How to Use Bad Situations to Teach Good Lessons – David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies in Foundations of History

Cover of Getting Jefferson Right, used by permission
Cover of Getting Jefferson Right, used by permission

Most of my professor colleagues use negative events in the news to teach various lessons. For instance, I have used Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism to teach my students about plagiarism. I feel sure many profs have used Monica Crowley’s plagiarism to teach about that subject. I also refer to David Barton’s faux doctorate to help my students understand how to simulate expertise.

With this post, I hope to start a series of occasional articles which illustrate how one may turn a negative situation into a good lesson. The first contributor is Robert Clemm, Associate Professor of History at Grove City College. The event Rob uses to teach good lessons is the removal from publication of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies. Below, Rob answers my questions about how he uses The Jefferson Lies to teach good history lessons.

WT: In what course is the activity used?

RC: I incorporate David Barton, and The Jefferson Lies debate, into my Foundations of History course. This is a course that is designed for non-majors at an introductory level but is, in reality, more of a “low-level historiography” course as I’ve never been able to conceive of any other way of teaching it. I broadly divide the class into thirds. The first third is an exploration of how historians view themselves and their discipline utilizing John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History. The second “third” is the historiography and methodology section in which they read through John H. Arnold’s History: A Very Short Introduction, as well as major figures (Herodotus, Thucydides, Bede) in the development of history. The last third is a “where history is going” section in which we discuss newer (post-1950) approaches towards history such as Gender, Oral, Material Culture, and Digital History.

Barton is integrated into the course at the tail end of my second “third” of the course. After the students have gone through the historiography section, to the point at which Leopold von Ranke seems to establish the “model” for how historians works, Arnold’s book continues by assessing some of the difficulties historians face in interpreting and writing about the past. After they have finished with his book I wanted to try to give them a few opportunities to wrestle with the difficulties of history and apply some of what they had learned. This is also a bit of a skill-based approach as their final paper is an assessment of the work of a historian and I try to give them a few weeks to practice that sort of assessment in a class context. During the shorter week we always have due to break, I have them read and assess a chapter from [Larry Schweikart’s] A Patriot’s History of the United States and [Howard Zinn’s] A People’s History of the United States. Coming back to back, students are really able to see the contrast between two ‘textbooks’ that might as well be describing two different planets for as much as their books have in common. I’ve found that to be a very eye-opening exercise to many students given that they tend to associate any textbook they are given as being near holy writ in terms of truthfulness. I also find that this exercise, which underscores the power of interpretation by historians of the past, paves the way for them to be more receptive to an analysis of David Barton.

WT: Describe the activity.

RC: After the short week, I then spend a whole week (M-W-F classes) on David Barton in the following manner. On Monday I introduce David Barton and pitch him to about as high as I possibly can. In his commitment to primary sources, I describe him as a modern-day antiquarian and in his desire to challenge conventional/received wisdom, I liken him to Thucydides. I may lay it on a bit thick, but generally I’m trying to present him in the best of all possible lights for my students. I’m helped that most of my “lecture” consists of two long interviews David Barton had with Glenn Beck. Not only does this allow Barton to be presented “in his own words,” literally in this case, he also presents most of his main arguments in The Jefferson Lies. To be honest, I intend this day to be a bit of a “set-up” for my students. I’ve had several students, at the end of the week, relate they had been excited about his work and told friends about what they were learning which is precisely my goal for that day.

On Wednesday, I have invited Michael Coulter, your co-author [Getting Jefferson Right], to come speak to my class. He has graciously done this going on 5 years now, and I do appreciate his willingness to do so. Given that on Monday I praised Barton to the heavens I think it is helpful to hear from someone else in providing a contrary voice. In this class I introduce Dr. Coulter and let him speak about his experience with The Jefferson Lies and writing Getting Jefferson Right. He tends to open by describing where he was when he heard Barton’s book had been pulled by Thomas Nelson – I believe he was helping someone paint a room? – and then backtracks through the book itself. In doing so he tends to hit on problems/critiques of points Barton had raised with Beck, but also highlights other issues such as his obfuscation of the slave laws of Virginia through ellipses. As he is lecturing, I tend to just sit back and ‘enjoy’ watching my students suffer a small version of intellectual whiplash.

I also appreciate that he highlights for the students that this is not a mere academic squabble but one Barton has largely brought on himself by claiming to be the Christian historian against which we should all be measured. As Dr. Coulter has said numerous times in my class, by claiming that mantle he is calling into question the work of hundreds of historians, Christian and otherwise, and almost suggesting he is some neo-Gnostic with the keys to the truth of history. In constructing this week, therefore, I spend Monday “teeing up” the class for Michael and on Wednesday he knocks them straight towards confusion. After Wednesday’s class I send them a few links regarding the debate over pulling the books, some from his defenders and some from detractors.

On Friday we discuss not so much The Jefferson Lies itself but the debate surrounding it and whether or not Barton and his defenders had responded as befits being a part of the historical discipline. Given that one defender titled his work “Attacks on David Barton Same as Tactics of Saul Alinsky” and World Net Daily sums up the controversy as “The Anatomy of an American Book Banning” students generally agree that Barton failed to live up to proper historical standards.

