American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It

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This book offers a rare opportunity to read about how a scholar's teaching informs his research, in this case an examination of the nature of American conservatism. It is based on an interdisciplinary senior seminar Lyons taught in Spring 2006. His teaching log, including student comments from an electronic conferencing system, gives a vivid sense of the daily frustrations and triumphs. Lyons reflects on some of the most difficult issues in higher education today, such as how to handle racism and political passions in the classroom, as well as how a teacher presents his own political convictions.

Lyons begins with the premise that most universities have been negligent in helping undergraduates understand a movement that has shaped the political landscape for half a century. In addition, in a series of essays that frame the teaching log, he makes the case that conservatives have too often failed to adhere to basic, Burkean principles, and that the best of conservatism has often appeared as a form of liberalism from thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Kennan. The essays also cover the history of conservatism, conservative use of the city-on-a-hill metaphor, and an examination of how the promise of Camelot sophistication was subverted by a resurgence of right-wing populism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Highly recommended.

A rich and inspiring account of his experience teaching a senior seminar on American conservatism
--Political Science Quarterly

A set of unusual supple and highly-personal reflections on the best ways to analyze conservative movements in the United States.
--David Watt, Temple University

With this volume, Lyons has greatly deepened our understanding of American conservatism.
--Louis A. Ferleger, Professor of History, Boston University

A model of liberal learning, and the crucial role of the study of conservatism within it.
--Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826516251
  • Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
  • Publication date: 4/13/2009
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul Lyons taught U.S. history and social policy at Stockton College. He was the author of five books, most recently The People of This Generation: The Rise and Fall of the New Left in Philadelphia.
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Read an Excerpt

American Conservatism

Thinking It, Teaching It

By Paul Lyons

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2009 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-9256-9


Teaching Log: Starting Out

In the Beginning

January 17

* * *

Examining my initial comments, I am reinforced in my sense of how important beginnings are. Students are amazingly observant—they pay attention to what we wear, to whether we got a haircut, and to our idiosyncratic gestures; they approach the classroom as student guerrillas who need to scope out the more powerful figure in the front of the room, who need to figure out what they need to do to survive. This doesn't necessarily make them cynical or even manipulative; this guerrilla sense is often mixed with wonder and hopeful expectation. But it is always careful.

On my part, I try to empathize with that resistance to what I offer without succumbing to it. I enter every new class, even those I have taught many times, full of butterflies, encountering a bunch of strangers who for assorted reasons have registered for my class. Usually, the nervousness is gone within minutes of the class beginning.

I was more wired than usual, as it was not only a new term but a new course, and one I think of as more ambitious than others insofar as I see it as the core of a new book. We did the usual stuff—syllabus, basic information about me (office hours, e-mail, phone) and them (major, e-mail or phone). I wanted to give them a sense of the "why" of the course. So I started with procedures—three papers, electronic conferencing with weekly entries, attendance, and all that—but focused mostly on demeanor, the tone of what I expect from them and from me.

Most of them seemed "there," listening, positive body language, lots of questions, and even some discussion at the outset once I had talked about both the rules of behavior and why I decided to teach the course. Let me start with the latter since it leads inexorably to the former. I have noticed how few colleges teach courses on conservatism, American or otherwise. Yes, there are courses in politics, history, and philosophy that have sections devoted to conservative thinkers and movements, but few actual courses. Even those that exist focus mostly on right-wing extremism: the Klan, American Nazis, militias, anti-abortion militants, skinheads, racist groups. More importantly, I noticed that many nonconservative academics seem oblivious to conservatism except as a target of scorn, ridicule, and contempt. One colleague states that he has no interest in teaching this stuff because students get it all the time from our culture; he only teaches what he believes to be truth, which is indisputably on the left. Others just have such a negative view of anything conservative that they can't imagine dealing with it as other than pathology or human greed.

I told my class that I thought it was important to make sense of a movement and point of view (actually, as we'll see, points of view) that many argue have dominated the American political landscape for maybe thirty-five years. What is conservatism? Where did it come from? What are its variations, its contradictions, its tensions? Its strengths? Its future? I spoke of how student conservatives often know little of what they claim to be their point of view; liberals and radicals even less beyond pejoratives. And most nonpoliticals might mention Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly but have no more than an inkling of what it's all about.

When I asked the class to tell me what, at the end of the term, would disappoint them—a technique I've used with success on several occasions—there was a torrent of comments, initially from more conservative students, telling me, as they noted in passing how liberal Stockton was, how most of their liberal professors blow their comments off and treat them unfairly. I acknowledged their experience without agreeing with David Horowitz's polemic that colleges are intolerant places run by liberals and radicals in need of legislative remedy. I talked a bit about Horowitz, suggesting that his claims to integrity were compromised by his one-sidedness. Yes, there are liberal profs who are intolerant of conservative students, but then why doesn't Horowitz discuss political correctness at Bob Jones or Brigham Young or hundreds of religious institutions or many Southern or Rocky Mountain colleges where you are at risk if you are left of center? My gut feeling is that liberals are more tolerant than conservatives, but that may be my bias.

