The Problem of American Conservatism: An Educational Omission
Although Alan Brinkley made the argument that historians neglect the American conservative tradition in historical scholarship, Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man are two best-selling examples of the vast body of historical scholarship on American conservatism. Brinkley’s claim, however, highlighted a different problem with the history of American conservatism, namely a lack of public awareness about the beliefs and goals associated with the American conservative tradition. In a history seminar at UCLA about American conservatism, undergraduate upperclassmen demonstrated initial ignorance on the subject while maintaining some familiarity with liberal causes and history. Even in their junior and senior years, many history students at UCLA have little exposure to the history of American conservatism. The curriculum of American history courses at UCLA, paired with the widespread availability of scholarship on American conservatism, therefore demonstrated that the problem of American conservatism is not a historiographical problem but an educational omission. Education at major academic institutions, such as UCLA, is dominated by history textbooks that support the Leftist ethos of American history, often addressing conservative views for the sole purpose of illustrating their absurdity and falsehood.
In his article “The Problem of American Conservatism,” historian Alan Brinkley argued that American conservatism faces a historiographical problem because historical scholarship on American conservatism is scarce and often dismissive of the conservative viewpoint. For example, Brinkley argued that the little historical scholarship that exists on American conservatism fails to provide an objective analysis of history, or one in which conservative perspectives are put forward with equal legitimacy as the liberal or Leftist perspective. He pointed out that:
little in [historians’] explanations of what such scholars at times called the ‘radical Right,’ the ‘New Right,’ or the ‘pseudo-conservative revolt’ suggested that conservatives were people whose ideas or grievances should be taken seriously or that the Right deserved attention as a distinct element of the American political tradition. (Brinkley, 411)
Historians characterize conservative groups and movements as “radical” or spurious in order to dismiss the validity of the conservative perspective. Brinkley argued that historians generally neglected or misrepresented American conservatism in scholarship.
However, historical scholarship on American conservatism is not only available but also very popular in American society, evident by the bestseller status of some conservative historical narratives. In 1960, Republican senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona released The Conscience of a Conservative, an elaborate narrative of the American conservative stance on various issues, ranging from states’ rights and taxes to civil rights and the Cold War. Patrick Buchanan, Republican politician and columnist, wrote that Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative “was the college student underground book of the times. It was virtually ignored by the media, most college professors, and other liberals, who had long held a monopoly on the information flowing to the American people” (Goldwater, ix). Although the book was popular, Buchanan suggested that the liberal bias of educators and the media prevented the book from reaching the general public and gaining recognition. Similarly, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man presented a commitment to classical liberalism (a segment of conservatism often referred to today as libertarianism) by arguing that, because liberal democracy had prevailed while communism began a global trend of collapse, the American system of liberal democracy was “the end of history,” or the final stage of political progress. Both Goldwater and Fukuyama defended conservative views with intelligent arguments and yet students rarely find this type of information in commonly used college textbooks on American history.
In a response to critics, Brinkley conceded that historians have produced extensive scholarship on American conservatism and altered his argument to criticize historians for allowing liberal versions of history to dominate the field, but Brinkley’s revised claim no longer identified a historiographical problem but, rather, an educational problem. Acknowledging that historians have produced scholarship on American conservatism, Brinkley criticized “the profession’s failure to ‘mainstream’ the study of conservatism” (Brinkley, 450). However, he mistakenly assumed that historians have significant control over bringing historical scholarship into the mainstream. Historians produce scholarship while educators, including college professors and the media, are responsible for bridging the gap between scholarship and public awareness. As evinced by Goldwater and Fukuyama’s books, historical scholarship on American conservatism is both plentiful and popular, but, as Brinkley pointed out in his response, it is inaccessible to the general public. Therefore, the problem of American conservatism must be an educational omission rather than a historiographical problem.
