Posts Tagged ‘History’

Today we move on to the economy and the role of government. Sparks are sure to fly.

6. “A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems created by capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in U.S. economic system.”

(a) Here, according to the Texas Freedom Network, are the kinds of outrageous remarks the textbooks under consideration make about free enterprise:

The atmosphere of a free market, as well as a free society that encourages the exchange of ideas, can and often does lead to innovation and scientific and technological discoveries. All these conditions promote growth in the economy and often improve the quality of everyday life.

The proper role of government in economic affairs should be restricted to functions intended to promote and protect the free play of competition and the operation of the laws of supply and demand. True laissez-faire capitalism has never in fact operated in this country, yet it has a profound effect on the structure of the nation’s economic system, which can be described as laissez-faire capitalism with limited government involvement.

The Network admits that the free enterprise system has led to great material and intellectual progress. But they want some discussion of its disadvantages and limitations.

… the text’s treatment of the free enterprise system is unbalanced and asymmetrical because the text provides little mention of the possible limits and disadvantages of a free enterprise and laissez- faire system. Students are given little awareness that critics of a laissez-faire system, both in the U.S. today and the past, have argued that an unfettered market can and has occasionally led to economic insecurity and inequality, unfair pay and unsafe labor conditions for many employees.

Identifying free enterprise and laissez-faire, as the Network and arguably the latter text do, is a mistake. The American market has not been “unfettered” anytime in the past century, and probably since the nation’s founding. In any case, it’s hard to evaluate this complaint without seeing the larger context in the texts in question. I’m inclined to count the complaint against the first text as bogus. A free market and free exchange of ideas do bring great benefits, and there’s no need for a “however.” The quote from the second text sounds as if it’s an endorsement of a libertarian approach to economic affairs, but I’m guessing that in context it’s clear that this is the proper role of government according to advocates of laissez-faire capitalism. I’ll hesitantly call this debatable.

(b) Another text mentions complaints about the Gilded Age, but responds,

The dizzying array of things to do and buy convinced the growing middle class that modern America was in a true golden age.”[…] [sic] The application of scientific discoveries and technological innovations by the free enterprise system improved the standard of living in the United States. Driven by entrepreneurs, American businesses were able to create products and services that made daily life easier and more fun for many people. Mass produced materials and products lowered the prices of many goods, enabling ordinary Americans to purchase items that previously had been out of reach.

The Network denounces this treatment, saying,

nineteenth-century free- market capitalism went hand in hand with governmental suppression of Native ownership over vast swaths of fertile land, leading to that land’s transformation (first) into public property and (second) into private property protected by law. Without governmental action, that transformation would not have happened. Second, nobody during the age of early industrialization disputed the importance of active governmental support for “internal improvements” that were beyond private means. And finally, any comprehensive discussion of the history of free-market capitalism in this country should note that the great driving commodity of the pre-Civil War economy was cotton, produced by slave labor on an enormous scale.

To call this complaint bogus is kind; it is ridiculous. The Gilded Age is the period, roughly, 1870-1900, in which the fruits of the Second Industrial Revolution spread to a growing middle class. It was the era in which department stores, music halls, theaters, large consumer products companies, mass circulation newspapers and magazines, team sports, and other accoutrements of an urbane middle-class lifestyle were born. The wealth that had concentrated earlier in the century as a result of the First Industrial Revolution began to spread throughout a substantial portion of society.

During this era, yes, the government fought wars against tribes in the West, swindled them out of large areas of land, confined them to reservations, etc. But this had little to do with the key developments of the Second Industrial Revolution or the rise of the middle-class. So, it’s hard to see how it’s relevant to the topic at hand. The closing decades of the nineteenth century were NOT “the age of early industrialization,” so it’s hard to see how the building of roads and canals earlier in the century is particularly relevant either. The Network wants the book to make a “They didn’t build that!” point. But it’s the Network, not the textbook, that’s pushing a political agenda here. Finally, why is the role of cotton before 1861 relevant to events in the Gilded Age? It’s not. The Network wants the text to say that the Gilded Age’s improvements in the quality of life were due, not to free enterprise, but due to earlier government involvement and to OPPRESSION, of slaves and of Native Americans. That’s preposterous. Bogus, bogus, bogus.

