Posted: January 8, 2007
All American Colleges: Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith, ed. John Zmirak.
Why does America need another college guide? The answer is in the subtitle to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's fine new entry in this crowded field. This volume fills an important niche and will be greeted warmly by students and parents desperate for reliable information on institutions of higher learning that educate for liberty, including the formation of young souls with the capacity to choose well.
The guide concentrates on what is taught and how it is taught. Readers aren't deluged with reams of mostly meaningless institutional data that can easily be gleaned elsewhere. In deciding which schools to include, the editors looked for course requirements that span the curriculum, as well as serious departmental requirements. They also looked for gifted teachers, including the "eloquent generalist." The fifty schools surveyed range from the famous (Princeton) to the obscure (New Saint Andrews College), to many in between (including my own institution). For the most part, the guide does not cover the usual suspects, because it is interested in places that "build up one's character as well as one's resumé." Schools whose main recommendation is their reputation don't make the cut.
As with many college guides, evidence is anecdotal but probably accurate. The editors have done their own legwork when it comes to each school's basic orientation and curricular structure, but then rely largely on student reviews of departments, professors, and institutional practices. The book is not a series of love letters. The included schools come in for their fair share of lumps when deserved. As a bonus, the guide includes two fine essays that will reward anyone engaged in the search for a serious college: Louise Cowan's "The Necessity of the Classics" and Mark Henrie's "A Student's Guide to the Core Curriculum."
The good news for America, if not American colleges, is that good students are not fooled by much of the nonsense that is passed off as higher education. They know Mickey Mouse courses when they experience them, they recognize when teachers aren't teaching, they can identify social activism masquerading as scholarship, and they can spot an affirmative action hire from a mile away. The schools included here are places where teachers can still unashamedly hold up models of the great and the good that transcend the prejudices of our age.
—Bradley C. S. Watson
Saint Vincent College
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John Dewey & the Decline of American Education: How the Patron Saint of Schools Has Corrupted Teaching and Learning, by Henry T. Edmondson III.
John Dewey believed that education was the key to social change. Yet as Henry T. Edmondson effectively shows in his new book, Dewey could not defy the inherent contradictions of his own philosophy, which has left an indelible mark on American education.
Although Dewey likened himself to a modern-day Thomas Jefferson, he wholeheartedly rejected Jefferson's emphasis on cultivating personal independence and meritocratic statesmanship as the goals of public education. Instead, Dewey taught that textbooks, teachers, and the competition for grades inhibited students. Dewey's "practical teaching" emphasized cooperative learning and social adjustment. The result, Edmondson contends, is that our schools are "neither rigorously academic nor authentically vocational." They are mediocre at best.
A professor of public administration and political science at the Georgia College and State University, Edmondson recognizes that today's philosophical divide on education will take time to repair, but his book does not outline specific policies to reform Dewey's legacy. He quips that educators should simply adopt the medical philosophy, "First, do no harm."
—Diana M. Ernst
Pacific Research Institute
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Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, by Geoffrey Nunberg.
U.C. Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg charges that conservatives have taken control of our political rhetoric. Not through control of popular literature, television, cinema, and America's universities, mind you, but through message discipline and think tanks. Conservatives, so the claim goes, have appropriated words and phrases such as "values" and "elites," and charged them with meanings that suit their political ends. As the author explains early on, since the Nixon years "the decisive factor in American politics has been voters' apparent willingness to subordinate substantive interests to symbolic ones." (If this were really the case, of course, then Nunberg's complaint would be with the democratic process, not with rhetoric.)
Democrats and liberals, the book argues, "can't regain their political ascendancy except by either reclaiming the basic political vocabulary or replacing it with a new one." But consider the word "liberalism." Nunberg laments how Ronald Reagan so demonized liberalism that the term itself is now radioactive. Yet there is an obvious way to reclaim it: characterize the war on terrorism as a fight between (Western) liberalism and Islamic fascism. Nothing could be simpler. And nothing could be more antithetical to America's liberals, who are so compromised by cultural relativism that they can't bring themselves to make the case so starkly, let alone choose a side in the fight. The problem isn't how liberals talk, it's how they view the world.
—Jonathan V. Last
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The Politics of Abortion, by Anne Hendershott.
In an incisive, eminently readable look at the polarization of abortion politics, University of San Diego sociology professor Anne Hendershott tackles the history, rhetoric, and interest-group wrangling surrounding the most divisive political issue of our day. "Not since slavery and the rise of the abolitionist movement has there been so bitter a culture war in this nation," she writes.