Despite the availability and popularity of historical scholarship on the American conservative tradition, history students at UCLA are tremendously uninformed about the beliefs and goals associated with American conservatism. On the first day of the UCLA seminar, History 191: History of American Conservatism, Professor Gantner gauged the class’ knowledge of American conservatism to demonstrate that many college students have little understanding of American conservative beliefs. Supporting his hypothesis, some students explained that conservatism describes individuals with an ideological perspective that is “traditional” and resistant to change (Lecture, 08/01/2011). Few students were able to contribute responses that demonstrated a meaningful understanding of American conservatism. As Brinkley described, “conservatism is not, in short, an ‘ideology,’ with a secure and consistent internal structure” (Brinkley, 414). Far from resistant to change, conservatives have adopted varying views over time in response to changes in American life and the evolving American political tradition. As historical scholarship on American conservatism exists and yet students at a top university remain uninformed about the subject, it is reasonable to attribute the lack of awareness and understanding of American conservatism to a lack of educational access to historical scholarship on the American conservative tradition.
An analysis of syllabi from lower division United States history courses at UCLA demonstrate that educators in the history department tend to select textbooks that support the Leftist or liberal ethos of American history. The syllabi available online through the academic years of 2008-2009 until 2010-2011 showed that the works of historian Eric Foner accounted for 42% of the required reading for lower division undergraduate United States history courses at UCLA. His books appeared eight times on the syllabi of seven courses in the History 13 series, UCLA’s lower division courses on U.S. history. A pioneer among Marxist and neo-Marxist historians, Foner has been the target of criticism from some groups on the Right that argue that he “preaches Marxism” in courses he teaches at Columbia University, a major academic institution in New York (Fuller). Conservatives have further criticized his book Give Me Liberty! An American History as a “shamelessly biased freshman textbook” because of the Leftist framework within which it presents history. However, 71% of the lower division undergraduate U.S. history courses at UCLA between 2008 and 2011 included Foner’s Give Me Liberty as required reading. The prevalence of history textbooks at UCLA that convey a liberal perspective of American history demonstrates that educators often fail to provide students with a full, diversified account of the American political tradition.
Comparing Foner’s popular history textbook to Goldwater’s account of the 1960s, it is evident that Foner’s version of history supported the Left’s version of events while omitting the conservative perspective. For example, the two narratives presented widely disparate representations of the Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed segregation in public schools. Goldwater argued that the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevented the federal government from intervening in education, reserving the right to create educational policy to state governments. He cited the Supreme Court decision in his book and explained the conservative response:
‘In approaching this problem,’ Chief Justice Warren said, ‘we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the amendment was adopted… We must consider public education in the light of its full development and in its present place in American life throughout the nation.’ In effect, the Court said that what matters is not the ideas of the men who wrote the Constitution, but the Court’s ideas. It was only by engrafting its own views that the Court was able to reach the decision it did. (Goldwater 29)
Goldwater therefore argued that, while he opposed discrimination and agreed with the wisdom of integration, the U.S. Supreme Court did not have legitimate authority to defy the Constitution and legislate from the bench by making the decision to outlaw segregation in schools. Foner’s version of history, however, supported the Supreme Court’s decision without presenting the opposing views. In his account of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in Give Me Liberty! An American History, Foner wrote, “With Truman’s civil rights initiative having faded and the Eisenhower administration being reluctant to address the issue, it fell to the courts to confront the problem of racial segregation” (Foner, 955). Without addressing the controversy of whether the judicial branch had legitimate authority to regulate educational policy and outlaw segregation in schools, Foner subtly mentioned that the decision “fell to the courts” (emphasis added). He therefore implied that the Supreme Court had the right and the responsibility to intervene in educational policy-making, a point that Goldwater and many other conservatives disputed. His presentation of the case failed to address objections to the decision, leaving history students without any doubts about the legitimacy or correctness of the Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. The failure of popular college history textbooks to address both liberal and conservative perspectives demonstrates that, while the information is available in historical scholarship, education falls short of objectivity when it assumes the correctness of the liberal perspective while omitting arguments that arose among conservatives.
