Left, Right, and Center: Teaching about Conservatism

Mon 19 2010

Conservatism was "something of an orphan in historical scholarship," according to historian Alan Brinkley, writing in 1994.

Conservatives are no longer seen uniquely as elites seeking to maintain class status and privilege.

Thought has shifted since Brinkley's oft-quoted analytical essay on conservatism's neglected status. Research and debate about the conservative tradition, its ideological and popular roots have deepened and broadened. Discussions on conservativism (which is neither monolithic nor easily defined over time) frequently challenge the dominance of liberalism in American historiography, and contemporary historians are questioning the degrees to which the United States has or has not been a liberal or a conservative country—exploring the tension between liberal and conservative thought and action (and scholarly interpretation) that has existed since the days of Federalists and Whigs.

Conservatives and the post-World War II era

Classroom focus is usually on the growth of conservatism in the post-World War II era, an intellectual and grassroots movement frequently defined as one of the most significant, and perhaps polarizing, developments of the latter part of the 20th century. Conservatives began to coalesce around opposition to the New Deal, and despite internal factions, networks of political activists formed while scholars such as William F. Buckley gave voice to ideological premises.

The conservative movement began to organize and define itself more than ever before in opposition to the New Deal.

And as editor Leonard Moore points out in a 2003 issue of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History that focused conservatism in the United States, "Considering the protracted battles over such issues as bussing, school prayer, sex education, AIDS, multiculturalism, textbook content, history curriculum standards, vouchers, and the political influence of teachers' unions, to name only a few, the schools have been awash with homegrown teachable moments about the nature of American conservatism, its history and significance." Today's headlines expand those teachable moments.

A little online historiography

Articles from historians and video clips from 2009 and 2010 annual meetings of the OAH published on the History News Network (HNN) help negotiate both history and historiography of conservatism in the United States.

Donald Critchlow writing in What’s Wrong with the New Conservative History? posits that historians still don't have it quite right. Critchlow believes insufficient attention is given to framing the history of conservatism more broadly within the framework of modern liberalism and that too much attention focuses on conservatism as a racial backlash.

In Rediscovering American Conservatism Again, historian Leo Ribuffo, perhaps an iconic scholar on the subject, also challenges the chronological boundaries of conservatism as a post-World War II development, writing, "In most recent scholarship on the right, a glance back to the congressional conservative coalition formed in the 1930s feels like a stretch, William Graham Sumner seems obscure, and Alexander Hamilton is the guy on the $10 bill. We need...to address again the larger issue: In what sense has the United States been, and in what sense is it now, a conservative country? This is not a simple matter."

Conservative thought in America is as old as the country itself.

In these video clips from a Roundtable discussion at the 2010 OAH annual meeting, historians Angus Burgin, Beverly Gage, and Jennifer Burns highlight past and present historic interpretations of conservatism.

In clips from the 2009 meeting, historians Joseph Crespine, Rick Perlstein, and Angela Dillard discuss the state of the field.

A few classroom resources

Online teaching materials on Conservatism are difficult to find. The OAH Magazine of History issue on conservatism cites places to find information, acknowledging the touchy nature of politics in the classroom. Teaching with the Web: Using the Internet to Teach American Conservatism, points out that "many web sites about political leaders or influential movements have an obvious bias to the Right or Left...Although teachers can use these heavily biased sites to help students understand all points of view, documents are available that allow students to make their own decisions without appearing to endorse one view or the other."

Classroom lesson plans on conservatism, per se, are rare.

Since the OAH magazine is a 2003 publication, not all links remain equally pertinent; however, referred sites such as the National Archives are rife with easily-retrieved materials. The article LBJ Fights the White Backlash:The Racial Politics of the 1964 Presidential Campaign summarizes the conflict among candidates Lyndon Baines Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace. (A full-text of Conscience of a Conservative by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, political leader of the Conservative rally of the 1960s is available at Questia.)

Also from OAH, the lesson plan Comparative Decades: Conservatism in the 1920s and 1980s by AP history teacher Ted Dickson provides a handout and discussion guidelines for approaching longer-term chronology of conservative fiscal policy, government scandals, foreign policy, religion, and issues of law-and-order.

C-Span's American Writers takes a look at William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review, Conservative's intellectual and ideological voice, and author of the seminal God and Man at Yale in 1952. Teaching resources include an overview essay, video lesson plans, and a crossword puzzle activity to help examine Buckley's work.

Perhaps advanced students tackling The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged may be surprised to discover that as an opponent of the New Deal (among other government initiatives and socio-cultural narratives), Ayn Rand is considered a major communicator of conservative ideas to the American people. (A qualification not without dissent from other ideological groups who claim her as their own.)

At teachinghistory.org

And at teachinghistory.org, a simple search with the term conservative yields a few results.

In multimedia, A Patriot's History of the United States, Part One: Liberty and Property in the American Past is the first of a two-part series assessing the liberal bias of American textbooks and exploring history from the conservative perspective.

In True Americans in the Cold War, the ask-a-historian question doesn't specifically tackle conservatism vs liberalism, but it does take a look at important ideologies associated with American identity.

About the Author

Lee Ann Ghajar is a digital history associate in Public Projects at CHNM and a PhD candidate in American history at George Mason University.