somehow eased right past this Biblical admonition and announced a right of revolution. So much for sola scriptura, right?

At last we come to Algernon Sidney, last in time except with respect to Locke. Dr. Birzer admits that “Sidney relies upon the arguments of the greatest of neo-Thomist Jesuits—especially…Roberto Bellermino.” Yet Dr. Birzer is summarily surprised that folks draw inferences from the fact that Sidney used and then lost Catholic thinkers?! That Prot-Enlight tradition of plagiarism had begun nearly a century earlier with Grotius! And it has big implications.
There is much to both agree and disagree with in Gordon's piece. I'll say this: As a Roman Catholic, he seems to dislike the "Prot-Enlight tradition." That is, the tradition of Protestantism and Enlightenment, the tradition of the American Founding.

Yes America's Founders did, as far as I can tell, use their own "reason" to pick and choose from a variety of traditions what they found useful while ignoring the rest. They did it with religion too. As Thomas Jefferson noted:

"Were I to be a founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract honey of every sect."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Thomas B. Parker, May 15, 1819.

So they made a "synthesis." And indeed, as Bernard Bailyn once noted, the different sources from which they drew were not always consistent with one another.

Final note: The term "plagiarism" is loaded. The Founders didn't have the same standards for what today is considered a really bad thing.

TAC: "Country Before Faith"

Read this wonderful piece on Walter Berns here. A taste:
... What I did know was that Berns was everything a teacher should be: engaging, opinionated but respectful of others, and a master of the material, which he obviously loved. Indeed, sometimes I think the best possible legacy of the Straussians a century hence will be that image of what a teacher should be.

His explication of the principles of the American Founding left a lasting impression on me, and his teaching provided a perfect counterpoint to my reading of Russell Kirk—in some ways, though not all, a thinker very different from Berns. I recall even now his lectures on why the Confederacy, rather than the Union, better embodied the dark side of progressive “science”—the South being explicitly founded on so-called racial science while the North stuck to Lockean natural rights and the British political tradition—and how Tocquevillian principles explained why there would always be more female models than male ones. As a sophomore I found him terrifying, and not much less so after three courses than when I took the first one.

Among the most vexing problems Berns addressed over his long career was that of religion in the American polity. An Episcopalian of the old school, Berns thought religion important but something that, in James Madison-like fashion, must be kept under control for fear of causing “faction.” In 1963, writing in National Review on “School Prayer and Religious Warfare,” Berns chided the Supreme Court for delving into religious controversy when it did not have to do so. The court had the year before invalidated a nonsectarian prayer in New York City public schools. Berns suggested that the court need not have decided the case, as sometimes it is more judicially appropriate not to act than it is to act, especially where questions that may cause social unrest are concerned. Here, he argued, the court could have taken refuge in the legal doctrine of “standing” to deny those bringing the case the ability to press their claim.

Berns thought that New York prayer decision was wrong as a matter not of jurisprudence but of simple prudence. The Constitution, he wrote, does not provide a definitive answer to whether such prayer should be permitted. Nor does history: here Berns referred to the Fourteenth Amendment, which imposed the strictures of the First Amendment on the states—which had in turn, from the time of the Revolution, a variety of different arrangements between church and government that provided more or less public support to religious belief. Those who would try to deny “incorporation” of the First Amendment’s rights as against the states “would need to ponder the desirability in this day of the alternative: states would still be free to disenfranchise men and women” because of their religious beliefs—a result, Berns implies, that should not be countenanced.
I would have loved to have had him as a teacher. I learned a great deal from him even as I disagree with him on various policy matters. And as much as I agree with certain of his insights on the American Founding, I think he was wrong on others.

The Complicated Story of the Natural Law of the American Founding

That's what I get out of this post by Timothy Gordon. A taste:
America’s Declaration and, to a slightly lesser extent, its Constitution were structured almost exclusively upon the ideas of “Whig theory” from England in the prior century. Whig theory’s mature form, John Locke’s 1689 Second Treatise, was in turn fertilized by the coalescence of two 16th Century movements: the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation. Sometimes de dicto and other times de facto, the Reformation (from within Christendom) and the Enlightenment (from without) repudiated all the heftiest parts of Natural Law theory: nature as a forum for freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. Locke well knew that his own empiricist epistemology (and in an opposite/equal way, the Reformation epistemology) laid low these four important attributes formerly ascribed to nature.  Simply, if nature is unintelligible, it can have no discernible law.

