Thanks to Mike Wakeford and the Society for US Intellectual History for offering a thoughtful review of my new book. I was tickled pink to see it. Intellectual historians can be a tough crowd, so I was a little nervous when I starting reading it. But Dr. Wakeford captured my goals well and offered some kind words as well.
SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about the book. But new readers might not know that I looked closely at four of the most famous school controversies of the twentieth century. I wanted to figure out what had gone into making someone “conservative” when it came to education.
It would not have been kosher, I thought, simply to pick some of the best-known conservative groups and chronicle their activism. To do so, I would have had to impose a definition of what it meant to be a true “conservative.” By looking at school battles and examining instead what the conservative side wanted in each case, I was able to extract a definition of conservatism without imposing one from the outside.
That was the goal, anyway. Did it work? Dr. Wakeford thinks so:
Laats’ case-study approach is sound, effectively accomplishing his stated purpose of avoiding falling into easy stereotypes and generalizations (5).
Whew! My second goal in this book was to avoid imposing twenty-first-century connotations of “conservatism” onto earlier generations. I worked hard to get into a broad array of archives in order to get a handle on what conservatives themselves really cared about in the decades from 1920 to 1980. I was enormously gratified to read that Wakeford appreciated my labors. As he put it, my approach
also required that he dip into a remarkably eclectic source base, which ends up as one of the book’s strengths. Given the public nature of educational debates, national and local newspapers from Tennessee to Pasadena to West Virginia provide the core. But the study is enriched by Laats’ use of state legislative records and evangelical publications from the 1920s, the archival and published record of the American Legion and other conservative groups, local school board records, and, in the case of Kanawha County, author interviews with key figures.
In the book—and in my work here on ILYBYGTH—I worked hard not to impose my own progressive assumptions or stereotypes on conservative activists. I did not want to write a book simply damning the work of conservatives. Rather, I wanted to try to understand their goals and evaluate their strategies. Wakeford evaluated those attempts kindly as well:
To his credit, Laats rarely questions his subjects’ sincerity or the authenticity of their curricular visions, crediting them as meaningful participants in an important civic conversation about the purpose of schooling. But he is no sympathizer, and asks difficult questions about what has really made the movement tick.
Almost makes you want to read the book! Many thanks to Dr. Wakeford and the US Intellectual History blog.