(c) One text contains praise of capitalism:

The capitalist economic system of the United States helped spur industrial growth. In capitalism, individuals and businesses own property and decide how to use it. The people—not the government—control capital, which includes the buildings, land, machines, money, and other items used to create wealth.

Again, the Network insists on a “You didn’t build that” approach:

This passage ignores a very important dimension of American economic development after the Revolution: the argument, developed by Alexander Hamilton, that government power is needed to foster development in an active way, including projects that are beyond private capital’s reach. The declarative statement that “people – not the government – control capital” seems to dismiss even the possibility of this more complicated relationship between individuals, the government and capital. In addition, the debate over public regulation of both individual and corporate enterprise remains an active subject of contention in American economic and legal life to the present day. Students should have a context for understanding that debate.

Let’s look carefully at what the text is saying. Capitalism “helped spur industrial growth.” It doesn’t say that capitalism was solely responsible for growth. Second, it says that our economic system allows people and businesses to own property and decide how to use it. Is the Network denying that? Finally, the text says that the people rather than the government control capital. Again, isn’t that true? The contrast is with socialism, which puts government in control of property and centralizes decision-making. I don’t read the passage as denying the possibility of regulation or of public projects. This, moreover, is a middle-school U.S. history textbook that ends its coverage in 1877. There were important public works projects within its time frame, and important issues about the proper role of government—the Hamilton/Jefferson debate, Andrew Jackson’s assault on the Bank of the United States, Henry Clay’s “American system”—all of which receive coverage in the book. But the main expansion of the government’s role occurs after 1877, outside the frame of coverage of the book. Asking it to do more than it already does on this score is bogus.

(d) One government text says, to introduce its discussion of taxation,

In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., taxes are ‘what we pay for civilized society.’ Society does not appear to be much more civilized today than it was when Justice Holmes made that observation in 1927. However, ‘what we pay’ has certainly gone up.

Ah! But society is much more civiilzed today, says the Network:

The text neglects to mention that defenders of increased taxation for an expanded safety net would respond that programs adopted since 1927 such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act have produced such ‘civilized’ benefits as a drastic reduction of poverty and economic insecurity among the elderly, children, and the population at large, and improved and more equal access to health care.

The text should be insisting on the benefits of the welfare state, and trumpeting Obamacare! (I thought Obamacare was going to lower costs, by the way, not justify increased taxation in the decades since 1927. But, whatever.) Again, it’s the Network that’s trying to politicize things. The points they raise are in any event irrelevant to the point the book is introducing, which is that income tax rates have skyrocketed from a top rate of 7% when the tax was introduced. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are financed separately; in theory, at least, they have no bearing on income tax rates. Obamacare hasn’t even been fully implemented yet; it’s no explanation for the increase in the tax burden that’s taken place over the past century. The Network’s objection is completely bogus.

(e) The Network complains about a cartoon—a cartoon!—implying that taxes are high and that people don’t like paying them:

The text also includes an ideologically slanted cartoon. [“Gibbs, I subtracted your federal, state and social security taxes and medical from your paycheck, and you owe the firm $50.” The caption for the cartoon reads: “Taxes fund public programs and services, but some question the need for that spending and criticize the burden those taxes place on taxpayers. What comment does this cartoon make?”]

What’s Wrong? The text gives students the impression that Americans are very heavily taxed without placing this information in historical or cross-national context. For instance, the text could have mentioned that according to the Congressional Budget Office in 2011, federal taxes as a percentage of the GDP were at their lowest rate since 1950. The text might also have mentioned that the United States has the lowest corporate tax burden of any member nation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The use of this cartoon is also unbalanced because the text provides no counterbalancing illustration suggesting that excessively low taxes might lead to economic insecurity and poverty, or critical of the lack of an adequate safety net for low-income Americans.

