Getting Lincoln Wrong: Ann Althouse, The New York Times, and the American Student

(x-posted to The Valve)

Law professor and conservative blogger Ann Althouse, in a post (and follow-up post) in which she advocates discontinuing the study of fiction in schools, has drawn my attention to a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which claims that American students are increasingly well-informed about American history. You may have read the optimistic New York Times article here.

The claim is based on a 2006 assessment test for students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades. The most politically significant results were gains by 4th graders, who entered school only slightly prior to the 2002 passage of George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Althouse concludes, “quit bitching about No Child Left Behind.” What you may not know is that the answer to the showcase question from the 4th grade test — about Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 speech on slavery, and quoted by both Althouse and the Times — is completely wrong.

This is more than a matter of oversight. It is a matter of the fundamental relationship between ideology and practices of reading. Althouse’s real target is the kind of reading that calls ideology into question, including the study of fiction. She missed the flaw in a question designed for fourth graders for the same reason Sam Dillon missed it, at The New York Times: because the mistake was grounded in ideology, and that ideology is a comfort.

(thanks to tomemos for the link; he has responded to Althouse insightfully here)


Here is the question.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect that it will cease to be divided.
–Abraham Lincoln, 1858

What did Abraham Lincoln mean in this speech?

a) The South should be allowed to separate from the United States.
b) The government should support slavery in the South.
c) Sometime in the future slavery would disappear from the United States.
d) Americans would not be willing to fight a war over slavery.

The correct answer, according to the examiners, is c: “Sometime in the future slavery would disappear from the United States.”

Here is the quotation from Lincoln in context. I beg your forgiveness for its length; if you read it from beginning to end, you will have done more than Althouse:

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it. We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation not only has not ceased, but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new, North as well as South. Have we no tendency to the latter condition? Let any one who doubts carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination—piece of machinery, so to speak—compounded of the Nebraska doctrine and the Dred Scott decision.

All of the urgency in that address—its mood of grim determination in the face of tremendous uncertainty, and everything, in short, that secures its claim to greatness—belies the notion that Lincoln could already foresee an end to slavery. Instead, he predicted the possibility of victory in a decidedly partisan struggle against the doctrine of inevitable progress:

Senator Douglas holds, we know, that a man may rightfully be wiser to-day than he was yesterday—that he may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong. But can we, for that reason run ahead, and infer that he will make any particular change, of which he himself has given no intimation? [...] Whenever, if ever, [Douglas] and we can come together on principle, so that our cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But, clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be, he does not promise ever to be.

It should be no surprise that the adjective used in the Times to describe the NAEP is “bipartisan.” The modern political myth of bipartisanship without appeal to principle is coded into the passivity of waiting for slavery to eventually end, the “correct answer” for which Lincoln furiously indicts his opponent. It’s this kind of over-writing (here, over-writing Lincoln) that produces ideology; the same kind of over-writing that will not acknowledge a group that has not made any significant improvement in scores since 2001, in any age group: African-Americans.


Where does this leave the attack on fiction? Althouse writes,

I’m saying that the reading materials used in teaching reading should be nonfiction, so that students are absorbing information and practicing critical thinking while they read. (first post)

Look, my main point is efficiency…I’m also not opposed to teaching history and science through the kinds of novels and storybooks that present the information accurately. (second post)

The debate hinges on the question of information — what qualifies as information, what standards are used to evaluate the accuracy of information, and above all how students will be tested on what they know. I was immediately reminded of Lionel Trilling, who in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel” had this to say about history in relation to art:

As we read the great formulated monuments of the past, we notice that we are reading them without the accompaniment of something that always goes along with the formulated monuments of the present. The voice of multiplication which always surrounds us in the present, coming to us from what never gets fully stated, coming in the tone of greetings and the tone of quarrels, in slang and in humor and popular songs, in the way children play, in the gesture the waiter makes when he puts down the plate, in the nature of the very food we prefer….And part of the melancholy of the past comes from our knowledge that the huge, unrecorded hum of implication was once there and left no trace—we feel that because it is evanescent it is especially human. We feel, too, that the truth of the great preserved monuments of the past does not fully appear without it.

Trilling is describing two different, related things here. First of all, the ability of literature to encode information very densely through the representation of everyday events. Second, the relationship between those uncountable events that escape history because they are mundane, and the larger kinds of undecidability produced by what philosophy calls “counter-factuals.” In fact, the kinds of information and habits gained from a lifetime of reading fiction are incompatible with multiple-choice exams, because such exams of necessity exclude a multiplication of voices, and have no mechanism for the kinder offices of doubt: curiosity, reserve, and toleration. The strength of Lincoln’s convictions came from the real historical uncertainties to which he opposed them. It is little wonder that he would be read so badly by thinkers like Althouse; her incurious zeal is of a piece with the exam that seems to give us such good news.

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