…Almost Makes You Want to Read It

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.

Get yr copy today!  The book one person is talking about!!

Get yr copy today! The book one person is talking about!!

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.

Teaching the Culture Wars

Isn’t it nice to be included?

Andrew Hartman of Illinois State University, author of Education and the Cold War, has announced his reading list for a graduate seminar in America’s culture wars.

fundy and education scopes era coverI am tickled pink to see my 1920s book on the list (now available in paperback!).

It is an honor to be included with books that shaped my intellectual development, including Jonathan Zimmerman’s Whose America, James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, and many other wonderful titles.

Makes me want to join the seminar…

Marxists and Creationists: Peas in a Pod?

Are Marxists and Creationists sharing carrel space at American universities?

A query by Kurt Newman at the ever-interesting US Intellectual History blog generated a lively discussion of the question: How many Marxist historians are out there?

Reading the discussions led me to wonder a different question: Are academic Marxists and creationists flip sides of the same coin?

Darwin. Image Source: Humanist Life

Full disclosure: I’ve got thoroughly Marxist intellectual roots myself.  As an undergraduate, I found Marxism and its derivatives intensely interesting; those years remain profoundly influential in my thinking.  On the other hand, I’ve never been a creationist, though recently I’ve been accused of being one.  My intellectual world in my formative years had absolutely nothing to do with religion, the Bible, or creationism.

I’m not trying to promote one or the other, but the similarities between the two traditions jumped out at me.  Allow me to list a few of the obvious parallels:

  • Both Marxists and creationists remain surprisingly common on mainstream college campuses.  As David Long discovered when he began his ethnographic study of creationism on secular campuses, creationists are far more common than one might think.  The same result for Marxists becomes starkly clear when we read the responses to Newman’s query at USIH.
  • Both Marxists and creationists could make some claim to being persecuted.  Certainly, many mainstream scientists would not want to have creationist faculty in their departments.  And, as Newman points out in one of his comments, Marxist professors have a long history of institutional controversy.  Newman astutely mentioned in one aside, “(This is to say nothing of the apoplexy that would be induced in large swaths of the political class upon learning that any state-funded school was offering Marxist classes under the guise of US history, which might also say something about the stakes of doing Marxist research in 2012).”
  • Both Marxists and creationists could be accused of clinging obdurately to an intellectual tradition whose heyday has come and gone.
  • Both Marxist and creationist intellectuals and academics have always been famously and ferociously sectarian.  Gramsci-ites might not speak with Trotskyites, who might look down their noses at Bernsteinians, etc.  The same is true with today’s creationist galaxy of “evolutionary creationism,” “young-earth,” pre-Adamics, post-Adamics, day-agers, gap theorists, etc. etc. etc.

Marx. Image Source: Georgia Spears

Of course, some obvious differences jump out at us.  Here are a couple:

  • Marxism is profoundly secular, though some have called it a religion.  Creationism is profoundly religious, though some have insisted on its secular merits.
  • The two groups have enormous sociological differences.  Creationism does not thrive at elite schools, while Marxism seems to. The background of each group of scholars likely differs immensely.
  • Marxism seems to be losing influence outside the academy, while creationism has been steadily gaining strength in politics and popular culture for the past century.

So, are these flip sides of the same phenomenon?  Intellectuals who pride themselves on their superior insight into the workings of humanity and history?  Folks who take encouragement from the cultural slings and arrows directed their way?

Just askin…