The Network evidently has no sense of humor. Instead of including a cartoon that’s making a joke, the text should have told students that taxes in the United States are low by historic and international standards. The Network’s “facts” are incorrect; federal taxes as a percentage of GDP sank in the aftermath of the economic crisis, but have rebounded, and are nearly as high as they were in 1942! And, we have the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD; we collect less revenue from it than the other members because (a) Congress enacts loopholes to benefit campaign contributors and (b) our high rate encourages firms to structure their earning to avoid taxation—and even to shift operations and ownership overseas. I’m inclined to count this complaint trivial, but it shows how far the Network is willing to go to insist that textbooks ought to reflect Democratic talking points. Bogus.



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5. “Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.”

Here, the Network is on firmer ground. Geographers and historians aren’t specialists in religion or philosophy, and they often oversimplify or make mistakes. Consider some particular complaints:

(a) In describing Buddhism’s second Noble Truth, one text says, “Selfishness is the cause of suffering,” and later calls it “a cause of suffering.” The Network says the first is wrong and the second misleading, since, “According to the Buddha, the cause of suffering is not selfishness but desire; selfishness is only one form of desire.” The Pali term is tanha, which is usually translated as desire, selfish desire, or craving. It’s not far from the Biblical term ‘coveting.’ Though the text’s claim isn’t without any basis—selfish desire is an acceptable translation—selfishness by itself isn’t a very good rendering. I consider the complaint reasonable.

(b) Another book says, “Hindus are strict vegetarians.” Not true, says the Network, and they’re right. Some Hindu darshanas prohibit meat-eating, but others don’t. Reasonable.

(c) A Teachers’ Edition states, “All three religions [Judaism, Christianity, Islam] see Jesus as an important prophet, but only Christians see him as the messiah, or expected leader and savior.” Not so, the Network observes; most Jews do not think of Jesus as a prophet. That’s right; the complaint is reasonable.

(d) The Network criticizes one book for its imbalance: “The lesson on the history of Southwest Asia devotes only six sentences to Judaism’s origins and does not include a discussion of the Diaspora. By contrast, the lesson devotes two pages to Islam and its spread.” Their objection: “This is not adequate attention to the important events surrounding the history of the Jewish faith tradition and culture.” In a history book I think this choice would be sensible; the spread of Islam dominated the history of a substantial portion of the world for centuries, and included the many wars mentioned in an earlier post in this series. In a book on world cultures and geography, however, it seems less defensible. Judaism is the leading religion only in Israel, so, even for such a book, one could argue, its spread deserves less attention than the spread of Islam. But it’s not clear whether that argument is decisive. I count this one debatable.

(e) “Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and familiar with Christian events and doctrine.” The books generally don’t define such terms as ‘Protestant,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Orthodox,’ though they do define ‘Sunni,’ ‘Shi’ite,’ etc. The Network observes:

Whereas the lesson on Southwest Asia states: “The teachings of Jesus led to the rise of Christianity,” it does not explain what those teachings were or how Christianity spread. In contrast, the authors devote a full page to the teachings of Muhammad, Muslim practices (the Five Pillars), and the spread of Islam.

What’s Wrong? Given the increasing number of Texas students who come from outside the Christian tradition, textbooks should not assume that readers are familiar with what Christianity is and how it spread.

I’m amused that the Network demands more discussion of Christianity; I suspect the authors were worried that such discussion would have led to the opposite complaint. And the authors undoubtedly thought, correctly, that the percentage of Christians in their intended audience would be much higher than the percentage of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, etc. But it’s a fair point. Even Christian students often have a sketchy conception of the teachings and history of their own religion. And those with other religious beliefs, or with no religious background at all, are likely to have even less exposure to the history and teachings of Christianity. So, I consider this objection reasonable.

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Yesterday I talked about the Texas Freedom Network’s report on textbooks submitted to satisfy the new Texas Social Studies standards, looking at one set of complaints. Today I’ll continue by evaluating additional issues raised by the report, again as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

2. “Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.”

The first of these contains the sentence, “Thomas Jefferson once referred to the establishment clause as a ‘wall of separation between church and state.’ That phrase is not used in the Constitution, however.” The Network admits, “The statement is factually correct.” So, what’s the problem? “[I]t could give students the inaccurate impression that Jefferson’s view was personal and lacked significant connection to the First Amendment.” The Network wants the text to mention that James Madison also held this view. (Did he? If he did, why isn’t it in the Constitution? Could he himself have thought it was his own personal view and not a matter of law?) The Network also wants the text to talk about the Supreme Court’s use of the phrase in subsequent decisions. That use is of course controversial. The general form of this complaint, then, is that the textbook says something true that someone could take as undermining the Network’s preferred view of controversial issues without discussing other things that might help to support their view. We’ll see that form again and again. I rate this bogus.