Hendershott's chapter on race is particularly enlightening, cataloging the pro-choice movement's attempt to "plant a culture of abortion in African American neighborhoods." Her account of the pro-choice opposition to General Electric's 4D Ultrasound imaging system demonstrates the lengths to which abortion proponents will go to undermine any popular acceptance of the fetus as an unborn child—a pro-choice war on science.
But The Politics of Abortion provides more questions than answers. For example, the author points out the role of revisionist Catholic doctrine in shaping the Democratic Party's Ahab-like obsession with abortion-on-demand, but does not explain why the party—and its deeply divided constituency—accept revisionist Catholicism in the first place. In the end, Hendershott's suggestion that the pro-choice movement be "contained" and engaged rather than fought tooth and nail seems oblivious to her own snapshot of abortion politics; pro-choicers will not surrender national abortion-on-demand without a fight.
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Aristotle and Hamilton on Commerce and Statesmanship, by Michael D. Chan.
What does America's commercial republic have to offer other than material prosperity? This is the central question of Michael Chan's intelligent, insightful book. Militarists, fascists, religious extremists, not to mention many philosophers of the Left and the Right have answered: absolutely nothing. Chan has a different answer. He believes justice, liberality, and nobility amounting to more than the so-called "bourgeois virtues" can go hand in hand with commercial republicanism. To make his case he looks at Alexander Hamilton's political and economic statesmanship in light of Aristotle's treatment of commerce. Increasingly, scholars have come to realize that Aristotle was more sympathetic to democracy than was once assumed. Chan urges a similar rethinking concerning commerce. He provides considerable evidence—for example, Aristotle's preference for Carthage over Sparta—to show that the philosopher's suspicions of commerce ought not be exaggerated. Chan draws particular attention to the institution of slavery, pervasive in the ancient world, arguing that on Aristotle's own terms it is seldom justified. This discussion carries over into his treatment of Hamilton who, as the author shows, not only opposed slavery in principle but was active in trying to end it, by advocating reform at the state level and by pursuing a national economic policy that would marginalize slave labor. This is one of many instances, all ably detailed by Chan, where Hamilton acted nobly for a noble cause. Although Chan never quite bridges the gap between Aristotle's recognition of commerce as a necessity and Hamilton's advocacy of commerce as a matter of natural right, his book ought to prompt us to start thinking about commercial republicanism in new ways.
Utah State University
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The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine, by Matthew Continetti.
Democratic critics latched onto the Jack Abramoff scandals to score political points; Weekly Standard writer Matthew Continetti uses them to illustrate how the Reagan-Gingrich Revolution went bad. It is a sobering tale of young, ideological conservatives who came to shrink government and change Washington, and who instead ended up betraying their principles and enriching themselves.
The book contains little first-hand reporting, but Continetti's strength is his fluid and engaging writing style, which captures the full range of shady, unethical, and illegal behavior. He reveals a deep and pernicious cynicism running through much of the "Republican Machine." One of the more damning, and underreported, stories is that of the Northern Mariana Islands. Conservatives touted this U.S. territory as the perfect laboratory for free-market policies. In reality, the island was little more than a large sweatshop, whose profits lined the pockets of conservative lobbyists who, in turn, operated a slick PR machine.
There is no doubt that Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist, and many other smaller players were guilty of excess and hubris. Nor is there any doubt that the battle for limited government has stalled. Yet it is not clear how pervasive this corruption was, beyond the usual vices that infect Washington no matter what party is in power. The answer to what went wrong in the past 12 years goes deeper, alas, than the K Street Gang.
—Vincent J. Cannato
University of Massachusetts, Boston
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The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror, by John Arquilla.
This fascinating book contends that Ronald Reagan was an innovative strategic thinker, which will come as a shock to those who still cling to the caricature of a simple-minded actor reading his 3x5 cards. As president, he abandoned containment and mutual assured destruction and pursued instead a war of ideas designed to undermine the Soviet Union. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, shows that Reagan understood the "power of words to change history" and that America's most potent weapon was telling "our story to the world." Reagan was not an ideologue, but intellectually supple, nuanced, and civil. In the end, he reached out to Mikhail Gorbachev and ended the Cold War without firing a shot.
At the same time, Arquilla criticizes Reagan's vacillating response to terrorism. The world might have been a different place if the president had listened to George Shultz, who as early as 1984 advocated preemptive attacks—primarily clandestine paramilitary strikes-against Islamic terrorists. Shultz was stymied by Caspar Weinberger and a tradition—bound Pentagon wedded to fighting conventional war. Arquilla claims that Reagan followed his instincts as a politician and not as a strategist and sought a bureaucratic compromise in formulating U.S. counterterrorism policy, with crippling results. In an odd way, it is a tribute to Reagan's great success that he is criticized for failing to identify and solve the problems of the new, post-Cold War world that he did so much to create.
University of Virginia