Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Knowin' my history ....

In the wake of Sarah Palin's defiant defense of her description of Paul Revere's ride, a lawyerly defense that she certainly must have needed explained to her after her sycophants dreamed it up for her, I'm trying to imagine her book report on George Washington. I picture it going something like this:

He who chopped down those cherry trees so that we could have homes and towns and, um, making sure while he's standing in that boat fathering our country that, uh, we're not going to lie about defending free enterprise and we're going to develop our country.

Makes as much sense as her comments on Revere, I'm afraid, except that the cherry tree story isn't at all factual. Doesn't matter; neither was Palin's portrayal of Paul Revere. Oh, sure, if you tear her paragraph limb from limb, you could overlay each part onto an accurate version of the event, but that's not historical knowledge. Poor students do this all the time and anyone who's taught history has seen it in exam booklets over and over: disconnected facts dropped almost randomly on the page, with no sensible connection between them, which read like a 2-year-old playing with a jigsaw puzzle. It's simply not possible for someone with any adequate understanding of the night of April 18, 1775, to have uttered that phrase.

Palin is that student who sat in the back of the class without listening, absorbing a few scraps of information without understanding any of it. She knows Revere rode a horse, she knows it was during the Revolution and that the British were the enemy, she's been told something about bells being rung in warning, and she even knows that it somehow connects to the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World," although she doesn't know how. And she hurriedly assembles these random facts and comes up with a mental image that's completely wrong: Paul Revere riding through the streets of Boston ringing bells and firing warning shots.

As the saying goes, historians never miss a chance to miss a chance to educate the public on historical knowledge. It's depressing to see some historians, however reluctantly, declare that if her isolated factoids aren't entirely bogus, than her whole story has to be considered historically accurate. It does not, any more than a NAPA store is an automobile. That's why history exams include essay questions, where you can't make the lucky guess that might win on Jeapordy! You have to show you understand what your facts mean. By letting Palin's comments pass for "historically accurate," the whole concept of historical understanding gets short-changed.

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