Propagandizing Doth Not A Happy Historian Make

by Jock Yellott

“Do you agree or disagree that college faculty are contaminating history with politics and producing closed minded, unscientific and illogical propaganda?”

Dr. Ed Ayers, former president of the University of Richmond, a former Dean of Arts and Sciences at U Va, and among Virginia’s most accomplished and respected living historians, was asked that question last week.

It came during the Q&A after the January 19, 2021 online membership meeting of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society. Dr. Ayers’s  breezy, good-humored remarks about what he does and why he does can be viewed in the video above. (Dr. Ayers begins speaking at about minute 14; the question and his answer at 45.55, through 49:01).

Dr. Ayer’s response, gently edited for clarity:

–Oh gosh. Absolutely not.  [It’s] a widely spread belief. I’ve known quite a few college faculty in my day. And why would you go into teaching college? Would you go into it to try on a very retail scale, to try to pervert the opinions of young people, to believe propaganda or any kind of a political persuasion? If you’re doing that I would suggest you’ve made the wrong career choice. You’d do a lot better to … go into journalism.  Or maybe go into politics. What I’ve found, the faculty that I’ve come to know, what do they care about?  They actually care about the young people that they’re teaching. And what do they want them to know?  They want them to know their own minds … So, you know it’s interesting, that this idea, and I read the editorials … actually there’s a report that came out today making a claim very much like this. Completely unsupported and completely erroneous: that historians in the United States are trying to damage the country by teaching (and it has it in this order) Progressivism, Fascism, and Communism.

(See President Trump’s 1776 Commission Report. One of President  Biden’s first acts was to disband the commission.)

It links those three things as being the ways that faculty are supposedly indoctrinating people …  I have to admit, I must have been in the wrong meetings, if we were conspiring to do all that. Because I’ve been in meetings and we are just this geeky: as I have just been, all excited about ways to learn about people who are not like us, who lived in other times and places. And I would say if you are devoting your life to studying the United States, and your goal is to denigrate it?  You’ve chosen a career path that’s going to make you very unhappy. What I find is that if you care enough about this country to devote your life to studying it, that’s a form of patriotism. And what’s the highest form of patriotism?  It’s telling the truth about your country. So, no. I don’t find anything like what that question suggested … I guess I didn’t really dance around that very much, did I? [laughs] … I don’t know why people think that, that to try to understand say, the complexities of Thomas Jefferson, is to denigrate him in some way. And if our goal is only to have people that are without flaw, we’re going to have a very thinly populated history. Have another question for me … maybe that doesn’t require a sermon in response?

The sermon invitation actually did not originate with the 1776 Commission report. It derived from an essay by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., written before he was either a Reverend or a Doctor.  The Moorehouse College Newspaper in 1947 published King’s student essay titled “the Purpose of Education” (cited in The Washington Post on January 17, 2020, Martin Luther King day). King wrote:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, “brethren!” Be careful, teachers!

King’s concern about worthy objectives, immoral acts, and educating for character was probably a youthful reference to Christian education. Still, did King as a student in 1947 spot a potential problem with one-sided teaching that Dr. Ayers as a teacher in 2021 might be missing?

Perhaps the two can be reconciled.

Back in 1947, 70 years ago, Dr. King questioned whether education may be misdirected, if it transmits cultural knowledge by rote but does not encourage critical, independent thinking. That produces what may described as close-mindedness. Thinking in slogans, propaganda; and ultimately a nihilist immorality or amorality seeking only to gratify its passions, personal or political.

Dr. Ayers assures us that propaganda denigrating America is not the enterprise of a real historian. To know something is to love it. While those who know our country’s history will love it enough to be candid — relentless negativity is not what history is about.

Dr. Ayer’s devotion to intriguing his students, his upbeat cheeriness and contagious curiosity, shows what a real historian looks like. A model to which college professors ought to aspire. Teaching is not rote recital of received opinions. It’s sparking a new light in a young mind.

Jock Yellott is Executive Director of the Monument Fund, Inc., and a member of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society.