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Bill O’Reilly, Media Matters and the State of American History Education

bill o'reilly on history

Eduwonk threw out some pith regarding Bill O’Reilly’s comments on the state of American History education:

“There are a lot of reasons that American kids do not know enough history and civics, but predictably Bill O’Reilly has managed to seize on an issue that is not one of them…”

And what did O’Reilly say to get tag-teamed by MM and the Wonk? According to Media Matters:

During the October 24 edition of his Fox News show, Bill O’Reilly asserted: “[I]t seems to me, and the studies indicate, that most teachers — high school and college in the United States — are left-wingers. That they bring in a anti-American viewpoint to the sense that they don’t preach about the nobility of America, they teach about the deficits. Now, I think you have to teach both.” O’Reilly made his comments during the “Culture War” segment of his show, which he introduced by saying, “[W]ith many public schools teaching diversity, tolerance, and self-esteem rather than history, civics, and geography, lots of American kids know little or nothing about their country, including what they owe their country.” O’Reilly then aired a video clip showing students answering questions such as, “What do you think it means to be an American?” After airing the clip, O’Reilly stated: “We went out random. You know, just, we didn’t do any study — just pulled the kids between 13 and 17 with target audience of my book.”

O’Reilly did not indicate which studies show that most high school teachers “are left-wingers” and “bring in a anti-American viewpoint to the sense that they don’t preach about the nobility of America.” He later said, “[Y]ou don’t have to — you can’t whitewash, OK? But when the balance goes to, it’s a bad country — and there’s no question that’s going on in the university system. I don’t know about high school, but I suspect it is as well.”

I love ya, E, but I suppose even Tiger Woods misses a 2-footer occasionally.

The funny thing here is that a staffer from Media Matters took the time today to e-mail me their condemnation of O’Reilly’s stance – I read it, yawned gently and went back to writing. It’s not that the subject isn’t interesting – it’s fascinating and hugely important. The rub? I’ve read both sides of the argument literally hundreds of times each. I didn’t need one more.

[By the way, I appreciate a great deal Media Matters sending me this - thank you. Although it happened to be something I found fallacious, the more press releases and heads-ups I receive, the better. I look forward to more.]

But when I saw the one-sentence presentation of a forgone conclusion on Eduwonk, I had to leave a comment. I wanted to reproduce the comment here so I could link some of the text.

I’ll say this in advance – what’s below is not a partisan comment in any way. It’s about scholarship.

I’m going to defend Mr. O’Reilly here.

He didn’t say it clearly and he relied on anecdotal evidence, but he could have easily supported his argument. I haven’t read a study that measured the political inclinations only of high school history teachers, but there are reams of data about the professoriate’s leanings.

And here’s an interesting Zogby release about the attitudes toward professorial bias:

http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1334

We have more than a generation of public school history teachers who were weaned on Howard Zinn et alii – proponents of an individual sort of history. I was checking out an iTunes University class a few weeks ago in which the professor teaching the course [UC Berkeley, female - I've forgotten her name but that should be plenty of info. to find the course] explains very well this relatively recent shift in how we approach history.

The texts support his claim, the data leans in his favor and there’s no shortage of testimony from practitioners of history education to corroborate the both of them.

For better or worse, the everyman’s history is not the stuff of great heroes, strong leaders and a clearly-defined national identity. The ‘people’s historians’ who created this tidal wave and are now riding it are incredibly critical of how Americans should view our past and the particular guilt/pride we should feel in the present.

Compare an old US History text like Ridpath’s “History of the United States” [approx. 1905] to the recent “Out of Many: A History of the American People” – if you can say with a straight face that there isn’t a dramatic shift in how we present our country’s history to high school and college students, your will is far stronger than mine.

Again, this isn’t a partisan stance – this is the reality of a shift in the discipline. If you just can’t stomach hearing it from Bill O’Righty, hop on iTunes and listen to that Berkeley leftie prof say virtually the same thing. The only differences is that she’s not indignant about it – she’s quite comfortable with it.

MediaMatters dropped the ball on this one and Eduwonk appears to have picked up the fumble and jogged a few yards toward his own end zone. Anyone reading the MM piece should have questioned it when MM didn’t provide data to refute O’Reilly’s claims. They just portrayed him as a jerk.

I find it a bit funny that MediaMatters asks readers to “Take Action!” in the right sidebar when they themselves can’t be bothered to hit up Google for some data or even to call an academic source for comment.

The point of all this? O’Reilly’s generally saying the correct thing here. If you hate O’Reilly, fine – have at him. But don’t perpetuate an erroneous conclusion about an academic discipline because you’ve got a gripe with the messenger. It’s petty and irresponsible.

Erroneous? Maybe I should’ve used “fatuous…”

Oh, I hope someone laughed at that last line.

19 Responses to “Bill O’Reilly, Media Matters and the State of American History Education”

  1. Thanks for blowing the whistle on this silly post by a usually first-rate blog.

    I’ve had hundreds of conversations with high school teachers in the humanities over the past dozen years, and O’Reilly is pretty accurate on this one.