The Network complains that the second textbook doesn’t mention the “wall of separation” at all. I see no reason why a textbook author has to mention things that support the Network’s position on disputed political questions. So, this too looks bogus.

The next complaint against that textbook is that it presents an unbalanced view of the school prayer decisions, in particular Engel v. Vitale, discussing the lower courts’ reasoning in support of school prayer more extensively than the Supreme Court’s reasoning against it. That might be because the Court’s reasoning is simple, and doesn’t require much discussion:

The petitioners contend, among other things, that the state laws requiring or permitting use of the Regents’ prayer must be struck down as a violation of the Establishment Clause because that prayer was composed by governmental officials as a part of a governmental program to further religious beliefs. For this reason, petitioners argue, the State’s use of the Regents’ prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State. We agree with that contention, since we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government….

There can be no doubt that New York’s state prayer program officially establishes the religious beliefs embodied in the Regents’ prayer.

Still, a textbook should try to present arguments on both sides in as balanced a way as possible. So, I rate this complaint reasonable.

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The Texas Freedom Network, a left-wing group as committed to Freedom as the former German Democratic Republic was committed to democracy, has issued a report blasting the textbooks that publishers have submitted to the Texas State Board of Education to go along with the new state guidelines, passed in 2010 after considerable controversy, which I wrote about here. Some of the complaints are justifiable, though generally minor. But most are tendentious, to put it kindly. In fact most of the “errors” they allege are not errors at all, but differences in emphasis.

Let’s look at some of the “critical issues” the Texas Freedom Network report identifies. I’ll classify them as reasonable, debatable, or bogus.

1. “A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.” How do they do this?

(a) One mentions the Biblical idea of a covenant as influencing the Founders’ concept of the social contract, which, the Network argues, is in John Locke “in many ways a repudiation of the biblical covenant view.” Is that true? It would be fair enough to point out that in Chapter 8 of the Second Treatise of Government Locke observes that the Jews are to some extent an exception to his point about the social contract being the foundation of government, “where God himself immediately interposed.” He goes on to give examples to support his social contract view from the histories of Greece, Rome, and Venice. But that doesn’t deny that the social contract is analogous to the Biblical covenant. This claim isn’t an error; it’s at worst debatable.

(b) Other textbooks list Moses as among the figures who influenced the Founders’ conception of government for originating the concept of a written code of laws. The Network complains that this is vague: Which laws? They also object that Mosaic law is given by God, unlike the laws of a republic. But that does nothing to deny that the concept of public, written laws to live by is important to the American Founding and in fact to the concept of the rule of law itself. I would have thought that a better objection would be that Hammurabi dates from the 18th century BC, while most scholars date Moses as having lived sometime between the 16th and 13th centuries BC. Still, the thought that the Ten Commandments have influenced our conception of law strikes me as uncontroversial. So, this complaint strikes me as bogus.

(c) Still another book states, “The Framers’ political thinking was influenced by a Judeo-­Christian religious heritage, which includes traditions common to both Judaism and Christianity. These religions see the law and individual rights as being of divine origin. Moreover, the Framers benefited from the Protestant Reformation, a sixteenth-‐century Christian reform movement whose leaders developed ideas about individual responsibility, the freedom to worship as one chooses, and self-­government.” That seems uncontroversial. Why does the Network object? I’ll quote them fully, since this paragraph exemplifies the sloppy thinking behind many other objections:

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law. The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government. Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

Let’s take that bit-by-bit.

This passage gives no example of a law or set of laws in the Bible that influenced the Founders and no example of a Founder or a founding document that was influenced by the “Judeo-Christian” concept of law.

Since when is failure to cite an example in a given passage an argument against it? Besides, isn’t this easy to do? Recognize this passage from the beginning of a founding document?

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

“Laws of Nature”? “Nature’s God”? “Creator”? Sounds like some influence to me. I rate this complaint bogus.

