"Any Jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one."
So said the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in 1953, heartbroken after his Democrats surrendered control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans following the 1952 midterm elections, an election cycle tainted by rampant red-baiting and McCarthyism. Rayburn turned out to be quite prescient; the Republicans would prove unable to adequately meet the tasks required of being in the majority, and turned control of the House back to Rayburn's Democrats, who would go on to hold down the House for the next four decades.
As it turns out, the same aphorism holds true with regard to education.
For years now conservatives have made it their business to rail against the perceived far-left tilt of America's institutions of higher educations. Former Harvard professor and conservative intellectual Daniel Pipes founded the organization Campus Watch in 2002 with the intention of monitoring supposedly leftist college professors, urging students to submit "reports" on their teachers and their assigned books and curricula. David Horowitz is the loudest and most noxious voice in this arena; his 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America amounted to a literal naming-of-names, tarring its subject matters with the charge that they "spew violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism, and cheer on the killing of American soldiers and civilians — all the while collecting tax dollars and tuition fees to indoctrinate our children."
Obviously, none of this door-kicking ever accomplished anything. But now it looks like conservatives have finally gotten the hang of the building part of the equation — and this is a development that should be universally cheered and lauded.
As Patricia Cohen wrote in a New York Times article published yesterday, conservative academics have finally hit upon a strategy that appears to be successful: teaming up to promote a non-partisan and non-ideological method of teaching history that stresses the values that conservatives find most important.
What this means is a return to the basics. A turning away from cultural, anthropological and sociological methods of interpreting human events and a return to focusing on the classic texts and greatest triumphs of Western history.
Under these programs (37 exist nationally; 20 of these were founded during the past three years), typified by the program in Western civilization and American institutions at the University of Texas, students read from a wide range of source material that encompasses both Plato and Martin Luther King, Jr. — in essence, figures whose impact on Western history transcend ideology or partisan identity. As Robert Koons, the director of Texas' program, said to Cohen, "It's not the answers, but the questions" that need to be discussed and see the light of day in the classroom.
Even the most hardened critics will have to acknowledge that the mission that underscores these initiatives is a noble one. Even though the originators of these intellectual projects are conservative, liberals should see them not as threats from the right, but as opportunities.
By trying to turn history into a hodgepodge of cultural concerns, many liberals lost the forest for all the trees. In an attempt to give all segments of society a fair historical shake, and in their attempt to write "people's histories," they lost sight of the stories of great men and the greatness of individual triumphs. But as Thomas Carlyle put it in the 19th century, when you get right down to it, "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." It would be foolishness to attempt to deny the existence of individual "shapers of history," as those in many dominant intellectual circles seek to do.
And, when you get right down to it, the bare truth is that the conservatives' way of framing history is the one that is far more engaging to untested minds traipsing, perhaps for the first time, into the bowels of historical analysis. It's far easier to understand the tales of individual struggles and conflicts of personality than it is to tread through census numbers and dry economic data to try and catch the stolen glimpses necessary for cultural analyses. And the purpose of teaching history, at least at the introductory level that the majority of these programs are focusing on, is to imprint the "big ideas" in the head of neophyte students. Thus it makes far more sense, as the "conservative" programs are doing, to have students read MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," the Constitution and Tocqueville than it would to have them wade through sociological discourses.
The academic establishment that had been shaping students' perceptions of Western and American history had become too content in their current practices. However, when conservatives were doing nothing more than trying to kick down their door, a defensive response from the establishment was all that could or should have been expected. Hopefully now that both sides are working on building projects, the end result will be more doors for all comers to find their way in to the academic arena.
Editorials Editor Asher Smith is a College sophomore from Great Neck, NY.