Yesterday, after wrangling with my very patient editor over the results of a user review of a new table of contents for my first-year writing textbook, I spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of a textbook from the early 1990s that George Will had railed against in a column as an example of the evils done by Tenured Radicals™. I never did find it, but I did find an old chestnut from Newsweek about which I’d forgotten, Will’s 1991 “Curdled Politics on Campus.” If I remember correctly, this is the Will column that made an appearance in a few of the essays anatomizing the body of work being committed in the early 1990s decrying what they were calling “political correctness.” It ends with this kicker of a paragraph:
Where did we get the ruinous notion that it is the business, even the bounden duty, of schools to produce sweet-tempered neighbors and politically admirable citizens? There is a connection between the rise of that notion–schools as society’s perfecters–and the decline of schools as producers of graduates who think precisely, write clearly, read complex material and bring historical understanding to today’s conditions. Nice neighbors and virtuous citizens are grand, but first things first, please.
Of course this “ruinous” notion didn’t just rise in the late 1980s–it’s what countless educators and writers on the subject since and before Matthew Arnold have expressly wished education to be. Will and company–Bill Bennett, Lynne Cheney, E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Harold “No Relation” Bloom, &c.–just didn’t like the turn in what educators thought the nation’s young should be learning, about just what “politically admirable” entailed.
What struck me last night about this column was that it reminds that there’s nothing all that new about today’s backlash against teaching about the US that in today’s parlance is described as “woke.” Then it may have been about teaching Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare; today it’s about the idea that the country might have a history of racism. But it’s always been about painting any impulse to recognize that the official right wing story of the US leaves things out, things it would be good for people to know about, as disloyal.
What’s also striking me as especially “grand” about this column this morning, on rereading it in the car waiting for a high school soccer game to start, is the tone. It’s not just the unexamined notions that helping students gain a fuller picture of America is somehow opposed to good writing and clear thinking and that the behavior that might spring from that knowledge is merely “nice,” producing “sweet-tempered neighbors.” It’s also the disdain that drips from Will’s pen. It’s the same disdain you’ll hear on the right these days as they inveigh against critical race theory, though expressed with fewer four-dollar words and more fake populist folksiness.
So when you hear Josh Hawley or one of the many other fake populists who have been busy mobilizing racism for the good of their careers railing against what they’d like their voters to believe we’re teaching in school these days, think of the early 1990s and its earlier wave of ginned-up outrage against the crimes allegedly being committed around America’s quads, and don’t buy what they’re selling. Think of George Will and the way he mocks the idea that education has the potential to make better citizens–not citizens who will wave the flag and keep quiet but citizens who will try to make the country be a little better. Ask yourself if this is what your want out of your fellow citizens–blind flag-waving–and remember what that can turn into in the right hands. And then give yourself permission to take a break from being a nice neighbor and remember how silly his writing about baseball was.