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Have We Failed as Historians?

Weekly column from a Levittown historian.

Any honest assessment of the degree to which historical societies, museums, and schools have disseminated historical information to the public writ large is an agonizing reappraisal because one quickly comes to the conclusion that our endeavors have been shockingly limited in success.

Over the years, for example, I've met adults - many with university degrees - who thought the Quakers massacred the Indians and stole their land (then I had to explain who the Quakers are); that WWII was fought in 1930; that Henry VIII's divorce was the only cause of the English Reformation and slavery the only cause of the Civil War; that educated Medieval people thought the Earth was flat; that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was just an idea the naturalist "floated" rather than the result of two decades of research (another said evolution was invented by 17th Century Jesuits); that William Levitt infested potato fields with parasitic worms to force farmers to sell; that anti-Asian racism was why Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Japan (which surely would have been used on Germany had it been ready before May of 1945); that the American colonists in 1776 overwhelmingly were in favor of independence; that American Indian tribes were all pacifistic environmentalists; that Franklin Roosevelt knew about Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor weeks before December 7, 1941, etc.

The list goes on and on. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard a popular Irish-American TV journalist say that Oliver Cromwell "conquered Ireland for the British crown".     

The manner in which historical information is disseminated is to blame, in part. But I think ideological intransigence plays a greater role in the profundity of historical ignorance than hitherto suspected. Recently I posted the following on Facebook (a great source of research) about a group called "Evolution vs. God": "Evolution vs. God? How absurd! How come we only hear from militant atheists and religious fundamentalists? I'm an Episcopalian student of Charles Darwin; the member of a church led by Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori who's one of the world's leading authorities on the evolution of Pacific cephalopods. Have these people never heard of Tielhard de Chardin (paleontologist and Jesuit), Francisco J. Ayala (geneticist and Dominican priest), Sir Ronald Fisher (father of population genetics and Anglican theologian), Theodosius Dobzhansky (evolutionary biologist and Orthodox Christian spiritualist), and Sir Charles Kingsley (proponent of Darwinism and Queen Victoria's chaplain)?"  

 Hoping for a vibrant discussion on the historical relationship between science and ecclesiastical institutions, the resulting stream of comments consisted almost entirely of diatribes emitted by the aforesaid extremes. The atheists blasted religion as mindless superstition responsible for every manner of war, genocide, and persecution; unmindful of the historical role organized faith played in the abolitionist, temperance, labor reform, anti-war, public education, and civil rights movements; oblivious to the pacifism of the Quakers, Amish, Janists, and Shakers as to the blood-thirsty natures of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot's atheistic regimes.

The deep religious faith of many prominent scientists was ignored entirely. The role of the church in establishing universities, schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions was completely forgotten. Likewise, the fundamentalists seemed ignorant of Christian theology, beliefs, and practices, prior to the 19th Century as they were ignorant of scientific thought afterwards. Only one commented on anything directly related to my Facebook posting: the person who thought 17th Century Jesuits invented evolution. He might possible have been thinking of de Chardin who was born in 1881.     

What's wrong here can be further illuminated by a Facebook posting about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence. For even the most simple multicellular life to evolve, I observed, a planet would have to have the right size, rotation, distance from its sun, atmospheric and hydrospheric chemical composition, and dwell in a solar system whereupon any companion celestial bodies would have to be in reasonably stable orbits. (Widespread belief in extraterrestrials probably has less to do with science and science fiction than the fulfillment of some psychological imperative on the part of the ET believers).

Responders, several, suggested that these geophysical and astrophysical factors were insignificant because the laws of physics might be different in another solar system or galaxy; negating a fundamental premise in the philosophy of science pertaining to the universality of physical laws. If one is earnestly going to say the laws of physics differ on other planets than why not say 2+2 does not equal four in Japan, that gravity works differently in France, or that copper does not conduct electricity in New Zealand?    

Lacking a basic understanding of the nature of historical scholarship and scientific inquiry is hardly the basis for knowledge of both academic fields and thus might better explain the epidemic of ignorance that's bedeviling our society and those dedicated to preserving and disseminating knowledge.     

Want to learn more about the history of Levittown and the surrounding communities? Visit www.levittownhistoricalsociety.org

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

tj July 10, 2013 at 05:53 AM
More like we have failed as HUMANS,,,,,the 2013 American public is the worst the world may have ever seen.....There is zero ethics, zero morals, selfishness is at its peak.....Long Island has become a mess of what was a nice place...

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