Source Critique

by Tina Holmboe 23rd of May 2010 (archive)

Sources are funny things.

The kids in my class all, fondly, remember the English teacher at college who kept insisting that Admiral Nelson got shot at Waterloo. I, a little less fondly, remember my drop in grades after the ill–considered «Uh, Miss, wasn’t he shot at Trafalgar?».

Getting things right is difficult. We all know that — right? What prompted this was an article in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten (The Evening Post, if you will), regarding the even more ill–considered meddling with history just completed over in the Lone Star State.

In short, the article claims that the State Board of Education (SBOE) in Texas has changed history for all students in Texas (in Norwegian. Surprised?).

This isn’t news for those of us following, well, news from around the world. It is, perhaps, not news either that the article is, shall we say, not entirely accurate — a common problem when you are some eight thousand physical kilometres and at least that many more culturally away from the actual decision–making.

But yes. They did publish a story which was not entirely accurate. No excuses. Then, however, the following little gem pops up and gets tweeted: lies and bullshit from Aftenposten (again, Norwegian.)

The author, another college teacher, rants against the inaccuracy of the newspaper article. Quite correctly, one might add, except for a few, tiny, details. Firstly, he accuses Aftenposten of «not consulting original documents» when committing «character assassination on the school system of an entire state». Granted, they haven’t read the somewhat densely packed original documents, but … the character assassination is a point of debate indeed when one do read the documents, and furthermore when one read the transcripts of the original debate. Which the author of the blog seems to have missed.

What has happened at the SBOE, according to those involved, is that one group of elected members have worked to, as they call it, «add balance». According to one Don McLeroy, leader of the conservative faction: «History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left».

Another member, David Bradley, said that «I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state». and went on to challenge anyone to find anything on the topic in the constitution. Personally I’d like to think that «Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion» makes it rather difficult for the state and church to be anything but separated but that may just be me.

Yet a third member, Terri Leo, wanted the word «capitalism» replaced by «free–enterprise system» because, quote, «Let’s face it, capitalism has a negative connotation».

In sociology, Barbara Cargill won an amendment requiring the teaching of «importance of personal responsibility» in a section on, among other things, dating violence. She went on to say that «The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything». It’d seem that the good old idea that «if the boy you date beat you to a pulp, then you need take personal responsibility for that happening» is alive and well.

Frankly? Let’s just say that the character assassination wasn’t done by a Norwegian newspaper eight thousand miles away, but the majority of the board members themselves.

Now, is this what made me — quite frankly — pissed off? No, not at all. There were inaccuracies in the newspaper article; no doubt about it.

No, it’s the Venona Papers that annoy me — or rather the blog author’s use of them.

The proposed, and voted on, changes to the curriculum state that «describe how McCarthyism, the House Un–American Activities Committee (HUAC), the arms race, and the space race increased Cold War tensions and how the later release of the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government;» (§113.41, section C, subparagraph 8B)

The blog state «No one today doubt that the Venona Papers confirmed suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government» — and in the process links to the Wikipedia entry for «Venona papers». This entry, in turn, include the phrase «To what extent the various individuals were involved with Soviet intelligence is a topic of dispute».

In other words: the papers referred to are disputed, not only by the source that the blog author refer to, but by historians as well.

«No one» doubts them? A brief examination of sources from the Wikipedia article clearly indicate that historians do doubt them.

Perhaps, when criticising a newspaper article based on a desire to whitewash a whitewash we ought do so by verifying the claims we make.

And as I started, I finish. The college teacher, an expert in English and social studies, refer to the curriculum as an «excellent tool to truly TEACH children and youths to understand history, society and geography … »

The irony. This is the same curriculum which state so explicitly that:

«Each school district shall require that, during Celebrate Freedom Week or other week of instruction prescribed under sub–paragraph (A) of this paragraph, students in Grades 3–12 study and recite the following text: »We hold these Truths to be self–evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.« »

while there is not one single word in any of the documents he link to about the same Lone Star State actively discriminating against certain groups of people in their pursuit of happiness. Shall we even touch on the fact that students are supposed to

«identify examples of politically motivated mass murders in Cambodia, China, Latin America, the Soviet Union, and Armenia;»

but not in the US, but rather:

«discuss the Americanization movement to assimilate immigrants and American Indians into American culture;»

as well as:

«identify examples of individuals who led resistance to political oppression such as Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Natan Sharansky, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, and Chinese student protestors in Tiananmen Square; and»

but not Lech Wałęsa:

«identify the contributions of significant scientists and inventors such as Robert Boyle, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, and James Watt.»

but not Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace?

Excellent teaching material indeed. But I digress.

I’m not quite sure how to end this. Aftenposten opened themselves up to critique, and this blogger served up a truly sloppy example of it. In some ways it confirm my views of Norwegian college teachers: I got through my education by being better than most, accepting that having a different political opinion from that of my teachers would lead to a lower grade as a fact of life, and having a mother who didn’t take crap from any of them.

At the same times my quite negative reactions could spring from the fact that Mr. Gilhuus writes for the Monticello Society, on the topic of «Media Watch» — and their articles are, shall we say, overall lacking in fact checking and logic. It would appear they are on a quite local crusade not as much to point out factual errors, but to attack the so–called «left».

Before slamming Norwegian newspapers for saying that the «war on terror» has produced «laws [in the US] which threaten free speech», for example, how ’bout YOU actually read up on what the North Americans say about the topic? Let’s say a couple of US Senate Judiciary Committee hearings? Perhaps they are only relevant when they support your ideology?

I was convinced Norway was free of these single–tracked cretins who hide political goals in this fashion by now. I was wrong. I’ll certainly take personal responsibility for being overly naïve.

Source critique and fact checking is apolitical. When aiming the big guns at only the stories you happen to dislike, you waste your own time, and ours, as we are suddenly required to fact check your fact checking to make sure it isn’t biased.

Be it as it may. It seems Nelson was shot at Waterloo. What is history, after all, than in the eye of the beholder?

PS: In the above I use the English (UK) term «college» when referring to Norwegian grades 10 (11) through 12 (13), and known as «gymnas» or «videregående». I’ve assumed that the term «allmennfaglærer» refers to «teacher in college», as anything else makes no sense.

Sources

  • http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/uriks/article3661277.ece
  • http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/texas-to-vote-on-curriculum-that-changes-history-1978799.html
  • http://www.monticello.no/2010/05/23/løgn-og-sludder-fra-aftenposten/
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/13/education/13texas.html
  • http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3713
  • http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=3418
  • http://www.terrileo.com/
  • http://www.barbaracargill.com/
  • http://www.cynthiadunbar.com/
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venona_papers
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0110/33-5-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/33-65-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/1109/74E-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/1109/74F-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/89B-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/111D-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/112D-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/ch113A-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/ch113B-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/ch113C-one.pdf
  • http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/rules/board/proposed/0310/ch118A-one.pdf