    The main story of modernism in public education has been that earlier purposes–teaching about God and then teaching about nation–have been replaced by teaching the doctrines of modernism. Whether that’s a good thing or not can be debated, but about whether there’s been a decided shift away from telling the national story with any sort of patriotic purpose is, well, not debatable.

  2. Matthew says:

    Michael,

    Agreed – I found it very odd that one wouldn’t see or admit a shift in how we view American history.

    Rightly or wrongly – and there are arguments on both sides – we’ve distilled many elements of history curricula down to their social/political consequences. O’Reilly chose to speculate about the effects of that change and I think his brief case is compelling.

    The most serious scholarly consequence of this shift is that we’ve got a propensity to evaluate history by our current norms – and that’s a terrible way to go about examining history. Howard Zinn, however, would disagree.

  3. Honestly, from a leftists’ perspective, I can’t get over how much whining and caterwauling there is from the right about leftist teachers, professors, whatever.

    If people want more right-wing teachers, there’s a really simple way to do it: pay them more.

    That way, you’ll get teachers who are motivated by the money passing on capitalist values rather than people who are motivated by social service talking about cooperating and sharing, about rights and diversity.

    Honestly, the right wing lot is so tiresome. If you don’t like what you’re getting, in either teachers or professors or whatever, go out and spend your money and buy some. That’s how the market works, isn’t it?

    Fergoodness sakes, I just wish the right would quit whining about how hard done by they are, how the left is discriminating against them, about how they never get a break. Sheesh. It rings so hollow after, you know, eight years of Republicans running the country into the ground…

  4. Matthew says:

    “If people want more right-wing teachers, there’s a really simple way to do it: pay them more.”

    I don’t want more right-wing teachers, nor do I care much about their political affiliations.

    I want disinterested teachers and scholars who don’t inject their personal politics into subjects like history.

    “…rather than people who are motivated by social service talking about cooperating and sharing, about rights and diversity.”

    I love diversity in the college/university setting – intellectual diversity.

    “Fergoodness sakes, I just wish the right would quit whining about how hard done by they are…”

    The point here isn’t that the right is losing a battle. The point is that there’s a dearth of intellectual diversity or, at the least, an imbalance that’s keeping us from providing the very best education possible.

  5. You say “I want disinterested teachers and scholars who don’t inject their personal politics into subjects like history… The point is that there’s a dearth of intellectual diversity or, at the least, an imbalance that’s keeping us from providing the very best education possible.”

    Same point holds… if that’s what you want, don’t complain about it, pay for it.

    You can’t force teachers into (what you call) ‘disinterested’ or ‘intellectually diverse’ (what I read as ‘right wing’ – these words you use are just euphemisms). You have to hire people who are already right wing – and since they are motivated by money, not service, it costs more.

  6. Matthew says:

    Stephen,

    Sometimes I feel like you purposely stir the pot – I know that you understand fully what “disinterest” means and how it applies to this argument. It isn’t my personal, relative definition, nor is it a euphemism bent to support my particular argument. That you might think scholarly disinterest is a tendentious concept that dresses up the right or the left is both unexpected and surprising – it’s exactly the opposite.

    I do agree with you about paying for what we want, but I would extend it beyond the scale of salaries. If we’ve got a problem with our professoriate, there’s no reason we can’t take different approaches to hiring, firing and tenure. It’s not as if professors are born into a role – someone hired them, oversees them and continues to pay them.

  7. I know what the word ‘disinterested’ means.

    But don’t forget, I come from a political tradition that includes things like Marx saying, “everything is politics.”

    So it’s is neither unusual nor surprising for someone like me to say that, when you take the politics *out* of something, you are left with (what might be called) conservatism or right wing thought.

    But another way of saying the same thing is to say that the ‘disinterested’ stance is just another political stance (think, by analogy, of the way people who are religious argue that atheism is just another religion, or that it is, at the very least, a religious stance).

    From my perspective, to take the personal interpretation and personal interest out of a discipline – whether it be history or mathematics or computer science – is to change that discipline, to present it as a sterile unreal abstract.

    The fact is, facts – even scientific and mathematical facts, much less historical facts – are based in and founded on interest. Why would we care whether 2+2=4 were we not grounded in a system of counting and measurement? Why would counting and measurement be important were we in a society ruled by abundance rather than scarcity?

    Or philosophically, to understand what numbers mean, what things like probability mean. Is probability, as F.P. Ramsay argued, a matter of subjective interpretation, based on (say) how much we would *bet* on a proposition?

    In the same way, telling students where, say, milk comes from, carries with it just as much in the way of interpretation and value.

    To take out the interpretation is to take out the left-wing. And all that remains is the right-wing. Which is why I think that ‘disinterested’ is a euphemism for very very political.

  8. Let me also address this:

    “If we’ve got a problem with our professoriate, there’s no reason we can’t take different approaches to hiring, firing and tenure. It’s not as if professors are born into a role – someone hired them, oversees them and continues to pay them.”

    What sort of ‘different approach’ are you suggesting? Some sort of political screening?

