Washington, D.C. (CNSNews.com) - Emphasizing the problem of economic and religious biases in college history books, professor and author Burt Folsom told an audience of young conservatives Tuesday to be more aware and alert of what they are reading and to be unafraid to challenge the views of educators.
Folsom, a professor of American history at Hillsdale College and author of The Myth of the Robber Barons, a history of the rise of big business in America, spoke to attendees at the Young America's Foundation 25th Annual National Conservative Student Conference, a week-long event that brings together young conservative activists from across the nation.
Folsom described the bias against religion, saying: "Christianity as usually viewed is very unimportant as a theme in American history," as well as an economic bias consisting of the contention that "capitalism or the free market has failed and that we need government intervention to correct or modify this failing."
His critique focused attention on The National Experience, an American history college textbook written by authors whom he said are considered "experts" and the "premiere historians in the historical profession," including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Blum, Edmund Morgan and C. Vann Woodward. The textbook has gone through eight editions over 30 years.
Ranging from a discussion of the religious motivations of Columbus to the religious revival of the 1740s, called the Great Awakening, Folsom criticized what he saw as the diminished role authors gave to religion in affecting history and the mischaracterization of figures such as George Whitfield, a preacher and leader of the Great Awakening.
Emphasizing how the use of language can twist stories, especially for students not well acquainted with certain material, Folsom told the students they can be helped by reading primary sources and cited bibliographies and footnotes, seeing where a textbook description differs from a primary source.
"Christianity is a significant theme in American history," Folsom said, adding: "It is, however, tremendously neglected in the textbooks."
Turning to economic history, Folsom discussed how authors incorporate their own views, through titles, captions and the like, where opinion serves only to present a one-sided notion of the issue discussed.
As seen in The National Experience, Folsom found particularly interesting the description of Grover Cleveland, the 22\super nd\nosupersub president of the United States. Noting that Cleveland was arguably the most free-market president of the era and vetoed 414 bills during his first term - twice as many as the preceding 21 presidents combined - Folsom found the following description of Cleveland perplexing:
"No one could be sure of the new President's views on any of the several leading issues, but everyone could be sure he was a conservative."
Folsom added that a caption of a picture of Cleveland read: "Grover Cleveland: Stubborn Conservative," while a caption of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro later in the book read "Fidel Castro: A Romantic Marxist."
Folsom went on to discuss the description of tax cuts guided by Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon under Republican President Calvin Coolidge during the 1920s, a tax cut which Folsom emphasized raised federal revenue despite the negative impression implied toward Mellon.
The textbook passage read: "Mellon worked unceasingly to reduce federal expenditures. Expenses had to be cut if he was to achieve his corollary purpose, the reduction of taxes, especially taxes on the wealthy, since it was better he argued to place the burden of taxes on lower income groups."
Folsom stressed that the problem extends beyond a single book or a group of well-known historians.
He discussed the high school textbook American Odyssey by Gary Nash, the chief author of the national history studies, in charge of deciding what is put into history textbooks.
Speaking of former President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts of the 1980s, Folsom noted that Nash used class warfare rhetoric to describe the tax relief without mentioning their benefits to the overall economy, including higher treasury revenues.
"Within months of taking office, Reagan got Congress to approve one of the biggest campaign promises, a major reduction in the income tax that favored above all, the wealthiest Americans. That raised a tough question, lower taxes meant less money flowing into the treasury," reads Nash's text.
These examples, Folsom said, are indicative of a much larger problem requiring "a more neutral treatment of the issues."
Absent that, Folsom said that "students need to be alert," and they need to be ready to "pick up on biases that authors will sometimes insert."
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