David Gelernter’s Facts and The Weekly Standard’s Standards
Mr. Lazere is professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and currently a lecturer at University of Tennessee Knoxville.Last spring a student in an argumentative writing class I was teaching at the University of Tennessee used as a source for a research paper on public education David Gelernter’s article “A World Without Public Schools” in The Weekly Standard (TWS) of June 4, 2007. She brought to my attention two quotations that Gelernter cites from The Official SAT Study Guide that struck me as being of questionable contextual accuracy. Since the article did not provide a page citation and Gelernter did not respond to a request for one that I sent him, it took some time for me to track the quotations down, which I finally did with the cooperation of the staff at the College Board, which publishes the guide.
Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale and frequent polemicist in TWS and other neoconservative periodicals, denounces the study guide in the course of a sweeping condemnation of American public education. He cites the guide as one of “many ways to see the school establishment’s bias.” As evidence, he writes, “Here’s a sentence from a passage that students are quizzed on. ‘The First World War is a classic case of the dissonance between official, male-centered history and unofficial female history.’ You might object that the idea of ‘official history’ is a sham and a crock, unless you refer specifically to accounts commissioned by the combatant governments themselves. But this silly assertion is presented as if it were fact.”
Gelernter next quotes a passage criticizing “‘the Eurocentric conviction that the West holds a monopoly on science, logic, and clear thinking.’” After ranting for a long paragraph about this “breathtakingly absurd, breathtakingly offensive” passage, he asks, “What kind of imbecile could write such a passage?—and offer it to unwitting high school students as fact?” [Gelernter’s italics]
The fact is that the study guide clearly does not present either of these passages as “fact” or as the opinion of its authors. The first is quoted directly (on p. 544) from one of two contrasted books on World War I. The second (on p. 392) is introduced, “The following passage appeared in an essay written in 1987, in which the author, who is of Native American descent, examines the representation of Native Americans during the course of United States history.”
Furthermore, both texts are quoted simply as a basis for reading comprehension tests. The sample test questions following the texts are aimed solely at interpretation of what particular words and phrases mean (and in the first, of how the two commentaries differ)--without any implication that they are factual or that students are asked to agree or disagree with them. Minimal journalistic ethics and competency would have compelled either Gelernter or his editor to make this distinction. Such shoddiness is doubly ironic in an article (and journal) purporting to uphold rigorous standards against their debasement by biased liberal scholars and educators.
I assign my students to read TWS regularly, balanced against The Nation, to compare conservative versus liberal viewpoints at the level of college graduates and intellectuals to which such journals of opinion are pitched. I also use these journals to make the point that they are presumably more scrupulous about the accuracy of what they print, through close editing and fact checking, than mass news media like TV, radio, blogs, and most newspapers. So when I finally was able to present the evidence of Gelernter’s gaffe to my students, they--especially conservative ones--were quite shocked. They suggested that I contact the journal’s editors to bring the matter to their attention and see whether they would print a correction.
So I e-mailed the managing editor, Claudia Anderson, in May, suggesting that they either do so or publish a letter to the editor from me with a response by Gelernter or the editors. I received no answer to my original message or a couple of follow-ups.
The editors might predictably claim that the article appeared over a year ago, hence is “old news” not warranting any further attention. I do not believe this excuse washes, however, for a publication ostensibly dedicated to the level of intellectual journalism that should hold up over time and is archived as a scholarly source for students like mine. If TWS is unwilling to correct an embarrassment this gross, whenever it appeared, surely that casts doubt on the credibility of anything else they publish, especially by Gelernter.
Likewise, I submitted this piece to the conservative Manhattan Institute’s online journal Minding the Campus, whose mission statement claims, ”We hope to foster a new climate of opinion that favors civil and honest engagement of all sides, offering an engaged debate for readers concerned with the state of the modern university,” and which on September 5 reprinted an op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, reiterating conservatives’ chagrin over the present low level of historical education and consciousness. Yet the editor rejected my piece with the explanation, “Our principle hesitation is the fact that it’s a response to a piece in another publication, from over a year ago. I think you have a fair point about Gelernter, but we’d prefer something more timely.“ It would seem that even media claiming to serious intellectual discourse today have succumbed to the sound-bite mentality--anything that happened before last week is down the memory hole. To begin with, this mentality enables writers like Gelernter to get away with misstatements in the knowledge that no one is likely to check their facts or long care about their errors. Secondly, the fetish of “timeliness” is a disgrace to humanistic educators whose reason for being is supposed to be that of Thoreau: “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”
Gelernter’s conservative allies will also predictably leap to his defense with rationalizations and evasions of the issue of his dishonesty. I ask them, though, what their reaction, and that of the Manhattan Institute, would be to a similar gaffe (regardless of how long after the fact it was discovered) by any prominent liberal Ivy League professor, writing, say, in The Nation or The New York Times—a professor, moreover, like Gelernter who here and elsewhere pontificates on political issues entirely outside his academic field, a practice constantly savaged by conservatives when liberals are the culprits.
As a footnote, I grant that Gelernter might more legitimately have quoted the passages in order to raise the question of why such views were chosen by the study guide’s authors simply for testing reading comprehension. We would need to hear their own explanation before drawing any conclusions. It is plausible, however, that the vast majority of sample test questions in this study guide and actual SAT-type examinations in the present--and even more so in the past—have been based on texts by white males and do undoubtedly sometimes perpetuate Eurocentric ideological assumptions (whether defensible, as Gelernter argues, or not). So occasional inclusion of differing samples of texts for comprehension could be considered as an innocuous, minimal acknowledgment of the existence of diverse viewpoints—not as dire proof of the tyranny of the liberal educational establishment that Gelernter and other conservative culture warriors get so apoplectic about.
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Lance Massey - 9/15/2008
Thanks for this even-handed, well-argued piece.
Not only is shoddy (or shady) source-use a seeming requisite for writing about the evils of the so-called liberal establishment in education (see the stunning record of D. Horowitz in this regard), but so, apparently, is hyperbole. Even if one were inclined to see inclusion of non-traditional perspectives on history and culture in tests, books, and syllabi as evidence of a pernicious assault on neutrality (as if such a thing ever did, or could, exist), it's a long leap from there to the conclusion that those who hold such views consider the U.S. an "old fashioned, irrelevant entity." (This statement comes not long after the two SAT examples in Gelernter's text.)
For the culturally reactionary--Gelernter longs for the good old days of the McGuffey reader--even the eminently reasonable suggestion that there can be multiple legitimate perspectives on history and culture is evidence that the sky is falling.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/15/2008
My guess is the Weekly Standard's Gelernter article contained many more than two instances of "imbecility" by the writers of the Official SAT Study Guide, including some we would all agree are nuts. "A sweeping condemnation of American public education" should be pretty easy to research and compose, in my view.