A Word for the Experts

I frequently use this blog to talk about the limits and problems of academic expertise, so it’s about time that I give some attention to its continuing value and strength.

The New York Times recently profiled David Barton, an amateur historian whose work and organization is increasingly influential among conservative American politicians and political groups. Predictably, scholarly historians quoted in the article line up against Barton’s interpretation of early American history. The objections they raise are completely valid, and moreover, they raise them with some care to not bracket Barton off as being unqualified to have an opinion nor do they pillory him as being wholly incorrect in his claims. That’s some admirable restraint considering that Barton is the person that Mike Huckabee believes Americans should be forced to listen to “almost at gunpoint”.

Barton’s basic point is two-fold, as I read it. First, that the Founders in their political vision largely anticipated the issues of our own time, and in their views endorsed or authenticated most or all of the major positions preferred by conservative activists today. Second, that the Founders were expressly Christian in both their worldview and in their vision of governance and intended the United States to be a specifically Christian nation.

Any scholarly historian knows that you cannot knock down either of those interpretations as being simply factually incorrect. It’s true that many of the issues that Americans grapple with today have important echoes or parallels in late 18th Century American life. It’s also true that many political leaders in the early American republic were devoutly Christian, and moreover, that there were significant connections between the religious revival known as the Great Awakening and the movement for American independence.

The important rejoinder from an expert perspective is that Barton must not selectively represent the range of political opinion in late 18th Century America, particularly among the leaders that we commonly refer to as the Founding Fathers. This is both a factual correction and more deeply, one of the fundamental commitments that a scholar (amateur, professional, academic, what have you) must at least try to live up to.

Scholarship is about inquiry. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) has a pretty fair definition of inquiry in its rubric describing inquiry and analysis as competencies that students should develop: “Inquiry is a systematic process of exploring issues, objects or works through the collection and analysis of evidence that results in informed conclusions or judgments”. Systematic and exploring are the key terms here, and I’ll add to it a term not in the AACU standard: honesty. For Barton to claim the authority that he does, derived from a process of inquiry into early American history, he has to have looked at the documentary evidence systematically, honestly, with an exploratory eye.

If he had, what would be clear is that the Founders were involved in debates which sometimes, though not invariably, track against many contemporary struggles over the scope and role of government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the nature of executive authority, the proper role of organized religion and religious sentiment, the character of educational institutions, and so on.

If you just want to draw inspiration for your contemporary arguments from the past, then the standard for inquiry is lower: when you find someone whose writing or thought strikes you as particularly sagacious, you can quote and interpret and contemplate their work to your heart’s content, keeping in mind that you’re just saying that you find that person interesting or inspirational.

If you want to argue, as Barton and his supporters do, that the Founders comprehensively endorsed the preferred views of contemporary conservatives about the size and scope of government, the rights of citizens, the role of the executive and the military, religious life, education and so on, then a much tougher standard has to come into play. An honest and systematic inquiry into the Founders on these subjects reveals that they were strongly divided on them, most obviously but not exclusively into Federalist and anti-Federalist camps. Such an inquiry would also reveal that in certain respects, the views of American leaders and thinkers in the late 18th Century were in some cases quite different from any contemporary view or faction, or were expressed in exceptionally different contexts.

The former point is especially important. Barton and people like him tend to quote from any Founder when they find a view that is amenable to their own political convictions, ignoring the differences between various late 18th Century thinkers on these points. That violates the responsibilities of a scholar, and is profoundly disrespectful to the Founders and the richness of their contributions to American political tradition. You can’t create your own selective remix of Federalist and anti-Federalist arguments and act as if that is somehow the collective vision of all the Founders. You must take a side in an old debate. Are you with the anti-Federalists or the Federalists? If so, you have to take on the baggage of most of their accompanying arguments. Neither side is consistent with the peculiar mixture of contemporary conservatism’s worship of strong executive and military power, compulsory attention to nationalist sentiment and ritual, and suspicion of government authority. If you deify all the Founders, you create a holy scripture that preserves and authenticates both contemporary conservatism AND liberalism, secularism and religiosity, urban cosmopolitanism and rural authenticity. If you want to choose your Founders, you have to choose them in a way that respects their diversity and their disagreements.

That’s about the facts of the matter and about the basic ethos of scholarly inquiry. Beyond that is a deeper philosophical question: should we ever venerate original texts as sacred or essential? Is it ever wise to shackle the present to some essential or fundamental past moment? That we can also talk about. The important thing there is to talk, not to act as if that is an obvious or settled question. On this question, facts and scholarly inquiry are not the arbiters. This is an issue that involves wisdom and prudence, beliefs about what makes for the good society. But before we even get to that debate, we have to deal with the facts of the matter and with loyalty to the fundamental obligations of scholarship. If you want to cite the Founders, know the Founders. If you know the Founders, you know they were absolutely defined by their lack of consensus on the questions that Barton and his supporters would like to claim as their own.

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2 Responses to A Word for the Experts

  1. All this stuff about inquiry is good and on target. But I have a feeling that it’s pretty much in one ear and out the other unless the mind in between is genuinely curious. I don’t know what besides curiosity would motivate someone to spend the time and sort through all the complication, ambiguity, and contradiction that real inquiry digs up, as you’ve outlined for inquiry into the Founding Fathers.

    If knowledge isn’t its own reward, why bother with all that? Better to go through the motions but skim off the material that’s useful and unchallenging. What you end up with is agenda-driven inquiry, and most people seem to be satisfied with that.

  2. Doug says:

    Don’t know how regularly you read Ta-Nehisi Coates, but he’s just taken up this topic as well.

    “I think there are a lot of people who don’t so much love history, as they love the notion of revealed truth, of conspiracy and shadows. They love The Politically Incorrect Guide To The Civil War, because it will presumably tell you all those secrets which the liberals at Princeton have been conspiring to keep from you.”

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