If you are wondering why Mr. Barger has chosen to post about Jefferson and Hemmings to this site, here’s the background. In a recent column in SLJ, http://ww I w.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6536649.html I talked about how we have changed our views of some historical figures, but not others. For example, I mentioned that we no longe retail the George Washington and the Cherry Tree story, and we do talk about Thomas Jefferson and his children by Sally Hemmings. Mr. Barger has devoted decades to researching that issue, and to challenging the assertion that DNA, or any other evidence, proves Jefferson had children by Hemmings. When he saw my article, he wrote to me to object.
I suggested that he write a response that I would post here. Why? Clearly this is not a space for historians to debate evidence. But his objection is precisely what I encourage for the teaching of history. The Monticello site, for example, has a nice page http://www.monticello.org/plantation/hemingscontro/hemings_resource.html outlining Mr. Barger’s views, other views, and the controversy over Jefferson and Hemmings. I think it would be great if a class that is studying DNA in biology and American History in Social Studies devoted some time to reviewing this debate.
I disagree with Mr. Barger that some PC agenda is at hand here. Rather we should open up all questions to inquiry and debate — we as adults, we as authors, we as parents, we as teachers. We should show students how history is constructed out of debates and arguments. For example, Nicholson Baker has just come out with a pacifist case against how the US and England behaved during World War II, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/04/books/04bake.html. I am very likely to disagree. But I think his view would make a perfect touchstone for a class on WW2.
Getting history right is showing that it is full of uncertainty and controversy. That does not mean we should throw up our hands. It does not mean that all views are equal. It does not mean that history is just opinion. But it does mean that we should invite the critics in, and make their voices part of the story we tell.
We want students to think, to sharpen their wits — not to dutifuly absorb any story — the one I like, Mr. Barger’s, Mr. Baker’s, or anyone else’s. If our students leave high school full of questions that they feel have not been resolved, we will have succeeded.