Over the weekend, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza dipped into a familiar narrative well: “Did you know the Democrats were the party of the Klan???”
When historians said that we knew the complex history of the Klan and the major political parties, he asked why we weren’t teaching this true fact about how the Democrats were the party of the Klan. When we said we were teaching the complex history of the Klan and the major political parties right now, in classrooms across the country, he said clearly we weren’t or everyone would know this true fact about how the Democrats were the party of the Klan.
He basically challenged Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who studies the history of race and Christianity in the American South, to some kind of historical duel, and then spent the whole weekend railing against leftist, “progressive” historians.
I had a whole post written out about how D’Souza’s “method” of historical interpretation is both invalid and makes no sense (either things change over time or they don’t, and if they don’t, there’s no such thing as history!) but I don’t need to get trolled for all eternity, so instead I’ll make a few points that bear repeating.
Change happens. Context matters. Words mean different things at different times. That’s at the root of historical analysis. D’Souza tries to pretend they don’t, and that’s his whole angle – that historians are playing word games. But simply by virtue of saying one definition of a word from a particular historical moment is the right one, he’s acknowledging the change while trying to deny it any meaning. [Historians do like playing word games in our spare time, though.]
Historians don’t just teach facts, they teach interpretation and analysis of evidence. Some people don’t like that, and call it politics, or intellectual mumbo-jumbo, or political correctness. It’s not. It’s the discipline of history.
When someone says “Historians don’t teach this!” you should consider whether they’re just mad that historians don’t teach the interpretation or narrative they want. When someone says “Historians don’t teach this!” you should also consider whether that person has seen the inside of a history classroom recently.
If all it took to unsettle a popular but incorrect belief about something was a few lectures in high school and college, that would be great. That isn’t the case, though. Do most of us understand probability properly? No, and that’s without it being treated like a political football like the stuff D’Souza’s talking about. Just because someone is talking about the past doesn’t mean they’re doing history. You should consider whether maybe they’re just trying rile people up to sell a book.
If anyone has any questions if/how/why historians teach specific things, we’re happy to answer them.