Thursday, July 24, 2003

Who writes the history books? 

The winners, the saying goes. So who's winning in academia? Burt Folsom knows.
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....

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."

Yes, romantic. The high school texts are worse:
"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 (Gary) Nash's text (American Odyssey, a leading high school text.)

These examples, Folsom said, are indicative of a much larger problem requiring "a more neutral treatment of the issues."

Mark Skousen once wrote a good reivew about the reach of Paul Samuelson's economics text and included a quote of Samuelson in a New York Times interview, "I don't care who writes a nation's laws--or crafts its advanced treaties--if I can write its economics textbooks." But his book has had to evolve over time (the first edition was in 1948) and the evolution has been troubling.
But although it would be unfair to criticize anyone for not being clairvoyant about events, it is surely fair criticism of a principles of economics course to point out that some of its advice seems questionable in light of current knowledge. Indeed, Samuelson has hinted in later editions that he would no longer agree with some of his analysis in earlier editions. Today, he probably would be comfortable saying, as he did in the preface of the eighth edition, that his textbook contained "nothing essential being omitted" or "nothing that later will have to be unlearned as wrong." By the fourteenth edition, he confessed, "What was great in Edition 1 is old hat by Edition 3; and maybe has ceased to be true: by Edition 14" (14:xiv).

When faced with such rueful comments by an author of Samuelson's stature, a certain degree of modesty seems warranted for the rest of the economics profession. The successive editions of Samuelson's textbook illustrate that the profession's view of both principles and facts can shift substantially with recent experience, whether the point is the Keynesian lessons that came out of the Great Depression or the speed of Soviet economic growth. An introductory course requires some natural simplification, but it should aim to avoid false certainty.

I'd like to see an analysis like Skousen's for the Schlesinger, et al. book. I wonder how history evolves in their hands?