The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements

There’s something I want to get off my chest. It’s about whether Blue Book Diaries is a left-wing blog, and about whether my teaching is left-wing instruction.

I have been ruminating on this since I discovered recently that a stranger on Facebook has repeatedly called me a “commie”—ironically, because I said the Trump era is a good time to teach history.

Similarly, my most popular post here, which has drawn more than 10,000 hits, has been denounced as leftist propaganda. After I posted it in June, during the protests after George Floyd’s death, it elicited a stream of angry messages. An email I received from Greg, who was using an IP address in West Texas, will give you a pretty good idea of the general mood. Here is the full text:

Message: Your article on how to teach the civil war is as far left as any I have ever seen. I to have grown up in Texas and calling us insurgents is offering to me. My son went to Iraq to defend us against them we are not those kind of people. The wanted to live it's on way weather you think it was right or not and the the north or union would not let them. I my self do not think it was about slavery but about not letting the government tell them how to live. You want insurgents and rebellious people you should have watched the looters on tv.

I’m not sure how extensive someone’s intellectual exploration can be if something I wrote is the leftmost thing they’ve encountered. Nevertheless, that seemed to be a common impression among those who were displeased—even though the blogpost in question is overtly patriotic and even pro-military.

To be thus politically pigeonholed, in such disregard for the actual content of work I spend a lot of time crafting? It rankles. I have been successfully rankled. And I think it’s time for me to address this problem.

What I write today is unlikely to have much positive effect on Greg—or on anybody else who believes insurgent is an ethnonym. But it might be soothing to other history teachers who are feeling a bit out of joint.

You see, I suspect that many of us working in U.S. educational institutions see our own work as deeply conservative, at the same time that today’s organized political right is attacking us for supposedly “hating our country” and “breeding contempt for America’s heritage.”

Such attacks notwithstanding, many of us are proudly doing exactly what our predecessors have done for generations. We are teaching history in a politically conscious but nonpartisan way, out of a sense of respect for the past and concern for our communities in the present, and we are using methods pragmatically adapted to the needs of our students and the results of historical scholarship.

With that in mind, let me identify some of the aspects of my own history teaching that I think are fundamentally conservative.

But first, I should explain what that term means.

What Conservatism Means Here

No single scale can accurately describe anyone’s teaching. Good teaching—which liberates and upholds at the same time—is a bundle of paradoxes. However, the theoretical difference between progressive and conservative teaching, as I understand those terms, looks something like this:

More Progressive TeachingMore Conservative Teaching
Seeks social transformation
Fosters development of new ideas
Focuses on freedom and equality
Stresses creativity
Centers on the learner
Prefers innovation in methods
Emphasizes social diversity
Seeks individual formation
Fosters participation in traditions
Focuses on virtue and authority
Stresses expertise
Centers on the knowledge
Prefers tried-and-true approaches
Emphasizes social unity
(I have tried to present these differences in terms that each tradition can recognize in itself.)

The first thing I notice about the table I have drawn up: It doesn’t refer directly to progressive or conservative party politics. Yet it’s not entirely irrelevant to party politics, either. There are reasons that pedagogical conservatism may be linked with an affinity for conservative politics.

At the same time, however, many politically conservative teachers embrace progressive pedagogy. And many politically progressive teachers take conservative approaches to education.

(A recent New York Times story about a popular fourth-grade teacher in southern California comes to mind. A Mexican-American parent described this teacher as “always preaching how everybody’s equal, it’s what’s on the inside that matters,” and her husband is a sort of New Age guru. This teacher joined her husband in the QAnon delusion and then marched against Congress on January 6.)

The differences between conservative and progressive educational approaches may be less important than the tensions within each approach. Conservatives may encounter, for instance, a tension between a community’s traditions and modern disciplinary expertise. Progressives may find that the self-actualization of students in a rich school may be at odds with general social equality.

Woodcut from from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica, 4th authorized ed. (Basel, 1517), via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

In the end, I would wager that most history teachers in the United States today are working in a profession that is both progressive and conservative down to its roots. We are employed (whether by the state, by private donors, or by parents) to uphold existing political and economic institutions and to train students according to the standards of an authoritative discipline, while also working within the progressive educational paradigm.

Most of the time, our little bundle of paradoxes probably works well enough, especially in comparison with the obvious alternatives.

(To be sure, some left-leaning educators see their work as radical, and some right-leaning educators see their work as counterrevolutionary, in ways that aren’t really consistent with the progressive-conservative synthesis I have just described. In general, however, I would say that an education funded by either the state or richer members of society is unlikely to be especially radical or antimodern in practice, whatever it may espouse in theory.)

