Blogs > HNN > Should There be a History Debate for Presidential Candidates?

Jan 25, 2008 11:40 am

Should There be a History Debate for Presidential Candidates?

HNN welcomes your comments.

You do not have to register to participate in this poll for the first two weeks; after that, registration is required. We do ask all readers to abide by our civility guidelines whether they register or not.

To participate in our poll simply drop down to the bottom of this page and click on the word"Comments."

A group of scientists is making an unusual foray into presidential politics, calling on the candidates, Republican and Democratic, to hold at least one debate focusing on the environment, medicine and health, technology policy and other science-related subjects. The group, ScienceDebate2008, said in a statement that voters needed to know candidates’ views on science, given that “science and technology lie at the center of a very large number of the policy issues facing our nation and the world.”--NYT 12-25-07

Should presidential candidates have to be familiar with history? Should they be quizzed about history at the presidential debates?

If scientists can lobby for a science debate, should historians be lobbying for a history debate?

Related Links

  • Historians and the 2008 Election

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Mary Hoffarth - 1/5/2008

    After listening to presidential candidates making promises, it would seem many have not read the Constitution as to the powers of the president. Presidents cannot demand all people have health care. Congress passes laws; presidents approve or veto and enforce laws.
    Government according to the Constitution is not the guaranteeor of all things to all people.

    Dennis Slough - 1/4/2008

    I'm skeptical of the idea too, but filtering out the candidates that don't know that Munich and 1938 means something would be a step forward. The leader of a country, especially a superpower, should have a pretty decent grasp of history and geography, at least high school AP. Sadly too many candidates don't reach that level. Getting them to demonstrate some proficiency is a good goal.

    Jon Marte - 1/4/2008

    Most of the posts are one word.

    ochamberlain - 1/4/2008

    "People here are jumping up and down, clapping, shouting "yes yes yes" because they want to see those candidates they don't like take a different interpretation of events than they subscribe to."

    Huh? Perhaps you should read the other answers here before commenting on them. Most of these posts are rather skeptical of the idea.

    Jon Marte - 1/4/2008

    Indeed. People here are jumping up and down, clapping, shouting "yes yes yes" because they want to see those candidates they don't like take a different interpretation of events than they subscribe to.

    Such a debate would only show that history is subjective and would provide fuel for the partisan hate circle-jerk that goes on in this ridiculous country.

    Taylor Reed - 1/3/2008

    I would personally love to watch that debate, along with a handful of other Americans who had a good history teacher somewhere along the road. But, (coming from a history student's perspective), wouldn't the candidate's responses quickly become as politicized as any other topic (even science-that whole 'evolution' thing)? Candidates who displayed a knowledge of history that focused on cause-and-effect more than our beloved historical personalities would be branded by people like Lynne Cheney as unpatriotic and so forth. I feel like it would just provide another avenue for candidates to further fit themselves into a particular mold, as well as show American's ignorance of history in general (which, come to think of it, might actually be a positive side effect).

    Washingtonian - 1/3/2008

    I mean "read my lips, no new taxes" not
    "read my lips, now no taxes"

    Washingtonian - 1/3/2008

    The poll question asks, "Should presidential candidates have to be familiar with history? Should they be quizzed about history at the presidential debates?"

    If you mean answering trivia type questions about facts, some more arcane than others, well, even historians -- many of whom specialize in one period or another -- probably would miss some. If you mean interpretive responses, it would not be possible to give thoughtful answers of the type one would hope would go into future decisionmaking in the short time allotted in debates for answers.

    That's assuming all voters really want to hear thoughtful, nuanced answers. Campaigning usually means boiling issues down to digestible bites. It often means presenting them in such a way as to elicit an emotional response from voters. That being the case, it can be difficult to sort out what a campaigner is saying because of expediency. Sometimes circumstances change, making campaign promises difficult or impossible to fulfill. Statements on the campaign trial ("read my lips, now no taxes") aren't always good predictors of actions in office.

    As to the impact of such a debate, I think it would be negligible. Many people make up their minds about candidates based on factors other than their knowledge of history. I think the pool of people among the voters who themselves are very well versed in history is tiny.

    Knowledgeable voters know at least generally that advisors and staffers play key roles in executive decisions. No President is equally knowledgeable in every area in which he must make decisions. He relies to a large extent on briefing papers or oral briefings prepared by aides and advisors. You can't really predict whether a President would pick advisors who are well versed in history or would include much historical context in the briefing papers and talking points they prepare for him.

    Voters who know this try to guess how a candidate might handle the decisionmaking process. But little of this comes out in what the candidate displays in selling him or herself on the campaign trail. Running for office requires different skill sets than does acting as an executive.

    Less knowledgeable voters may focus on how the candidate might come across in a history debate but the criteria by which they judge the candidate may not reflect how an official actually might or might not use history in making decisions. So I don't see such a debate as practical or even as a particularly useful or meaningful exercise.

    Wil Lofland - 1/2/2008

    Your use of the word "standard" is appropiate.
    The only standards American politicans have is graft, greed and AIPAC.

    Wil Lofland - 1/2/2008

    The answer is definetly YES!!!
    The results would be as good as a morality debate.

    Bridget - 1/2/2008

    I can see the pros and the cons on this one. I fear the best it would do is provide some entertainment, and as was said, some "I can't believe s/he said that!" sound bytes for the media.

    A better idea would be some sort of magnificent standardized test that candidates must pass before they can be included on the presidential ticket.

    That is, you know, if standardized tests were actually worthwhile.

    Benjamin Jones - 1/2/2008

    is who would do the grading of their answers? Put a bunch of historians on the task and there would not be a lot of agreement on whether candidate X was correct on the cause of the depression or not. I'm sure the question regarding Munich of 1938 would get us historians all in a tizzy.

    Carl Cunningham - 1/2/2008

    While the entertainment factor would be high watching them debate history, I don't think it would be pertinent.

    This history quiz thing though, I don't want to see it on tv but if they had to say know enough about history to get into the debate, that would relieve my mind.

    And I don't mean just the topics that are "politically" germane to the current crop of voters. I want to know that the people I'm selecting from know what caused not just recent wars but all the US wars back to 1776. And not just the US point of view(s) but -why- the "other" sides in these conflicts thought they were correct.

    The war thing is just an example. It just bothers me that we might elect someone that can't find 80% of the world countries on a map, nevermind what caused the major ones to come into existence.

    And a note for the scientists and their debate - someone ask a question about astronomy and near earth collisions.

    Andrew J. Grgurich - 1/2/2008

    It would be amusing to see the candidates as contestants on Jeopardy, woundn't it?

    Seriously, aside from the entertainment value, I don't see much point in it.


    Andrew Meyer - 1/2/2008


    Francene Blanchard - 1/2/2008


    - 1/2/2008


    Carol Hamilton - 1/1/2008


    Grant Jones - 1/1/2008

    ...The candidates debate political philosophy?

    ochamberlain - 1/1/2008

    I'm afraid that such a debate would quickly descend into a "gotcha" mode: a fill-in-the-blank exam from hell designed to create sound bites for the news.

    The one exception that I could imagine would be if the questions asked candidates to look at past decision-making and critique it. But the time that would take would not fit easily into a classic debate, much less the sound-bite platforms that we call debates.

    Jon Marte - 12/31/2007

    But wouldn't be terribly enlightening.

    It is a safe assumption that the candidates are fairly ignorant of history. Politicians are businessmen and lawyers, not historians.

    I wouldn't say that it is terribly important for politicians to be well versed in history themselves, but they should have people on their staff who are.