But what I wanted to do was to model modesty, humility, and tentativeness without sacrificing passion and directness. I told them I chose a history written by a conservative and an anthology organized by one so that they could have multiple points of view different from my own. We had an interesting discussion of whether profs influence their students; I told them that I didn't trust disciples, that I'm not impressed by students who become activists, right or left, because they are influenced by a prof. What matters is how they act over a lifetime and, to me, that requires a more critical thinker, not someone who becomes transformed and energized but only for six months or six years. As an old sixties activist I had seen too many burnt out, sold-out young people, passionate Maoists who are now investment bankers. Of course, that's an old saw and a cliché. In fact, my own research has demonstrated that most activists find a way to make a lifetime of their commitments, living in the world but not of it. But I think that the class got a sense of my approach, including my own curiosity.

So we'll start on Thursday with the readings from Edmund Burke, essays by Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. I laid out the early framework: traditionalist and libertarian strands, later augmented by neoconservatism and the religious right. A good start, good feelings as we closed off, like we're at the start of an intriguing adventure. I told them that I was writing a book about the course and let them know that, with protection of their privacy, they would be part of it.

Edmund Burke

January 19

* * *

I worked with special diligence to prepare for this first substantive class—going over the Burke selection in particular several times, as well as the pieces by Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, although I anticipated, it turns our accurately, that we wouldn't get to the latter. My concern pedagogically was how to address both the historical context within which Burke wrote his reflections and the writing itself. This is characteristically an issue at the beginning of a course, especially one that has no prerequisites. Some of the students are political science, history, philosophy, and literature majors with some experience in Western and American thought and textual analysis, but others come in with little background and consequently struggle with the meaty readings. My approach is to frame the issues: European history, the roles of church and state, the dynamics of feudalism and the rise of monarchies, the importance of the scientific revolution, and, finally, the bare basics of both the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And I do this with sufficient time to engage Burke's words. I always worry about losing—or boring—the less-experienced student. I asked for initial reactions to the approximately forty pages of readings in Burke; one student told of her frustration, another of his boredom. This was good in that I knew many others were raring to go with what they found in the text. But I took a little time to discuss empathetically how such readings can be difficult for students who have little experience with noncontemporary commentary. I wanted to set a tone: I understand but will push you to get beyond the claim of boredom, to reach within to focus on why so many people consider this guy—Burke—so important. Most feedback was positive although, again, events will tell. I was less happy with how much of Burke we covered, but I was pleased with the sections brought out by students and with the concluding reading and discussion of Burke's statement about the social contract in which he includes the living as well as those who have passed and those yet to be born. It's really a passage of enormous poetic power:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure—but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper or coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. [No worshiper of bourgeois values here!] It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their own appointed place.

With a caveat about democracy and my own essentially naturalistic bent, such wisdom belongs in any and all ideologies worth respect.

The students were zeroed in and understood how this differed from Locke; we discussed how the Burkean tradition was ambivalent about dimensions of capitalism, about what Marx called the cash nexus, about materialism, as well as how Burke valued his own version of diversity—slices of monarchy, aristocracy and its code of chivalry, and Whig predominance. At the close I asked them to consider how this traditionalist version of the social contract distinguished the English from Native Americans in deals over land. Who owns the land? Is it alienable? What rights do one's ancestors and one's heirs have? Can it be sold?

I tried to model multiple points of view, asking one of my more liberal students, Kate, to consider why she was so impatient with Burke's molasses-slow model of change. We discussed his skill in placing himself at the center and the idea of moderate Whiggish change as an alternate to reaction and revolution. We also discussed the excitement the intelligentsia felt in being the first to imagine that they could exceed the accomplishments of the classics, the power of the scientific revolution and its political parallels.

Making Adjustments, Serendipitous Happenings

January 20

* * *

I've been reading my students' Web Board logs, about half of them so far. Lots of enthusiasm; two useful criticisms. One, that I need to keep the language simple. Two, that I need to let the students go at it more. On the latter, I work a great deal, but on the former, sometimes, in my enthusiasm about an idea, I forget that I need to translate complexities, especially for the rookies. On the latter, I felt the need to offer background on the history without which Burke makes no sense; that might have been necessary, but at the same time I want to keep an eye on lecturing too much.