To return to my central topic: What precisely do I see as conservative about my own history teaching at the university level? Here are seven elements for your consideration.

A classic statement of public education’s civic purpose is the Ephebic Oath, associated with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) and the City College of New York, the so-called Harvard of the Proletariat. The oath includes such promises as “we will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city” and “we will revere and obey the city’s laws, and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those about us.” The clipping above, from the Jewish Daily Bulletin in 1934, suggests how such conservative commitments may resonate with the marginalized and oppressed.

I. Belief in education as an invitation to participate in traditions and a catalyst for growth in moral character

Let’s just get the most priggish-sounding element right out of the way, shall we?

I can think of many reasons for the individual to seek an education. But I don’t see any valid reason to demand that the state provide an education unless we expect it to make the individual a better member of the community. A public education system, just like a parochial education system, makes sense only if we assume that students are being prepared to live together responsibly in a shared society. My history courses are designed with that imperative in mind.

When I say this, please don’t assume I embrace a narrow vision of what community membership means. For one thing, I believe citizenship should be an inclusive role, open to every human in a society, not an exclusive legal category. The citizen is anyone who participates. And virtue is not something you can acquire with a checklist. Participating in democracy does not consist in espousing certain prescribed opinions. The good society is open, pluralistic, and mutable, so the good citizen is someone of mature independent judgment. (Essentially, the good society I imagine is the good society described by progressive theorists.)

To share a specific society successfully in this way is to participate, one way or another, in its traditions and institutions. That is a central insight of conservative thought, and I believe it’s true.

Importantly, however, participation does not mean complacency or acquiescence. The opposite of participation is disengagement, not opposition. To conscientiously seek the reform, transformation, or even abolition of your community’s institutions is a form of participation just as much as upholding them is. (Here my thinking probably departs from that of some conservative theorists—but not all.)

My history courses aren’t designed to pass along traditions as timeless pieces of unchallenged wisdom, but they are designed to give students the ability, and ideally the desire, to engage with existing traditions for the sake of improving the shared community.

II. Skepticism of abstractions, combined with faith in the power of ideas

Laurence R. Veysey (1932-2004), a historian of higher education, observed almost half a century ago that intellectual historians rely on “the paradoxical working assumption that all ideas are false but important.”[*] That is, we understand that ideas are powerful forces in human life, but we also assume that ideas are part of human life. Our ideas are subject to our imperfections, and they change along with every other aspect of human experience.

In other words, all ideas are “false,” not in the sense that they are all equally false, but in the sense that they are never absolutely, perfectly, timelessly true. That means we should handle them carefully.

Russell Kirk in a 1962 photograph of unknown origin, via Wikimedia Commons. Believed to be in the public domain.

As a history instructor, I want my students to engage with ideas and intellectual systems as key aspects of human life across time. I want my students to understand the humans of the past as thinking creatures, not mindless products of a merely physical environment. But I don’t want my students to assume that human life will ever perfectly fit a particular ideology.

I was raised to think of this kind of curious skepticism about human ideologies as a hallmark of modern conservatism. (It’s also a hallmark of the New Left, but that’s not how I came into it.) To quote the conservative theorist Russell Kirk (1918-1994), “conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order” that is “sustained by a body of sentiments, rather than by a system of ideological dogmata,” and which believes that “a people’s historic continuity of experience” is more authoritative than “the abstract designs of coffee-house philosophers.”

Of course, Russell Kirk’s conservatism was itself paradoxical. Kirk espoused an ideological system that asserted its own “constant” and “permanent” metaphysical truthfulness as well as its own non-ideological and skeptical character. But paradox is a constant companion to human intellectual life.

III. Belief in educational structure—but not micromanagement

Another typical but not unique element of modern conservative thought, closely related to the one above, is skepticism of central planning.

Much of that skepticism may be a historical accident, born in reaction to specific managerial forms that socialism took in the early 20th century. But it probably goes deeper, to earlier conservative-minded intellectuals’ horror at what the industrial revolution wrought in 19th-century life. (To be clear, that skepticism features in many varieties of left-wing thought, too.)

In our time, we can see skepticism of central planning at work in many—but obviously not all—American conservatives’ opposition to the centralizing educational reforms (or “reforms”) of the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) and the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2009). More than almost any major issue that comes to mind, the politics surrounding national education standardization does not map neatly onto Republican or Democratic partisan identities.