WT: What lessons/objectives do you hope to teach with the activity?

RC: I use this week to try and accomplish a diverse number of objectives.

First, I hope that it helps students truly understand that history is a process and a debate. While they may have read that in Arnold’s work, and seen it on display in terms of the contrast between A Patriot’s and A People’s History, I think it is this week that really helps students understand why historians can get animated about a historical debate. Given that so nearly all the students are non-majors, I assume most of them come in with the sense that to choose to be a historian one must be a bit addled. Frankly don’t we know everything that happened? As one colleague commonly greets me in jest, “So, what’s new in history?” I think in discussing the debate over The Jefferson Lies they start to see why historians are passionate about their subject and discipline. In David Barton, so many of us see a charlatan who is not simply misappropriating the past for his own purposes, but also is misusing our entire field as a way of building a following. As they grapple with the implications of the debate I think they become invested as well and get a sense of why historians care so much about their subject as much as David Barton.

Second, I want them to recognize how a historical argument should go which is, frankly, the opposite of what has occurred with Barton and his book. I actually never make a categorical judgment on Barton’s book, telling my students that if they want to have an informed opinion they should read David Barton’s book and yours and then come to their own conclusion in light of the knowledge gained in the course. What I find much more valuable is helping them see why the debate over Barton’s book has “gone off the rails” and doesn’t fit with how historians should engage with one another. Engaging in ad hominem attacks, such as suggesting that you (Dr. Throckmorton) can’t have a valid critique because you aren’t a historian, has no place in how historians should undertake a common search for greater truth. I also highlight, since the debate over the book has become so politicized, that I never once complemented a student in that course for having the “proper Conservative answer” or the “proper Democratic question.” Barton complains endlessly about how he has been attacked by people who had been on “our team” [see the video below] and I instead point out that the only ‘team’ in history is the one trying to discover the truth.

Lastly, I want my students to recognize how historians have a true duty to the general public to present their best work by the standards of the discipline. In many ways this is the week that answers an implicit question as to why Arnold and Gaddis wrote so stridently about historians being humble in their search for the truth and to be constantly “tethered to and disciplined by the sources.” If previously they had thought all of that concern was academics trying to justify their existence, I think it comes home a bit more for them this week. It perhaps comes out most strongly if some students speak up for Barton’s defense and say that the book should have been left on the shelves in the “free market of ideas” so as to let the people decide. While the “marketplace of ideas” sounds good, I tend to press why it is insufficient. It’s a testament to the quality of our students that I don’t tend to have to spell out the answer. Invariably another student highlights how readers place their implicit trust in a historian that they have practiced good scholarship and will never go and check the veracity of someone’s footnotes. Students grasp that historians have to do the careful and dutiful work when in the archives and writing because what we present is trusted by those that read it. We have, in some regard, a trust with the general public that we need to uphold. When we fail to do that, as Barton has with The Jefferson Lies, we violate an implicit contract and cannot move the goalposts in suggesting the public should read it and make up their own minds. While it sounds wonderfully democratic, students realize it’s a sweet-sounding justification for passing off faulty scholarship.

WT: How is the activity received in class?

RC: I think overall it is the best week of the course. Our discussion on Friday tends to be one of the most animated of the course as students have, over the previous two classes, been primed to want to express their own opinion about the book and the controversy.

Beyond content I think it resonates because it comes at a point at the course when they realize they can critique historians and their works at a deeper level than they would have thought at the beginning of the semester. By that point they are aware of the nature of the historical discipline, how it developed, and some of the difficult balances historians have to strike between the reality of the past and representing it in their own work. After a week seeing the differences in American history, with A People’s History and A Patriot’s History, this gives them an opportunity to truly wrestle with questions of responsibility and interpretation. Given that I start the course by asking them why I even have a job when Wikipedia exists, I think it “clicks” for them that history is as much a matter of interpretation as a compendium of facts.

WT: Any other comments or reflections on using bad history to teach good history?

RC: At this point I will continue to use David Barton as I think his work, and the debate surrounding it, truly gets at a number of points I don’t think I could express as easily with any other topic. I also don’t think anyone should feel concerned about students picking up bad habits since Barton and his defenders are so over the top – one student during a discussion asked “Does he know he’s arguing like a 5th grader?” – that it really grates on them regardless of their opinion of the content of his book.

My biggest surprise so far – and perhaps this speaks to your question – is that I’ve never had a defender/acolyte of Barton prepared to go 10 rounds defending him. Now, this could be for any number of reasons; self-selection by students, fear of ‘fighting’ the professor, or simply a desire not to speak in class. At the same time my hope is that students, when confronted with the facts of the Barton controversy, recognize the problems he poses and tend to agree with the critiques. For those concerned that simply presenting bad history might ‘corrupt’ their students, I think that this exercise proves that fear is unfounded. Even with a student body that might be more receptive than the norm to the conclusions of Barton’s work, if not his methods, they seem more than able to separate that from the justified historical critiques of his work.

This is the video that Dr. Clemm shows where Barton attacks me on issues other than history.

Many thanks to Dr. Clemm for sharing this activity.

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