Guest Column: What I Will Tell Students in the Fall

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Not long ago I had occasion to write an article for the Bipartisan Policy Center lamenting the decline in the discipline of history, noting, among other things:

There are a few exceptions to this general dreariness and leftward drift in history, including Wilfred McClay and Allen Guelzo.

Another exception worth knowing is Gregory L. Schneider, who is the Roe R. Cross Distinguished Professor of Emporia State University in Kansas. I’ve known Greg for a long while now, and we team-taught a summer school course together about the Great Society for the Ashbrook Center’s fine program for high school history and government teachers. He the author of five books on the history of railroads, and also American conservatism itself, all highly recommended.

Greg sent along the following text that parents ought to print off and pass along to their high school and college age kids:

What I Will Say

I teach modern American history at a regional university in Kansas, and I am a conservative, one of the rare modern American historians who can claim, and will proudly embrace, that distinction.

Given the circumstances politically and socially in the country right now since the death of George Floyd, and given the assault on free speech in the wider society, many professors probably fear saying the wrong thing, or fear even how to address the subject in their classes. I do not. This is what I will say on my first day of class in the fall term:

*     *

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the introductory course, U.S. history since 1877. We are going to embark on a story of hope and opportunity, covering an era which saw America become a great power, both in economic and in military terms. It was an era in which capitalism did more to lift people out of poverty and give them opportunity than in any comparable period in the world’s history. It was an era where Americans helped win two world wars, in the second defeating German fascism and Japanese militarism. In its aftermath we fought a Cold War which saw western democracy triumph over totalitarianism and communism. Not least, this era was one of extraordinary gains for those left behind from racism and gender inequalities in the nation; the people of the nation continue to pursue those ends despite the imperfect achievement of them.

It is a national history to be proud of, rather than one to despise. It is a story of the fulfillment of the goals of equality laid out in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, that America was founded on God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and no one, especially in government, could take those rights from you.

Somewhere, people in the nation have lost sight of that. Whether it is the fault of educators, the media, educational administrators, politicians, ministers, celebrities, or social media influencers, somewhere your generation has been led astray. Somewhere you have been taught that social justice is the end goal of all history, and that failure to achieve it now signifies a failure in our institutions and democracy. This course will stress a different conclusion: my course is a history of reaffirmation. It is a history of context and nuance. It is a history of the good, without ignoring the bad, and the ugly. It is a history of a nation which Abraham Lincoln called, correctly, “the last, best hope of Earth.”

And what made this history possible? Two things. The first was the vision of the founders, Thomas Jefferson’s radical doctrine of equality embraced in the Declaration of Independence, and the charter which gave sustenance to those rights (and responsibilities), the American Constitution. The second was American capitalism and its promotion of economic opportunity should you choose to avail yourselves of it.

You might ask right now: How can we celebrate the vision of the founders when we had such rampant racism from the end of Reconstruction until the civil rights movement of the 1960s? And what about today? I mean, how can you say that America is a great nation given what happened to George Floyd? How can we think anything good about a country and its people who fought brutal wars against the natives in the West? And who trampled on the rights and freedoms of women, and exploited immigrant labor for profit? How can we think that this country represented anything more than the selfish interests of a racist, misogynistic, plutocratic, and nativist caste? How can we think otherwise?

Well, my young friends, you will be taught otherwise, but you will be instructed to think for yourselves in this class. The founders were flawed men, as all men are. They owned slaves in some cases; they perpetuated an elitist view of republicanism rather than democracy; and they failed to see the verity of Jefferson’s radical claim—all men are created equal. It took a civil war to bring about the doctrine of equality and it took the Reconstruction era to attempt to ensure it.

It did not. What followed was a century of discrimination, racism, murder, hate for black Americans and for many other minority groups as well. Our job is to understand why this happened, not so we can alter the past to fit it to our own sensibilities (that just leads to charging against windmills, or tearing down statues, which serve as the same symbols as windmills for today’s Don Quixote’s). Rather, we understand the past in its own context so we can understand more forthrightly why things were the way they were. Knowing that racism was far worse long ago, may give one an appreciation for the life we live today, built on the work and legacy of people some castigate so easily, and triumphantly, as racists.

 We will address issues of racism in their proper context. The goal of this course is not to turn you into activists, but for you to acquire the knowledge to be good citizens and to learn from our past. At the same time, this class will affirm the great things about America. Not everything in American history is problematic—much in our history is splendid and worth celebrating.

If historians are going to surrender their duties to instruct and to teach the context of the past in favor of redressing contemporary problems, you will learn much that will profit you on the barricades, but you will have no understanding of history. You will have no understanding of the importance of this moment in comparison with other moments. Nor will you understand why some people feel differently about the institutions and the traditions being cast asunder and why they oppose protestors and vandals tearing away the past.

The founders understood this about society and about history, which is why they created a system which remains so enduring that it has lasted for two-and-a-half centuries (so far). The model for the current protests–the French revolution and its successors in communist revolutions in the 20th century– created systems which, in their denial of human freedom and in their denial of human rights, lasted less than a century (thank goodness). Our country has its problems but turning towards the manifest inhumanity of Marxist solutions and communist revolutionary models will make us all poorer, and all slaves of the state.

So, as we begin this class, no topic is off limits and no discussion is off the table. Free speech is the basis for intellectual growth and development. It is the basis for a free society. Without free speech, there is no way democracy survives; attempts to subvert it through intimidation will not work in this class. In return, you will benefit from hearing views with which you disagree both from me, and, probably, from your classmates. This class will test your beliefs every day and will do so in a respectful manner.

Your professor is a zealous advocate and defender of free speech, one cause worthy of defending on campus, and in society, and one which is under dire threat. The threat to free speech is something all Americans should awake to. Free speech and the debate which comes with it is one of the most important legacies the founders bequeathed to us, which will always resonate with reasonable Americans, even in unreasonable times.

Let us begin our journey through American history and let us reason together.



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