But let’s continue:

The text’s claim that the Reformation was a source of the Founders’ views on individual responsibility omits several important pieces of information. Major figures in the Protestant Reformation such as Martin Luther and John Calvin may have supported freedom of worship for their own views, but they often did not support freedom of worship for many competing religious views. Similarly, the views of major Reformation figures, including Luther and Calvin, about self-government were far more limited than, and had little in common with, the views of the American Founders about self-government.

But to say that this passage “omits several important pieces of information” is no argument against its truth. I take it as obvious that Thomas Jefferson influenced Abraham Lincoln; that they might have disagreed about a number of issues, and even disagreed about the proper role of the federal government, is no argument against that claim. This one too is bogus.

Finally, the paragraph could leave students with a misleading impression about the Founders’ religious views. The passage’s claim that Judaism and Christianity stresses that individual rights is of “divine origin” and that these views influenced all of the Founders suggests that all of the Founders believed that this biblical God was the source of natural rights. Many Founders did, of course, believe in the biblical God. Other Founders, though, were influenced by deism, and their conception of God departed in significant ways from the biblical God.

This is inaccurate; the textbook spoke of “the Framers” generically, saying nothing about “all of the Founders.” Moreover, that some Founders were deists does nothing to refute the assertion that even their conceptions of rights were influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. “X was influenced by Y” is NOT refuted by the fact that X and Y disagreed about certain issues, even certain foundational issues. Again, the complaint is bogus.

(d) Another textbook writes (again, I would have thought, uncontroversially), ““The roots of democratic government in today’s world – including government in the United States – lie deep in human history. They reach back most particularly to ancient Greece and Rome, and include elements related to Judeo-­Christian philosophy, dating back thousands of years to Old Testament texts and Biblical figures such as Moses and Solomon.” The Network complains that Moses and Solomon did not govern democratically. But that is neither here nor there; the text makes no such claim. The roots, the book says, include elements related to Judeo-Christian philosophy. That’s a very cautious claim, analogous to asserting that the roots of the theory of relativity include elements related to medieval impetus theory. That’s surely true, and pointing out that Albert of Saxony was no relativity theorist cuts no ice against it. So, the Network’s objection is bogus.

(e) One book states, “Because one of Jesus’s basic principles was the equality of all people in the eyes of God, equality before the law became a central belief within the Judeo-Christian tradition.” What’s wrong with that? Jesus wasn’t the first to think so, says the Network—but the book in no way implies that he was! Moreover, the chain of causation isn’t straightforward—unlike all those other historical trends spanning millennia that ARE straightforward? Perhaps it will suffice to quote Locke, describing the state of nature as

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. (emphasis added)

Locke begins his discussion of property similarly: “God, who hath given the world to men in common….” The link between equality and the will of God is not deeply hidden in the shrouds of history; it’s right there in the chief philosophical text underlying the American Founding, at the beginning of its most famous sections. Bogus.

Tomorrow I’ll look at the Network’s objections to textbook portrayals of the separation of church and state.

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The National Association of Scholars recently completed a study of history courses offered at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. It’s absolutely on target:

Our findings in this study shed light on a source of Americans’ increasing ignorance about their own history. At the two institutions we studied, the focus on race, class, and gender often tended to crowd out the teaching of other perspectives, and many U.S. history courses failed to provide a comprehensive rendering of U.S. history as a whole. Thematically skewed teaching leads to an incompleteness of knowledge, as recent studies of American history knowledge among students demonstrate. Faculty members at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University teaching U.S. history courses in the semester we studied made assignments that disproportionally favored themes of race, class, and gender [RCG] over all other themes.

The details are startling, even to those of us in other departments on campus:

Major Findings:

  • High emphasis on race, class, and gender in reading assignments. 78 percent of UT faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings; 50 percent of A&M faculty members were high assigners of RCG readings.
  • High level of race, class, and gender research interests among faculty members teaching these courses. 78 percent of UT faculty members had special research interests in RCG; 64 percent of A&M faculty members had special research interests in RCG.

Faculty in the history department have feigned outrage at this criticism, though I remember history and government faculty bragging thirty years ago about how they had tricked the legislature by turning its requirement that students take a year of American history and a year of American government into a license to teach whatever they wanted.

