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SOPHIA: Correcting the Fallacy of History’s Treatment of U.S. Presidents

A television host recently asked me: “Donald Trump is revered by so many and reviled by so many others. How do you think history is going to judge him?” That’s a great question, and anyone who pretends to have an answer at this extremely early stage doesn’t understand how historical figures are treated over time. The best answer I can come up with at the moment is: 50 years from now, Trump won’t be considered the best president ever, or the worst. Yet too many folks these days, including self-professed political and historical experts, don’t hesitate to rank Trump at the very top or the very bottom. They do the same with Joe Biden.
Presidential rankings are fraught with fallacies. First, there are no clearly established criteria; different ranking entities vary wildly in terms of what they emphasize. Some simply ask rankers to rate presidents as: great, above average, average, below average, and poor, without requiring further elaboration. It’s almost like asking “why was Zachary Taylor a poor president?” and getting the answer: “because I said so.”

Some entities include absurd categories such as luck: are we to add points to Ronald Reagan’s total because he was lucky enough not to die from his gunshot wound but deduct points from John Kennedy because he wasn’t?

Many if not most projects don’t even require that rankers evaluate all the presidents; only the ones with whom they are familiar. That’s where sloth enters the picture. A typical ranker, for instance, surely will be reasonably familiar with the presidencies of Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts, but might not know a thing about John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, or Benjamin Harrison, and so will lazily place them where previous rankers usually do: in the bottom half.

Of course, there’s no perfect ranking system, and it’s impossible to avoid subjectivity entirely. Should presidents who faced tough challenges – such as Lincoln and Kennedy – get high marks, or is an unremarkable period during one’s reign a more notable accomplishment? Is it fair to rank presidents who served less than a year in office? And how long must a president be out of office so his tenure can be tempered by time and distance?

Rankings are not the only concern: history textbooks are now so laden with highly charged language that readers might think they’re transcripts of cable news commentators’ tirades. It’s said that history is written by the victors, but the problem is it’s rewritten over and over again by new faces, with agendas that ignore scholarly restraint.

This is why last year I founded the Society of Presidential Historians in Academia (SOPHIA) and we embarked on a national launch a couple of months ago. SOPHIA is an academic organization for history and political science students and professors, providing opportunities for publishing articles in a peer-reviewed journal and presenting at an annual conference. But there are no membership restrictions; anyone interested in the presidents is welcome to join (the website is: sophiascholars.com).
One of SOPHIA’s important longterm goals is to help change the way history is written by prolonging its date of maturity: unless an event is at least 20 years old, it shouldn’t yet belong in a history textbook. And unless a president has been out of office for at least 20 years, s/he should not be ranked.
This doesn’t mean we can’t talk or write about current history on TV shows and in opinion pieces, but we shouldn’t formalize it. We should recognize that whatever we believe about the present in the present may change in the future when it becomes the past.

Historians have an academic obligation to present information in the most accurate manner possible. That should be the beginning and the end of their agendas. Unfortunately, in many cases it’s not. Many contemporary historians and political scientists start with the premise that “Trump is bad” and then figure out how to etch it in historical stone. They want future generations to look upon Trump as a monster. They’re not happy with only this lifetime; they want Trump to be vilified ad infinitum.
An obvious retort some might have is that surely there are folks on the right who feel the same way about Biden. They consider him the worst president ever, and they want the schoolchildren of the 2080s to read about what a hero Trump was: how he made America great again, how Biden almost ruined it, and (assuming Trump is re-elected) how Trump had to make it great all over again.

Are there really such people on the right? Of course. And they’re just as irresponsible as their leftie counterparts (maybe even more so, who knows?). But they’ll never get a chance to influence future students because they’re not in control. Much like the media and Hollywood, academia is almost entirely a leftist monopoly. I don’t mean left-leaning, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, I’m talking far, radical left. Think they won’t browbeat textbook publishers into censoring anything that portrays Trump positively in the slightest way?

I belong to numerous historical and political science organizations. Some of the ones out there disappointed me because they took sides on two of the most controversial issues of the past decade: the pandemic (masks, vaccines, lockdowns) and January 6. When they were needed to be modern-day Robert MacNeils and Jim Lehrers (of PBS Newshour fame), they turned into Rachel Maddows (their rightwing counterparts, if allowed inside the house, would write like Sean Hannitys).
That’s another reason I established SOPHIA: so that historians can simply tell people what happened and let them make up their own minds. You know, like Thucydides taught us all how to do.

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