And this acknowledgement forced Locke to bifurcate bizarrely. He wanted Natural Law’s conclusion—objective and discernable rights—but none of its premises. So he distinguished. On the one hand, what Michael P. Zuckert has called Locke’s “transcendent natural law,” was not really Natural Law at all, because like all of “Prot-Enlight” Whig theory it denied nature’s freedom, morality, intelligibility, and teleology. It cast the convincing, yet misleading, impression of a nature as simultaneously inscrutable yet still a source of rights. Accordingly, Locke affirmed it. On the other hand, “immanent natural law,” was basically the Aristotelian idea writ large (i.e. true Natural Law theory), which Locke more or less had to reject as a committed Reformer and empiricist. By way of an egregious misnomer, a “shell game” of sorts, Locke became known as history’s ultimate Natural Law theorist. That is to say, he became Natural Law’s godfather only by a heinous convolution of ideas: cherrypicking a conclusion with none of its premises.

In that way, and that way only, could he simultaneously a) plagiarize from the Scholastics of the Catholic Church in order to b) describe, in 1689, the prior year’s Glorious Revolution against Catholicism in England! Whig Theory is intellectual history’s greatest irony: imagine getting into a fight with someone because you insist this person should not carry a knife. In the ensuing struggle, you wrest the knife from him and use it on him…all to force him to acknowledge that he should not use the knife. Of course you prevail, because the knife is indeed effective. This was more or less the Whig stance on Natural Law (i.e. the “knife”) in England in 1689. And the American Founders and Framers imported all this ambivalence into their “American Whiggism” a century later. Thus, 18th Century American Natural Law was no less tortured than 17th Century English Natural Law. Both were fueled exclusively by the Prot-Enlight amalgam of Whiggism, which rebuked but secretly incorporated Scholastic political theory.

But the whole hodgepodge, I acknowledge, also represents history’s best political experiment to date, which, irrespective of its etiological cover-up, got things 90% right or better at the beginning. At the beginning. On account of the idea’s low fidelity, however, it devolved rather quickly, in under two centuries.
Anyone want to quarrel with his understanding?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fea: "Boston 1775 Debunks the 'Black Robed Regiment'"

Check out John Fea's report here. A taste:
A group of Christian nationalist evangelical ministers known as "The Black Robed Regiment" has been in the news recently. Dan Fisher, the Oklahoma state representative who wants to ban the AP U.S. History course in the state, is a self-identified member of this "regiment."  The clergy in the "Black Robed Regiment" claim that they are modeling their movement on the eighteenth-century ministers who used their pulpits to promote the American Revolution.

Bell traces the phrase "Black Robed Regiment" to a conversation between Glenn Beck and David Barton on a 2010 episode of Beck's show.  His recent post shows that many of the stories of patriotic eighteenth-century ministers used by today's "Black Robed Regiment" are based on very weak evidence.  He has also found what appears to be a comment from a Barton researcher that was inadvertently left in a footnote on Barton's page devoted to the regiment.
 And check out this post here. A taste:
Oliver proceeded to name some ministers who he thought had been particularly useful to Otis and his allies: “Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, Dr. Charles Chauncy & Dr. Samuel Cooper.”
All three of them were, by the way, theological unitarians. And Chauncy was explicitly universalist (the other two might have been as well). Chauncy was a biblical Christian-unitarian-universalist (which differs from the UUs of today, though they trace their heritage to him and his).

Friday, February 20, 2015

Islam & the Founding

The topic is current once again because of the President's recent remarks. You can check out this article from the Heritage Foundation that attempts to be critical of Islam's presence in Founding era America. However, this article by James Hutson supports the President's notion.  You can also see Warren Throckmorton discuss David Barton and Glenn Beck on this topic.

