12 June 2009

Corrupting the Kids

Although I didn't set out to pick on children it happens that in the course of running down some fake quotations attributed to various founding fathers of the United States I used as my starting-point two pieces allegedly written by schoolkids. One of them was a prize-winning essay written by a junior in high school; the other a prize-winning speech composed by a home-schooled ten-year-old.

The essay, entitled "Time for Change" and written by Lauren Harr, was a response to the question "What do you think needs changing in the world and what can you do to make that change happen?" The speech, which supposedly won first place honors for 6th grade at the 13th Annual Christian Heritage Speech competition, was given by Edward A. Allen and entitled "How the First Great Awakening Influenced Our Founding Fathers" (this was the assigned topic). Harr used quotations from Washington and Patrick Henry to support her point that church-state separation was not envisioned in the Constitution. Allen used quotations from the same two plus Jefferson and Franklin as his main illustrations for ways the First Great Awakening influenced the founding fathers. He also threw in a Madison quotation to show that this influence extended to the Constitution itself.

The trouble with these quotations, which are central to the theses of both pieces, is that all of them are fake. And by fake I don't mean, please note, that they had a word off here and there, or that they were a popular misquoting of something Washington or Franklin actually said or wrote—I mean that they were out-and-out fakes, words put into their mouths by somebody else with an axe to grind. (And even worse—a number of them were actually misquotations of the original fake quotation.) Here are the seven, in all their glory:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians, not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ! (falsely attributed to Patrick Henry)
It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here. (falsely attributed to Patrick Henry)
He who shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world. (falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin)
The reason that Christianity is the best friend of government is because Christianity is the only religion that changes the heart. (falsely attributed to Thomas Jefferson)
The future and success of America is not in this Constitution but in the laws of God upon which this Constitution is founded. (falsely attributed to James Madison)
It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. (falsely attributed to George Washington)
It is impossible to rightly govern a country without God and the Bible. (falsely attributed to George Washington)

The Pseudo-Franklin quotation is the oldest of the bunch, going back to 1793, and was actually written (in French) by Jacques Mallet du Pan as part of a summary of views he attributed to Franklin. The Pseudo-Washington quotation goes back to 1835, and is part of an argument attempting to show the existence of a supreme being which was attributed to Washington on the authority of an anonymous gentleman. (Both kids get this one completely wrong, by the way; the original quotation reads "It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.") Pseudo-Henry's quotation comes from a 1956 periodical, and was only relatively recently mis-attributed to Patrick Henry. The Pseudo-Jefferson is a very recent concoction, first appearing in print in 2001, and the Pseudo-Madison is merely a clumsy paraphrase of the earlier Pseudo-Madison fake "ten commandments" quotation, to which it is almost always attached. (This one is odd in that Allen's speech was delivered in 2003 while Google books records no earlier appearance in print than 2004.) The fake "ten commandments" quotation can be traced back no further than 1958 and was no doubt concocted at that time.

The thing I'm struck by here is not so much the ignorance of the two kids involved—who expects kids of say 10 and 16 to know anything? No, the thing I'm struck by is the seeming mendacity (or extraordinary ignorance) of their teachers, their parents, and the contest judges, who all rewarded them for behavior that would never fly in a college paper, let alone in the real world. Dress it up as you like, the use of fake quotations is nothing but lying. Had it been merely a matter of illustrating an essay or speech with a lively quotation it wouldn't matter that much, though it's still very bad form. But when the quotation is essential to the thesis being argued, as it is in both cases here, it matters very much indeed. Without the four fake quotations he used to support his point, Allen is left with absolutely nothing to show how the Great Awakening influenced the founding fathers. And this is the central point of his speech. Somebody should have caught this early and sent him back to the drawing board to fix it. And without the two fake quotations used to bolster her untenable claim that church-state separation is not inherent in the first amendment, a key paragraph of Harr's essay is left in ruins, a fact that should have precluded the essay winning any kind of prize at all, unless all the other contestants contributed really crappy stuff. (At least neither of the two honorable mentions used fake quotations to bolster their theses.)

Again, I don't blame the kids half as much as I blame the adults who let them get away with it. Presumably Allen and Harr got these fraudulent quotations from sources they trusted—and apparently nobody around them could be bothered to tell them that a little more research might be in order. How are they going to feel, I wonder, when they realize that these trusted authorities were lying to them?


Phillip Moon said...

The really unfortunate part is that most of the adults that could have caught the bad quotes were probably not part of the judging or oversight.

Likely as not, the enablers were parents and teachers. The blind leading the blind.

Scott F said...

You were expecting rigorous scholarship and oversight at the 13th Annual Christian Heritage Speech? The conclusions of every essay is baked into the title of the event!

Phillip Moon said...

Point taken.

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