    See, the problem is, publicly funded institutions have evolved according to the determinations of elected representatives, over time, regarding how they should be run.

    And one of the fundamental determinations they have made is that professors get to choose their own political affiliations.

    Let’s say (for the sake of argument) that this has resulted in a generally left-wing skew (keep in mind that, compared to me, and from my frame of reference, they’re more right wing than left wing).

    This simply is the result of highly educated professionals electing to support one political perspective over another.

    What sort of mechanism will you use to change this?

    Well – what you *could* do is simply get the public out of the university business. Then you could go about hiring whomever you want.

    But that would cost a LOT of money – and the public (who actually pays for the system) would never support it. Yes, you can create a few elite right-wing institutions, but for the general run of educational institutions, you’re stuck with what the public wants – and what the public wants is a politically independent professoriate.

    I’m not sure there’s enough money in the world to convince left-wing professors to become right-wingers, or to get the public to support a policy of hiring for politics over merit.

    But – it seems to me – if capitalism were right, then the money would be there to hire a more diverse lot of professors, IF that’s what the people who pay for it want.

    But the right won’t pay – and simply wants to force the people who DO pay to pay for the things the RIGHT wants.

  9. Peter Rock says:

    I just want to see Pastafarianism get its rightful place in public school curricula.

  10. That way, you’ll get teachers who are motivated by the money passing on capitalist values rather than people who are motivated by social service talking about cooperating and sharing, about rights and diversity.

    This constant division into “leftists” or people with “capitalist values” is what bothers me. It’s what I mean by “lefties”–people who see all the present and all the past through that lense. What a simple little world. Looking at history and literature through that lense is the problem, by my lights.

    What I would like is that when the Puritans are taught, an honest attempt is made to teach what they thought and what their values were. When the Revolutionary period is taught, I would like an honest attempt made to teach what the people of that time understood “natural rights” to be. Et cetera. . .

    What happens very often instead is that all the past is critiqued from a neo-Marxist perspective, which seems pretty parochial, since so much of the past can’t be understood with those intellectual tools.

    Honestly, the right wing lot is so tiresome. If you don’t like what you’re getting, in either teachers or professors or whatever, go out and spend your money and buy some. That’s how the market works, isn’t it?

  11. I think the professoriate has evolved the way it has partly because it’s a closed system. Everything that matters to a professor–reputation, advancement, tenure–is granted by other professors. They mostly talk only to each other. They are naturally drawn to systems that elevate the importance of intellectuals and they are susceptible to all sorts of self-flattery.

    Soft Marxism has been quite a comfortable fit.

  12. Peter Rock says:

    “This constant division into “leftists” or people with “capitalist values” is what bothers me.”

    “What happens very often instead is that all the past is critiqued from a neo-Marxist perspective [...]”

    This constant division into “neo-Marixists” is what bothers me.

  13. Matthew says:

    Peter,

    I’m not sure what your last comment adds to the discussion. Can you elaborate?

  14. Matthew says:

    Peter,

    Sorry – earlier when I read your comment, I thought that the last sentence was quoted, too, and I wasn’t sure what the three quotes were supposed to suggest. Now that I’ve had coffee and a meal it’s a little bit clearer. :)

    Having said that, I’m still confused. If there’s a division, we’ve separated things into at least two paths… and you mentioned one. It didn’t make much sense to me, but I suspect you could elaborate.

  15. Matthew- Tell the Media Matters guys to “quit bloviating” >wink

  16. Matthew says:

    Michelle,

    Ha! If you’re not careful, people in the education community might just think you’ve seen the show!

    Love him or hate him, he’s re-introduced some solid vocabulary through the Factor.

  17. Gary says:

    I’ll tip my hat to Matthew in the history department as my focus is more on the math and science areas.

    But it does not make much of a difference in what areas a person is strong in to see and call out when there is an area for change. I agree with Matthew and Michael in the call for teaching subjects without a skew to the right or left. Let that be determined by the student.

    I too am disturbed with the concept of anything that isn’t “left” must be “conservative” or “right”. That is far too narrow of defining the world and I feel it does students of all levels harm. Allow the students to learn history from the lens of the times and circumstances. It will help them tremendously in this increasingly global society. Restricting their education to just a “left” leaning instruction sets the students up to continue on a path of not understanding the world they live in. The majority of the population on this planet do not live in nor devote themselves to the European / USA view of things.

    As for changing it, as Michael Umphrey alluded to, the solution is not as simple as we are dealing with “office politics” at a large scale with not just the professoriate but the practices at the local school levels as well.

  18. Matthew says:

    Gary,

    Agreed – it’s an incomplete and problematic way to look at history.

  19. Of course, the only ways we can look at history are “incomplete” and “problematic.”

    The way the history profession looks at history also seems, to my own incomplete and problematic way of thought, to be incomplete and problematic.

    Many historians today derive their views from materialist science and so see the whole story as without ultimate meaning–lots of forces and randomness but nothing you would want to take lessons from–except of course the lessons about racism and oppression.

    I think there’s a story that makes sense in there, though I admit I’m not awake enough and smart enough to make it out in great detail.

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