David Barton: Not a Historian

Here’s an amusing interview with David Barton where he admits that he’s not a historian — but only because nobody is a historian.

Barton: I really kind of do a whole lot of all of it, but I don’t consider myself a historian because I’m not sure there is such a thing … So I really don’t call myself a historian. I probably know more about history than most folks. I’ve probably read more history books than most folks, I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousands. But I don’t consider myself a historian; I just happen to know some things about it.

I don’t think anybody can ever be an expert, per se, because in the case of history we have millions of documents at the Library of Congress, at the National Archives. If I’ve read a million of them, let’s say, that’s still only one percent of the knowledge that’s out there. How can I be an expert with one percent knowledge? I may know more than some other people in this area, but I can’t really consider myself a historian or an expert because there is too much left too learn, there is too much still to come to and in that sense I don’t look at myself as a historian.

But as Right Wing Watch points out, Barton’s official bio explicitly declares him to be an expert on history:

His exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues and he serves as a consultant to state and federal legislators, has participated in several cases at the Supreme Court, was involved in the development of the History/Social Studies standards for states such as Texas and California, and has helped produce history textbooks now used in schools across the nation.

A national news organization has described him as “America’s historian,” and Time Magazine called him “a hero to millions – including some powerful politicians. In fact, Time Magazine named him as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.

His argument for why no one can really be a historian is ridiculous. Like any other academic discipline, historians specialize. No one can be an expert in every aspect of history, they specialize in particular places and periods of time. That doesn’t mean they aren’t historians. But Barton is not a historian by any definition of the word, he is a professional con man.

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  • Dennis N

    He’s not a historian because no one really knows anything, so all world views are equal. He’s a relativist, but doesn’t see the irony of accusing others of it.

  • David Snyder

    He’s also a liar. I AM a professional historian, which means I spend most of my days reading also. I have a pretty good sense of how many books a devoted reader can get through on a regular basis. And while I am not quite as old as Barton, there’s no way he’s read “tens of thousands” of books in his career. A 60-year old person would need to read nearly a book per day since infancy to achieve that number. I can certainly skim a book in a day, but any book that’s really worth reading — and understanding — is going to take longer than that.

  • Ramel

    I’ve probably read more history books than most folks, I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousand

    I call bullshit, to have read ten thousand books he would have to haver read 3 a week since the day he was born. Literally everything this man says is a lie.

  • Ramel

    Oops, missing a couple of words. Should read: I call bullshit on this as well

  • Phillip IV

    I’ve probably read more history books than most folks

    Sadly, I’d estimate that you cross that threshold with the second history book you read, and that’s still being optimistic.

    And on top of making an utterly ridiculous argument here, Barton sidesteps the real issue – the problem with Barton stopped being about what he knows or doesn’t know a long time ago. The problem is that he lies. Plain and simply, and easily provable.

    No matter whether he actually knows history or not, as long as he lies about it to serve his political goals, the question of his expertise isn’t even relevant.

  • Chiroptera

    His argument for why no one can really be a historian is ridiculous.

    His problem, like so many others on the nut-right, is that he doesn’t understand that words already have meanings! Not understanding the language you claim to speak is no excuse to make up your own meanings for words!

  • Mr Ed

    I’m OK with the read tens of thousands claim. What people need to remember is that right wing christian credentials aren’t quite the same as those from traditional accademia. A Liberty grad who once took a summer course in biology at the local community college is a noted scientist. I’m willing to bet that not only can Barton read 8 to 12 books a day I bet he stays inside the lines on all of them.

    Read tens of thousands books isn’t the same as understanding them and tens of thousands of books aren’t all going to be good sources.

  • Sounds like you should change the title to – David Barton: Not a Historian, or a mathematician

  • DaveL

    When Barton says he’s read “literally tens of thousands” of history books, apparently we’re to assume he’s using the increasingly common new meaning for “literally” – namely “not literally at all”.

  • Rob Monkey

    Mr. Ed: “I bet he stays inside the lines on all of them.”

    Hey let’s be fair, Highlights for Children isn’t ALL coloring.

  • Budbear

    I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousand

    Maybe if you count all the Archie and Jughead comics and the Chick tracts as well.

  • umkomasia

    No one person can have the level of knowledge Barton is asking for, but that is the point of having a community of scholars. He is working outside of the actual mainstream of historians and, therefore, presents a more limited view. The consensus does count for something, and this is why I get angry with the media’s fetish for providing equal time for every issue. The consensus of legitimate scholars is more “equal” than the fringe.

  • Abby Normal

    The whole of recorded history is but a travel brochure compared to the knowledge possed by an omniscient being. Yet he doesn’t seem to have any problem acting like an expert on the mind of God.

  • Doug Little

    I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousands

    He’s not a mathematician either. It seems that large numbers are hard to grasp for a majority of believers.

  • Doug Little

    I can certainly skim a book in a day, but any book that’s really worth reading — and understanding — is going to take longer than that.

    Damn straight. Depending on the density of the information, it took me a long time to get through (months) “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes as I was reading a bit and then going on line to find out more about what I just read, if I didn’t fully understand it. It took me a Sydney to LA flight to get through Ozzie’s autobiography. Both could be considered history books.

  • dingojack

    “… I don’t look at myself as a historian.” – David Barton

    Well, you’re in luck David, historans don’t consider you an historian (for that matter, most outside the fundie-sphere don’t even consider you).

    10,000 books? Let’s see David. If you started reading history seriously when you were 18, that’s 1972. That’s 39 years ago. therefore each work was read in (39/10000) years or 34 hrs 11 mins 14.64 seconds. No wonder you don’t understand a thing about history. – Dingo

  • freemage

    I suspect that he has read 10,000 books. Of course, they were all twenty pages long, with a single line on every page with a pretty picture of a puppy or Jesus or Jesus holding a puppy. I mean, there’s hundreds of thousands of books like that, and I bet he could handle 2 or maybe even 3 a day (so long as it wasn’t too tough of a day).

  • Doug Little

    Just as a followup to my previous comment, I’m sure that even Ozzie’s drug addled version of his life experiences is still a way more accurate depiction of history than what Barton reads.

  • I’ve read thousands and literally tens of thousands.

    Including that last one by Wilt Chamberlain?

  • Aquaria

    I can certainly skim a book in a day, but any book that’s really worth reading — and understanding — is going to take longer than that.

    Some of us are really fast readers and can read a book a day, understand it and retain it. Easily. I don’t think Barton is one of them.

    What I think he considers “reading” is actually the skimming you’re talking about, and he looks for keywords that fit his agenda. “Religion” “God” “Jesus” “Church” “Bible” “Protestant” “Muslim” and etc. He certainly doesn’t read much before after or in between that doesn’t fit his pre-conceived ideas.