Interesting how much feedback I get in the hallways. Stockton is, for the most part, one long main street of connected building units. As you stroll along from class to the library, or cafeteria to the office, you run into colleagues. Often what should have been a three-minute walk turns into fifteen minutes or more—three, four, or five conversations. It's one of the things I love about the college. It includes the "hello, how are ya" with janitors and workmen and secretaries, but it also includes students who, of course, make up the bulk of the pedestrian traffic. Students from several years back, students from last term, and my newest students. There are some past students who either through shyness or hostility pay me no mind—usually they are the ones who didn't do well, whom I knew to be unhappy during the course. But what I see these past few days are some of my American Conservatism students offering big hellos and, in a few cases, stopping to tell me how much they're enjoying the first classes, asking particular questions, or making comments about Burke or some other point made in class. I've never seen a study of out-of-class behavior as a measure of teaching effectiveness. I've always envied my colleague Bill Daly, who seems to get stopped in the hallways by dozens of students with the biggest, fullest hellos. Given that I've always argued that real learning takes place out of the classroom, in the hallways and in one's office, I'm struck by how little we know about this phenomenon.

I want to highlight this out-of-classroom phenomenon of hallway banter. The best of our residential liberal-arts colleges create an environment within which faculty and students can regularly, normally bump into one another—in the quad, along pathways, at benches, in the eating areas and the library, but also at the local bar, cleaners, supermarket. Much learning takes place outside of classrooms, both during conversations between faculty and students and, perhaps more importantly, among students, those all-night bull sessions over beer that I recall from my college years, arguing about the meaning of life, about God, about behaviorism versus psychoanalysis, about whether Jackson Pollock should be taken seriously, about anything and everything. The real curriculum is what saturates a student's life, creates that very life of the mind that those of us fortunate enough to have shared that extraordinary experience carry with us, in our bloodstream, within our central nervous system, for all of our days. The issue is how to translate such environments, characteristically limited to the elite institutions, to the theaters where most professors perform.

Nonelite colleges have a more difficult time establishing such learning environments, given that many of their students do not live on campus and most of them are rushing off to their twenty- to forty-hour-a-week jobs at the local mall. In such a rushed and less leisurely setting, what happens in the hallways and cafeterias matters more. I've never seen a study of how such interactions affect learning, but my own experience makes me wish that someone would do such an investigation.

Russell Kirk: The Dilemmas of Postwar Thought

January 24

* * *

What an extraordinary class! Our task was to thoroughly discuss and analyze Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and, hopefully, Albert Jay Nock. We never got to Nock and barely started Kirk. The first hour or so went wonderfully—students were prepared to make points about Weaver, whom many of them favored. Interestingly, both openly left and right students tended to read into him what was at best only there by inference or, to be unkind, in the mind of the student. So one mission of this course is to help them focus on the text, to respect it, to interrogate it before drawing any inferences from it. Toward that end we had lively and wide-ranging discussions that I focused on a series of questions: What's wrong? When did things go wrong? Who went wrong? They needed some assistance with William of Occam and his razor that made the "evil decision" which started the turn toward everything from the scientific method to rationalism, empiricism, Darwin, Marx, positivism, and pragmatism. The students seemed interested in the theme of essence and existence, in the notions of transcendence and of universals, in legal realism. Their backgrounds are meager; even the conservative students who claim to have some knowledge coming in seem to be thin on basic concepts and historical framework. But the discussion took off when a few students pointed to Weaver's critique of his own times: "the deep anxiety, the extraordinary prevalence of neurosis, which makes our age unique." They were moved: "The typical modern has the look of the hunted." They commented on disintegration, hatred, fear, powerlessness. Jack noted, "It's amazing that he saw that way back then." I had to place them in the postwar era that Weaver inhabited, one that I have been studying a great deal lately, influenced by Ira Katznelson's Desolation and Enlightenment, a study of how thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Reinhold Niebuhr sought to sustain the Enlightenment project in the face of the horrors of totalitarianism, genocide, and fears of nuclear annihilation. I wanted them to see that Weaver shared deep concern with many nonconservative thinkers; indeed, I wanted them to see that the best way to make sense of the postwar period is to recognize how profoundly shaken most intellectuals were by the fact of evil. We discussed Weaver's claim that "hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil."


Excerpted from American Conservatism by Paul Lyons. Copyright © 2009 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: What Is American Conservatism? 1

Part I Teaching Conservatism

1 Teaching Log: Starting Out 19

2 Teaching Log: The Stretch Drive 64

Course Syllabus 108

American Conservatism Defined 116

Part II Thinking Conservatism

3 From Camelot to Cowboy 121

4 Cities on a Hill 132

5 Is There an American Conservatism? 147


As We Approach the Future 173

Notes 179

Bibliography 187

Index 197

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