Here’s a view of how this looks from a student’s perspective. This week, I received a message from a student from my fall semester course about what he’s taking this spring. Here is his message, together with my reply:

  • Hey… I’m in US history covering 1492-1865 and am having to read A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn which is essentially a sad book about how terrible the United States has been to everyone from the Native Americans, to the Mexicans in the Mexican American War, to the blacks, and the Vietnamese and Koreans and Japanese during world war 2… Basically, the thesis of my history class thus far and to the end of the course is that our country is built upon oppressing other nations and ravaging the world around us through our warped justification of divine right and American Exceptionalism. Similarly, my Sociology class has the same crusade… in fact communism has been presented in a favorable light during sociology and we’ve learned about the U.S. “oppressing” the middle east… Obviously this is a total deviation from your … class in which America was shown in a pretty optimistic and favorable light… So I’m asking you as i try to keep my faith in this country… Should i loathe the United States? What do you think? I feel like a voice in the wilderness holding onto patriotism and the american dream and capitalism and American goodness.

  • Hey, …! Good to hear from you!

    Zinn was a communist, and his book, widely used, means precisely to get the citizens of the US to loathe their own country. The Gramscian march through the institutions has been going on for a long time, and departments of history, sociology, anthropology, English, etc., are deeply infected with this kind of thinking.

    I don’t mean to say that bad things didn’t take place. President Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees, for example, was an outrage. Internment of Japanese-Americans was an overreaction with a profound human toll. I’ve never understood how we supposedly oppressed the Arab world.

    But the US has also freed slaves, freed hundreds of millions to pursue their dreams, tolerated dissent, expanded civil rights, and fought for the protection of human rights.

    Moreover, I see our failings as *human* failings, not the failings of the US or of capitalism or of whatever else people blame. No society throughout the entire history of the world has been free from crime, oppression, and war. Compared to Nazi Germany, the USSR, Communist China, North Korea, and eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, the US looks positively magnificent. But those are countries in which the far left has taken control. Far from bringing about the promised utopia, they’ve brought about poverty, hopelessness, enslavement, disrespect for human rights, and mass murder.

    This isn’t just because the wrong people somehow took charge. It’s essential to socialism. If wealth and power are to be redistributed, someone gets to redistribute them, and, guess what? They keep most of it for themselves. The “social justice” schtick is for the rubes.

    If you want a dramatic illustration of the results of free enterprise within a constitutional republic as opposed to socialism within a “people’s republic,” look at this series of photographs from Germany: scenes from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, then, the same spots twenty years later, after the fall of the Wall.

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Glenn Reynolds talks to Naomi Schafer Riley about the state of higher education. It’s a fascinating discussion, free of the overgeneralizations that plague discussions of this issue. Ron Lipsman, for example, claims that college education is now little more than indoctrination, except in certain areas of the hard sciences. That’s not so. Certain fields and courses are mostly indoctrination—almost anything with “Studies” in the title, for example—but undergraduate education overall is less politicized than many people on the right think. Fields such as philosophy, linguistics, and psychology still offer a solid education. Even in English and history, where research trends heavily to the left, much undergraduate teaching is fairly traditional. Students figure out which courses are politicized and steer away from them.

But Reynolds and Riley do a great job of pointing out that the quality of education in the humanities and social sciences has declined more rapidly than education in the natural sciences and engineering. Education even in those fields is not in good shape, however, and students graduating with degrees in the natural sciences are faring little better on the job market than their peers in other fields. Fewer than half of recent college graduates have found full-time employment—that compares to 97% under George W. Bush!—and job prospects in mathematics, physics, and even computer science are much worse than most people imagine.

What has gone wrong? (I mean with education. With the job market, the answer is easy: Obama!) As Reynolds and Riley observe, the chief culprit is specialization. Look through a university course schedule, if you can find one accessible to outsiders. You can still find excellent courses on core topics, even in the humanities. But they are swamped by highly specific courses, some of which may consist of indoctrination, but some of which are fine as far as they go. It’s just that they don’t add up to a coherent education.

