Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fact Is...

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." -- Mark Twain
"Just the facts, ma'am..." -- Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, on Dragnet

Not so long ago, an article appeared in the newspaper about the trend in writing and grading essay papers, saying that there was more attention being paid to style and far less to the actual facts cited. For example, a student writing about the Civil War who wrote in complete sentences but with the history incorrect would score higher than one whose command of the facts was greater than his ability to compose an organized essay.

I suppose that, in the abstract, if the only goal of a writing class is to teach structure, grammar and usage, then the facts really don't matter at all. The student might as well be writing about the history of the Republic of Warewebee or the plant life in the Shuriscary Jungle. But if the purpose is also to teach them how to do research, gather and organize information, and present it in a logical way, you might expect a bit more emphasis on getting the facts correct.

Just yesterday, Laurie was grading a first round of papers from one of her classes, and more than one contained historical "facts" that weren't. One student stated that the United States had been the first nation in outer space. Not so; the Russians beat us with the first satellite (Sputnik on October 4, 1957) and the first man (Yuri Gargarin on April 12, 1961). We did, however, beat the Russians to the moon, with the first landing on July 20, 1969; in fact, they have never gotten there with a manned spacecraft.

Another student claimed that the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 and that involvement prevented us from having any money to help the people who were "trapped inside the Berlin Wall." I'm pretty sure Wikipedia gets the credit/blame for the first part of that, presuming that the student read only the first sentence of the Wiki article about the Vietnam War, ignoring the rest of it that included the information about our first combat troops being deployed in 1965. As far as the Berlin Wall, most people would probably agree that it was the East Germans who were outside the Wall who were trapped. [As a side note, I highly recommend Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe as a very readable history of the power plays and politics surrounding the erection of the Wall.]

Those of you of the Baby Boomer Generation probably read the above paragraphs and thought, "I knew that!" Unfortunately, history and geography are among the subjects that are apparently no longer important in school.  Each summer, I am startled by how "geographically challenged" and "historically deprived" my CTY students -- kids who have completed fifth or sixth grade and are ranked as the top 1% of their age group -- are. Rounds of "Think Fast" in which they are asked to name states west of the Mississippi River, countries in Europe, or rivers result in off-the-wall responses ("Paris?") or blank stares. One student insisted that Benjamin Franklin had been a President of the United States; when I suggested that perhaps he was confusing him with FDR, he replied, "That's him! Benjamin Franklin Roosevelt!"

Unfortunately, thanks to the internet, more and more of this misinformation gets posted somewhere, then gets picked up and repeated until it is quoted as fact, no matter how incorrect it actually is. So, as my part in an effort to prevent this, I'll leave you with the following facts:
* Paris is not a state. There is a city named Paris in Texas; Texas is a state, and one that is west of the Mississippi.
* Paris is also not a country. It is a city in France, which is a country located in Europe.
* There is no Paris River in Paris, France (nor in Paris, Texas, for that matter). The name of the river in France is the Seine.
* Benjamin Franklin was never the President of the United States.
* Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. He is the only President ever elected to the office four times.
* Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States, in office from 1853 to 1857.
* Benjamin Franklin Pierce is the full name of the character "Hawkeye" in M*A*S*H. (Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye in the TV series, later played a presidential candidate in The West Wing.)


  1. This reminds me of a time my wife and I were watching "The Weakest Link" on television. The question was, "According to legend, who rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry to protest oppressive taxes?" The contestant answered, "Benjamin Franklin." That image, and my wife's subsequent scream, are burned into my brain forever.

  2. we fight this at the college level all the time. I actually have to tell my college comp students that content now matters, and a perfectly written essay that has no real content or contains factual errors will be downgraded. This shocks them.

    but this is where public education has gone. Grammar is easy to grade - it's either right or wrong according to the handbook/textbook. "Facts" are slippery, as seen by recent rulings in states like Texas about what can and can't be taught about historical figures. I know many composition instructors whose attitude is to leave the facts to the teachers in the content areas, and just focus on the grammar and syntax. This is especially true with all the helicopter parents out there, who will come in and blast you about the facts being wrong, since they "helped" the student write the paper in the first place.

  3. Heh. You MISSED a Hawkeye! He was a superhero who fought crime with a bow and arrows! ;)