To some degree, that confusion probably reflects the way educational conservatism combines two ideas that exist in tension. Specifically, I associate educational conservatism not only with skepticism of central planning, but also with belief in clear rules and prescriptions for what an education should involve.

One way to handle the undeniable tension between those two principles is to place a great deal of trust in the trained, competent teacher. Given a set of general goals and best practices, the teacher creatively decides how to achieve them in their particular classroom.

This is my preference. In the context of higher education, I have been an advocate for more rigid liberal arts curricula (prescribing more required courses and prerequisites, more required “general education” subjects across a variety of disciplines, and fewer wide-open electives as requirements for graduation) combined with enormous freedom for instructors to decide how to design their courses within the larger curricular framework.

Having said that, I should probably talk a bit more about what I think a history course should cover.

IV. Teaching toward an established (albeit flexible and evolving) body of shared factual knowledge

In practice, this is probably the most visibly conservative element of my history instruction. I want my students to acquire the knowledge of a fairly extensive canon of historical reference points. Another way to put this: I believe in designing courses for broad “content coverage.” This is not the only goal of my teaching, but it is not an incidental goal, either.

In this respect, my teaching has become more conservative over time.

Explaining myself here will probably work best if I work from examples. Here’s one: For a while on social media, I noticed historians making comments like “a student could never pass my U.S. history class without knowing about X,” where X was often something like the Tulsa Race Massacre or the Chinese Exclusion Act. Every time I saw such a comment from a professor, I was confident that it was strictly false.

Conversely, here’s another example: I started to notice non-historians on social media complaining about all the things their schools and colleges never taught them. This is now a popular genre of tweet, often focusing on local or regional history, but above all, focusing on history that doesn’t fit a simple story of progress.

At some point, reflecting on such experiences, I decided that the widespread belief among academic historians that their university-level courses should aim for in-depth analysis of a few selected topics, rather than broad “coverage,” amounted to a self-defeating cop-out.

De-emphasizing coverage, I decided, was a way to ensure that most of our students will never actually learn the things that we ourselves claim they need to learn in order to have an acceptable history education.

Now, for the sake of fairness, let me add that I understand the inclination to de-emphasize coverage. I have sometimes practiced it myself. And I understand the key governing assumptions: (A) That students are supposed to get their basic education in history facts before they come to college; (B) that students whose imaginations and analytical skills are sharpened by our college courses will then go out and seek to learn additional history, which is something they’ll never do if history just means memorizing facts; and (C) that ideally, students will take more than just one or two introductory history courses while they’re in college.

I get it. I do. I’m just saying that it doesn’t seem to work very well.

So, having made a commitment to broad coverage, do I design my university courses so that “learning history” just means memorizing and repeating huge lists of names, dates, and neatly packaged facts, like Ben Stein’s character from you-know-what?

No, I don’t. Because that would be ridiculous and self-defeating.

It’s also entirely unnecessary. Learning new things is fun—if it involves actual learning—and students are entirely capable of learning facts by learning why they matter. The dichotomy between coverage and analysis is a false one, even if we do face hard choices about how much time to devote to different topics or to the different interrelated aspects of learning.

But how do we decide how big to go when defining the scope of our coverage?

V. Pragmatic acceptance of the nation-state’s central role in modern political and social life

This may be the conservative element of my teaching that is most likely to annoy historians who strongly identify with the left.

Let me say, first, that I have taught basic college courses framed in numerous different ways that are often seen as competing with each other. I have taught U.S. history surveys; I have taught world history surveys; I have taught courses that were (or at least had been conceived as) basically “western” or European history courses; and I have taught courses on ethnicity and diversity in North America.

At this point, I’m pretty happy with all of them. Each of the frames I have mentioned has advantages and disadvantages. That is, I have seen each kind of course accomplish important things that courses defined differently would not have accomplished.

There is a tendency among many academic historians today to downplay the nation, and in this case, the United States, as a container for the history we teach. Many seem to categorically prefer transnational and global approaches to designing history courses. Although I have learned a lot from these historians, and have tried to incorporate their insights into my teaching, I remain doubtful that abandoning a national frame will automatically improve a history education.

One of the things a well-designed U.S. history survey can do is take a close look at the American state itself. This is important because students living in the United States tend to experience the United States of America not only as a central site of power—vast power—but also as a central focus of personal identity and belonging.

Nations are indeed “imagined communities” with “invented traditions,” as the historians tell us. But the imagination is a very powerful thing, and so are traditions that have been recently invented.

