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Lessons of History

November 22, 1987

Paul Johnson's review of Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Old History and the New" (The Book Review, Sept. 27) is a compendium of neoconservative cliches.

In a tone of high-minded objectivity, Johnson endorses Himmelfarb's accusation that leftist scholars do not write "traditional history at all" but "covert left-wing propaganda," while he ignores the major leftist premise that the writing and teaching of traditional history (as well as other subject areas) has embodied covert right-wing propaganda.

He makes bizarre overgeneralizations about "fanatics and doctrinaires, especially those academics who got tenure during the big university expansion in the 1960s." Is everyone who has gotten tenure since the '60s a leftist, and is every leftist a fanatic undeserving of tenure? See Russell Jacoby's "The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe," which documents some of the many cases of discrimination against unfanatic leftist scholars since the '60s.

Johnson distorts the leftist position to the point of travesty, without citing a single quote from a leftist that substantiates his or Himmelfarb's allegations. (What scholar in the "dominant form of study now treats the major political events and constitutional development of national history as unimportant"--rather than merely asserting that the history of ordinary men and women is also important enough to warrant scholarly attention compensating for earlier neglect?)

Like other neoconservatives such as William J. Bennett and Allan Bloom, Johnson grotesquely exaggerates the influence of 1960s leftism on the decline of Western civilization. In this case, the academic left presumably bears exclusive responsibility for the fact that "many children often emerge from school knowing nothing about their country's past except a blur." This line disregards any other anti-historical influences on American education such as a mindless consumer society, fast-food media and political discourse, or overworked, underpaid, underqualified teachers coming out of schools of education many of which are bastions not of doctrinaire leftism but of solidly conservative vocationalism, political orthodoxy, and institutionalized mediocrity.


California Polytechnic

State University

San Luis Obispo

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