Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg: Sarah Palin's Vacation from History

Roundup: Historians' Take

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University and coauthors of Madison and Jefferson.

On MSNBC's "Hardball" Tuesday night, Chris Matthews ended the show with an extended comment about Sarah Palin's crude concept of America. "I don't think she's at all interested in American history," he said, characterizing her as a professional troublemaker.

Well, of course she's not interested in American history. Hearing her stumble over her words as she mangled the story of Paul Revere was depressingly familiar. As history professors specializing in the Revolutionary era, we have heard our share of students returning muddled answers to basic questions. The difference between them and the former half-term governor, though, is that they are generally careful not to embarrass themselves. When they haven't read the assignment, they'll lower their heads and pray the professor doesn't see them. If called out, they'll promptly admit to a lack of preparation and promise to get their act together. Few of them ever plunge into the great unknown, and flail away, as Palin does routinely, with an off-the-wall answer, followed by a next day do-over amid protest that the professor didn't get what she meant the first time. College undergraduates possess at least a modicum of self-respect.

It's our job as professors to tell them what happens when you merely skim the material: You don't comprehend the historical impact of ideas and events. In short, historical comprehension is measured by the ability to process information thoughtfully.

We should judge Palin as we do college students. She took the Boston tour, read the exhibit descriptions, and learned absolutely nothing. She apparently half-heard what the tour guide presented. Maybe she was busy thinking about how her hair looked. Regardless, she got an "F" on the Paul Revere quiz. And there's no extra credit. Everyone knows what happens when the ill-prepared student comes to the professor's office, hoping that by smiling, crying, or inventing excuses she can get her grade changed. But Palin thinks she can get away with an appearance on friendly Fox News, pretending that what she said was historically true. At least this time, Chris Wallace's grin provided evidence that he wasn't buying her dubious do-over....

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