Monday, January 19, 2009

This Land Is Your Land: The Return of Educated People

Among other things we are celebrating this week is the enhanced public presence of people who actually think it matters whether you know anything or not. One of the curious things to me about many conservative intellectuals (David Brooks, Lynn Cheney, Robert Kagen, William Kristol, Phyllis Schlafly -- let's leave out folks like Ann Coulter for now, shall we?), people who were (and are) highly educated and read a lot, is that they insisted for years that it wasn't necessary to have much of an education to run the United States of Amurrica. All you needed was an "instinct" for what the people, in all their glorious parochialism, wanted. Ideas just arose from good old common sense -- like that because Saddam Hussein was a bad person who had once had weapons of mass destruction, he must have been responsible for 9/11 -- and when they didn't work out, it was, well "a disappointment." As opposed to a disaster. Although Brooks began to criticize, and then explicitly walked away from the Republican Titanic as it was going down this fall, the others have either faded away without explanation, or, like William Kristol, continued to insist that they were right, right, right, and that the last eight years have been a triumph for democracy and the free market.

Fortunately that has ended. See Michiko Kakutani's article, in today's New York Times about Obama's notion that reading thoughtfully expands a person's world. The article also includes a curious factoid that George Bush's reading was part of an ongoing competition with Karl Rove to see who could read the fastest. Dear God.

As a wonderful touch that symbolizes our return from the Land of Stupid People, did anyone but me think about what a terrific symbol it was that elderly Popular Fronter Pete Seeger sang Popular Fronter Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" last night on the Lincoln Memorial, with the President-elect in the audience? Did anyone else imagine Joe McCarthy and his tribe of egghead-hating anti-communist zealots spun in their graves, while Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and all the leftist intellectuals who were ruined by 1950's campaign against left intellectuals (because that is where it all began, friends) laughed and sang along?

I'm thinking of getting a sticker for my Mac that says "This Machine kills Fascists." No, maybe I'll read a book in public instead -- now that it's safe to come out of the library.


JackDanielsBlack said...

It is a category error of the first magnitude to equate presidential greatness with academic credentials. Abraham Lincoln never finished grade school. Harry Truman never went to college. Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka college. On the other hand, our last president with degrees from Yale and Harvard was -- George W Bush!

Anonymous said...

I am so thankful that you phrased this as being about literacy and not education. Walking around with my "little Ivy" degree I realize how lucky I am for the doors that opened for me, but somehow I am always reminded of a scene from Good Will Hunting. "How does it feel to know that you spent $120,000 on an education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees at the public library."

I am the teacher I am today not because of the name my diploma bears (and Bush isn't either), but because of professors like you who challenged me to reach higher, think deeper, and appreciate the value of intellectual life. Bravo!

Tenured Radical said...

Jack: I agree. Which is why I emphasized thoughtful reading, and a respect for intellectual life rather than higher education or the prestige of one's education. And by the way, since Eureka is a SLAC, I wold be all aboard what a terrific education students can get there. Walt Whitman didn't attend school after the age of 11, and he, like so many self-schooled nineteenth century men (less so women) became a school teacher and then one of our greatest poets.

Anonymous: you are too kind, whoever you are. And I like knowing that my former students have the lives they want after college.


JackDanielsBlack said...

TR, as long as we can agree that thoughtful reading can lead to conservative as well as liberal conclusions, and that good teaching can be found at Ole Miss and Bob Jones University and Durham Technical Community College as well as at our more august institutions, I am on board here.

PhDinHistory said...

Are you sure you don't have any second thoughts about Obama? From what I can tell, he puts a lot of faith in the wisdom of the crowd.

Anonymous said...

Let's not get too giddy, people. I seem to recall another group of Democratic "thoughtful readers" sending a generation of American boys to die in Vietnam.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Can you imagine what we'd be thinking right now if the mavericky maverick John McCain were being inducted into office tomorrow? He who makes snap decisions and survives on instinct? Let's give thanks for thoughtfulness. Just think of where we might have been. (Wink!)

Tenured Radical said...

Jack: We do agree -- I place no restrictions on where good learning takes place, or who learns what where. William F. Buckley was radicalized as a conservative by attending Yale; Michael Warner, the radical queer theorist, has a B.A. from Oral Roberts University. Wherever reading and thinking happens in tandem is good....and how did Ole Miss get in that group?

PhDinHistory: I have had second thoughts about Obama right from the beginning. I think it is perfectly clear, for example, that he doesn't actually get gay politics, and probably thinks we queers should just agree to be post-gay and get on with life. On the other hand, I think we have been led down the path over the course of the late twentieth century by idealizing people -- whether it was Kennedy, or McGovern, or Reagan. But I do admire Obama as a person and as a thinker.

Anonymous: You must be referring to the Best and the Brightest -- boy, a bell should have gone off right when that phrase was invented.

Fie: Yes indeed. How quickly people forget the Doomsday Scenario. Fortunately McCain and Palin will be home tomorrow, snug as two bugs in a rug, conserving their precious bodily fluids. And I'll spot you ten bucks that Cindy McCain is counting her lucky stars that she and the Big Guy are not going to have to share the same house at last.

LumpenProf said...

Just FYI: Pete Seeger singing "This Land Is Your Land" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is evidently the sole property of HBO. YouTube has taken down the video.

Active Ingredient said...

I find it hard to admit, but it tugs at the heartstrings. And it's not even Mr. Obama. It's three generations of African American women, one born in Jim Crow, living in the White House. That alone, given that house's origins, and the socio-sexual conditions that prevailed on the plantations of many of its first occupiers, gives one pause.

I am entirely down with the cynicism of the (progressive) haters, the skeptics, the purists. Yea, it doesn't fundamentally change anything. There are lots of shiny surfaces here, we can all agree. The proof lies in his slyness and how it can be mobilized to get done what needs to be done (as he doused the DNC machine last year). That alone will spell the legacy.

But before we get there, before we start evaluating the progressive accomplishments, or (perhaps more realistically) the lack thereof, I don't think it's unseemly to pause and regard the moment. One thinks not just of King and McCarthy and Robeson, but of Eleanor and Marian Anderson, of MOBE and Nixon's late-night encounter, of Bayard and Stokeley and Ella, of the quilt and the Annual Reminder, and all the people for whom this land is YOUR land was not an facile assumption but a project.

I'll stop with the romantic liberalism. But you take my point. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I'll stand in that line and in those shadows over the other side any day.

Now, temporarily nationalize some banks! clear out the system! save homeowners! pass new SEC regs! get health insurance! get card-check! and forge a post-carbon economy already! Damn it!

Anonymous said...

NB: Ronald Reagan used "This Land Is Your Land" as the theme song of his 1984 reelection campaign (with the stanza denouncing private property excised, of course). Surely it was Woody who was the first to roll over in his grave.