When UCLA’s U.S. history curriculum includes historical scholarship on American conservatism, conservative views are often countered or discredited by the liberal perspective. One lower division U.S. history course at UCLA, for example, included the book Debating the American Conservative Movement, 1945 to present co-authored by historians Donald T. Critchlow and Nancy MacLean who each presented the opposite sides of the political spectrum through alternating essays on different topics. Although the course may have included this textbook with the goal of presenting both sides of each argument, the professor only felt compelled to include both sides when explaining the conservative perspective. Considering that the other two required texts in the course, Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty! An American History and Voices of Freedom, were not paired with a conservative counterpart, it is evident that history professors assess a need to counter the argument of conservatives and yet do not deem it equally important for the purpose of educational objectivity to counter a Leftist representation of history with the conservative narrative.
In another example, the 2011 UCLA summer seminar on the History of American Conservatism exposed undergraduate history students to historical scholarship on the American conservative tradition, but the lectures and discussions then discredited the conservative position. For example, as explained previously, Goldwater used his book The Conscience of a Conservative to defend the conservative, or right-wing, viewpoint on the Brown v. Board of Education decision based on an argument that the federal government had no right to intervene in legislation regarding education in the states. In the seminar, Professor Gantner explained that the argument for states’ rights was actually a “code” for White Southerners that perceived the Brown v. Board of Education ruling as an assault on Jim Crow laws (Lecture, 08/10/2011). His claim that the argument for states’ rights was a facade for White Southern racism discredited Goldwater’s conservative perspective because Gantner implied that conservatives did not actually believe that the Constitution placed education in the realm of rights reserved to the states and restricted from federal intervention. Professor Gantner’s argument therefore also implied that the Brown v. Board of Education decision was correct despite the conservative argument that the decision overstepped the Court’s authority.
Despite Brinkley’s arguments that historians failed to produce or “mainstream” historical scholarship on American conservatism, an extensive body of scholarship exists on the subject. Analyzing the syllabi of lower division United States history courses at UCLA, however, demonstrated that the conservative perspective is marginalized by Leftist representations of American history at major academic institutions. The 2011 summer seminar on the history of American conservatism was a step in the right direction toward bridging the educational gap between the historical scholarship and public awareness of American conservatism because it exposed students to information often omitted in American history courses at UCLA. However, class lectures and discussions served mainly to refute the conservative perspective, perpetuating the educational bias that prevents students from taking American conservatism seriously.
- Brinkley, Alan. “The Problem of American Conservatism.” American Historical Review. Volume 9, Issue 2. April 1994.
- DuBois, Ellen. Syllabus for History 13B: History of the U.S. and Its Colonial Origins: 19th Century. Winter 2009. https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/09W/hist13b-1/
- DuBois, Ellen. Syllabus for History 13B: U.S. History: the Nineteenth Century. Winter 2011. < https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/course/view/11W-HIST13B-1?topic=1>
- Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History, Volume 2. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
- Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
- Fuller, Al. “Eric Foner Preaches Marxism on Campus.” The Other Half of History. 12 June 2011. <http://historyhalf.com/eric-foner-preaches-marxism-on-campus/>
- Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1990.
- Higbie, Frank Tobias. Syllabus for History 13C: History of the U.S. and its Colonial Origins: 20th Century. Spring 2010. <https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/course/view/10S-HIST13C-1>
- Lameraux, Naomi. Syllabus for History 13B: Nineteenth Century U.S. History. Winter 2010. https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/mod/resource/view.php?id=45157
- Lytle Hernandez, Kathleen. Syllabus for History 13C: History of the U.S. and its Colonial Origins: 20th Century. Spring 2011. <https://classes.sscnet.ucla.edu/course/view/11S-HIST13C-1>
- Meranze, Michael. Syllabus for History 13A: History of the U.S. and Its Colonial Origins: Colonial Origins and First Nation Building Acts. Fall 2008. <https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/08F/hist13a-1/>
- Radosh, Ronald. “The Left’s Lion.” National Review Online. 1 July 2002. <http://old.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-radosh071002.asp>