Tuesday, August 6, 2019


In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in late nineteenth-century America were myths. The University of Illinois professor Richard Jensen said that such signs were inventions, “myths of victimization,” passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For over a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship on the matter. Opponents of Jensen’s thesis were dismissed—sometimes by Jensen himself—as Irish-American loyalists. 

In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. “He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,” she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher—an emeritus professor of history, no less—that he had not done his homework. As it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find. For years, other scholars had wrestled with Jensen’s claims, but they fought with his work inside the thicket of professional historiography. Meanwhile, outside the academy, Jensen’s assertion was quickly accepted and trumpeted as a case of an imagined grievance among Irish-Americans. (Vox, of course, loved the original Jensen piece.)

Young Rebecca, however, did what a sensible person would: she started looking through databases of old newspapers. She found the signs, as the Daily Beast later reported, “collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?” As it turned out, neither Jensen nor anyone else had apparently bothered to do this basic fact-checking. Jensen later fired back, trying to rebut the work of a grade-schooler by claiming that he was right but that he could have been more accurate in his claims. Debate over his thesis, as the Smithsonian magazine later put it, “may still be raging in the comments section” of various Internet lists, but Fried’s work proves “that anyone with a curious mind and a nose for research can challenge the historical status quo.” Miss Fried, for her part, has now entered high school with a published piece in the Journal of Social History.

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (170-171). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

No comments:

Post a Comment