Look at the fall upper-division (i.e., junior and senior) English offerings at my university. There are lots of great courses: Shakespeare; The English Novel in the 18th Century; the English Novel in the 19th Century; The Romantic Period; The 20th Century Short Story; Ernest Hemingway; and Chaucer. But, there’s also Introduction to Criticism; Language and Communication in Science Fiction; The Life and Literature of Southwest Mexican-Americans; Modernism and Literature; Citizen Kane and Company; The Animated Film as Text; Australian Literature and Film; Gypsy Language and Culture; Animal Humanities (?); The Paperback; Contemporary Pakistani Literature; Literature of Islamophobia (!!!); The Literature of AIDS in Africa; Language and Gender; Gender/Torture/State in Crisis (!!!); Gender, Sexuality, and Migration (!); Asian-American Memoirs and Stories; Illustrating African-American Literature; The Black Middle Class (this is an English course?); and Writing Slavery. A student who chooses mostly from the first list will get a good education in English Literature. A student who chooses mostly from the second list will get random glimpses into literature, with a huge helping of politics and armchair sociology.

Or, consider History. Again, many upper-division courses seem excellent: History of Rome—The Republic; The History of Modern Science; The Scientific Revolution; The History of Britain, from the Restoration to 1783; The American Revolution and the Founding of the U.S., 1763-1800; Germany in the Twentieth Century; Origins of Modern Japan; The Coming of the Civil War, 1829-1861; History of the American Presidency; History of Greece to the End of the Peloponnesian War; The French Revolution and Napoleon; The First World War; Jews of Eastern Europe; U.S. Economic History Since 1880; and Tudor England, 1485-1603. Some courses might be politicized, but the topics themselves are fine: The History of Southern Africa; History of the Caribbean; History of the Civil Rights Movement; Muslim India Before 1750; Modern Latin America; The Domestic Slave Trade; Health and Illness in American History; The Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920; and The History of Prague. And some courses seem suspect: History of Globalization; The Spanish Inquisition; Metropolis in Modern Europe; History of Imperialism; Consuming America; History of American Feminism; History of Black Travel; U.S. Media, Culture, and Commerce; Environmental History of North America; Women in Postwar America; American Popular Culture, 1682-present; Marx and Western Marxism; Modern European Food History; The Church and the Jews; Cultural Citizenship in the U.S. and Latin America; and Women and Social Movements in the U.S. Again, a student who chooses mostly from the first list gets an excellent education. But a student who doesn’t gets a frequently politicized, incoherent bundle of narrow topics.

Contrast these fields with Mathematics. Upper-division courses include Discrete Mathematics; Advanced Calculus for Applications I and II; Number Theory; Structure of Modern Geometry; Probability Modeling with Actuarial Applications; Matrices and Matrix Calculations; Linear Algebra and Matrix Theory; Scientific Computation in Numerical Analysis; The Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable; Real Analysis; Probability; Applied Statistics; Stochastic Processes; Topology; Algebraic Structures; and Partial Differential Equations and Applications. There’s not much way to go wrong.

The overall point: You can still get a great education in the humanities and social sciences. But you’re not likely to get one unless you know what to look for. In the natural sciences, it’s hard not to get a great education. Epictetus said, “Do not write so that you can be understood, write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” In the natural sciences, the faculty teach, not so that people can be educated, but so that they can’t fail to be educated, and in particular can’t be miseducated. (They don’t always succeed in this, but that’s another issue.) In the humanities and social sciences, with a few exceptions, the faculty teach so that people can be educated, but too many students fail to be educated, or are actually miseducated.

Is the solution to abolish tenure? To give administrators more power and the faculty less? To place greater emphasis on teaching rather than research? To reform hiring, promotion, and reward practices? I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s not to throw more money into the system.

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Patrick Henry

My daughter and I were reading Patrick Henry’s famous March 25, 1775 speech that concludes, “Give me liberty or give me death!” We were both struck by the contemporary relevance of his second paragraph:

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Our wish is that each employee of the U.S. State Department read and take to heart the following when they think that further negotiations will resolve problems with North Korea or Iran over nuclear weapons:

They are meant for us: they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which [they] have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the[ir] tyrannical hands…. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free– if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending–if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained–we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us!

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