The Throckmorton-Barton piece focuses on Thomas Jefferson. My understanding of Jefferson on Islam is that although the Barbary Pirates gave him a great deal of trouble during his Presidency, as of 1809, in his letter to James Fishback, he doesn't write Islam off but makes some kind of equivalency between it and Christianity:
... [E]very religion consists of moral precepts, & of dogmas. in the first they all agree. all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness Etc. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, & happiness in society. in their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. these respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, & metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, & unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, & now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers Etc. among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; & what blood, how many human lives have the words ‘this do in remembrance of me’ cost the Christian world! ...

Aha! Harry V. Jaffa was really an esoteric East Coast Straussian

This is what Paul Gottfried writes about Jaffa.
... This thinker or myth-maker (he was both) has made good on a claim he once divulged to his boyhood friend from the Bronx, the late Francis Canavan, S.J. Jaffa told the then already eminent theologian and Edmund Burke-scholar in a moment of candor: “Frank, I’m inventing a myth and I’ll make people believe it.” I learned of this story while Father Canavan and I were attending an Edmund Burke conference about twenty years ago. The Jesuit scholar mentioned it not to disparage Jaffa, but to express admiration for someone who achieved what he said he would do when they were both much younger.
The "East Coast Straussians" (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, Irving Kristol and some others) are notable for somewhat secretly (it's not much of a secret anymore) rejecting the metaphysical truths of revelation and the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence, while believing it's proper for the public to believe in the truths of both. Though, they caution on how much the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence ought be promoted. The liberalism of the late 18th Century, as it were, too easily slips into the liberalism of today. So, therefore, the Constitution should be understood as unmoored from the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence.

The West Coast Straussians (Jaffa and his followers) believe the Declaration of Independence should be connected to the Constitution and that its natural rights doctrine doesn't slip into modern liberalism.

But here's the key: The East Coast Straussians can be somewhat upfront about their conviction that the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration is a metaphysical fiction. Jaffa defended such as though it were true. Gottfried's testimony suggests he was artfully lying. That he too understood the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration as a metaphysical fiction, but thought it needed to be defended as though it were true to keep morality from falling apart.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Throckmorton: "David Barton on Real Life with Jack Hibbs: Did the University of Virginia Have Chaplains?"

Check it out here. A taste:
While it is true that the University of Virginia eventually created a chaplain position, this was not the case from the beginning of the school. Originally, UVA did not employ chaplains. Barton doesn’t tell you that scholars are concerned with the founding of the school and no academic historian I am aware of disputes that the school eventually added chaplains.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wood: "History in Context, The American vision of Bernard Bailyn"

Gordon Wood writing for the Weekly Standard here. A taste:
In his books and articles he has transformed every aspect of the subjects he touched—from the social basis of colonial politics to early American educational history to the origins of the American Revolution to early American immigration. Few, if any, American historians in the modern era of professional history-writing have dominated their particular subject of specialization to the degree that Bernard Bailyn has dominated early American history in the past half-century.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Throckmorton: "Simon & Schuster Has No Plans to Publish David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies"

Check it out here. A taste:
... The rumor that Simon and Schuster was about to publish Barton’s book has been going around since The Jefferson Lies was pulled. Today, I can announce that Simon and Schuster has no plans to publish the book....

Kidd: "Ben Franklin’s Calvinist Father"

Thomas Kidd tells us about it here. A taste:
Ben Franklin would famously grow skeptical about his fathers’ faith, but in many ways that faith – and its emphasis on the need for public morality and charity – would continue to mark Franklin’s own endeavors as an adult.

Congrats to John Fea: Washington Post Picks up his Article

Check the details here. His article is entitled, "The echoes of Abraham Lincoln in President Obama’s Prayer Breakfast speech." Below is a taste:
This is a speech rooted in Christian teaching about love, humility and compassion. I would expect nothing less from a follower of Jesus. Obama appeals to the mystery of God and, without specifically saying it, asks us to remove the speck from our own eye before we set out to remove the log from our neighbor’s eye.