In this respect, I tend to agree with a claim of the sociologist Liah Greenfeld: “Nationalism, in short, is the modern culture. It is the symbolic blueprint of modern reality, the way we see, and thereby construct, the world around us, the specifically modern consciousness.” [†] One does not need to accept nationalism’s claims uncritically in order to grasp its importance to modern people, in many ways of which they may not even be aware. Indeed, being skeptical of nationalism may increase the importance of taking it seriously and questioning it as an organizing principle of modern human experience.

Now, I have written elsewhere about how important it is for history teachers and students to see the United States as a place of real struggle rather than as a place where timeless founding ideals worked themselves out over the centuries. This puts my approach at odds with at least one prominent conservative historian’s prescriptions for teaching U.S. history well, and certainly at odds with the recent extravagant diatribes of the non-historians on the 1776 Commission.

But in my level of comfort with the basic concept of teaching courses on national history, I’m a pretty conservative guy. Which means the next conservative element of my teaching probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

VI. Belief in large-scale narratives as tools not only for student engagement but also for developing student understanding

I have written about this principle elsewhere, going into much more depth than I can manage today, so I will not belabor this point now.

Let me just say this: When I ask people to tell me what went well and what went poorly in their history courses in school or college, narrative is one of the most frequent subjects to come up. Often, people recall a history teacher who “told vivid stories” in class, or talk about reading historical fiction that made them realize that “history is stories.” But some go further, talking about the importance of “connections”: history became real to them only when they understood that isolated incidents and particular people were part of something larger that ultimately gives them a role in explaining our experiences today.

How can history teachers design courses that tell large-scale narratives, especially national narratives, without falling into the trap of ahistorically portraying human experience as a sort of inexorable march of progress (or disaster)? Here is where the final conservative element of my teaching proves crucial.

VII. A primarily tragic and ironically hopeful rather than utopian or dystopian outlook on human affairs

This has a lot to do with my personal psychological makeup and even my personal religious commitments. I won’t claim that it can—or should—characterize the work of other history teachers in quite the same way. But my work wouldn’t be the same without this element, and it helps explain how the other elements hold together for me.

This post has repeatedly mentioned paradoxes and tensions. That’s because paradoxes and tensions are endemic to human experience as I understand it.

What is humanity like, as we have seen it over millennia? Humanity is violent, irrational, xenophobic, cruel, and fragile. Humanity is also loving, creative, reasonable, hospitable, adaptable, and idealistic. Every society, and indeed virtually every person, presents a mixture of these characteristics. Sometimes, these characteristics are impossible to extricate from each other; our heroes exercise their heroism through cruelty, our villains act out of misplaced idealism, and our curiosity and ingenuity produce weapons of war.

In the face of the contradictions that characterize human existence, some history scholars and teachers attempt a kind of clinical detachment—treating the human past as a thing beyond judgment. But I believe such detachment is both undesirable and totally unachievable. We can’t help but judge the people of the past. Even if we could manage it psychologically, our resulting histories would be unintelligible. So in practice, supposedly nonjudgmental histories simply end up supporting the pretensions of the most powerful, while also promoting a kind of anomie among people living in the present.

What alternatives do we have? Well, many of us try to empathize with people from the past in an even-handed way—but even historical empathy involves taking sides more than we like to imagine. Others (probably fewer today than formerly, but more than one might assume) try to discern the overriding hand of Providence or Fate in human affairs—but that approach takes us far beyond what modern historical methods can reveal to us.

Here is my alternative: We can put the human struggle itself—the struggle to be right, to be good, to be hopeful, to be joyful, to make beautiful things, to stop getting worse, to start getting better—at the heart of the story.

I don’t believe historical scholarship has revealed a human world of endless perfectibility, of an endless march toward our original ideals, or of an endless decline from a natural state of grace. I believe it has revealed a world of endless being human.

Is this conviction a form of conservatism? I believe it is. Because it brings me right back to the first element in my list.

The ultimate reason to learn history, I believe, is to identify ways to become a better member of a community. Not to find ways to join the march of History, to harness Fate, or to justify revolutions and counterrevolutions (however good and important they may be). Nor, conversely, to find ways to acclimatize to oppression or to naturalize injustice as the normal way of the world.

The best reason to teach and learn history is to become better—in the full moral and social sense of that word—at being ourselves.

_______________

Notes

[*] I can’t seem to locate my copy of New Directions in American Intellectual History, in which Vesey’s essay “Intellectual History and the New Social History” appeared in 1979, but this line is on page 4.

[ ] Liah Greenfeld, “Nationalism and the Mind,” in Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006), 204. It is worth noting that Greenfeld has a reputation as an idiosyncratic scholar.

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