I’m currently reading Sean Wilentz’s (relatively) new book The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics. It is a timely read, and though I’m only a single chapter in, it is proving to be a psychological balm in these polarized times. In short, Wilentz’s thesis (or at least half of it) is that while Americans have, since nearly the earliest days of the republic, longed for an end to partisan rancor, parties are in fact a vital institution for making democracy work in a nation as large and diverse as the United States. “The American dream of politics without conflict . . . has a history as old as American politics,” he writes (3). Yet fierce partisan politics, “although often manipulated and abused, has been Americans’ most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform” (4).

In his first chapter, Wilentz neatly traces the ebbs and flows of what he terms “postpartisanship” from Washington’s Farewell Address up to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Among the conclusions he draws from this broad sweep of history are that postpartisanship takes two forms: on one hand, it represents a genuine dissatisfaction with political parties and their attendant friction; on the other, it has been co-opted by one party or the other as a cudgel for attacking their political opponents. “The rage for a modern postpartisanship,” Wilentz argues, “has failed to distinguish between a sincere if wrong-headed antiparty rhetoric and attacking parties as a partisan ploy—distinct uses of antipartisan politics that have sometimes overlapped” (4).

Though he does not emphasize it (at least not in the first chapter), Wilentz also hints at a class element underlying postpartisanship. Washington’s Farewell Address, in his eyes, was not simply a disinterested warning against the dangers of party. Though we prefer to remember him as a paragon of virtue (which we may unconsciously associate with objectivity and, thus, postpartisanship), Washington had a political ideology. He pursued one particular vision for America (that is, Hamilton’s, as exemplified by the fight over the bank) but viewed with disdain the hostile conflict brewing between Hamilton and Jefferson. According to Wilentz, Washington’s attack on parties was designed to malign the (Jeffersonian) “low demagogues who fomented” partisanship, but it “was also genuinely motivated by a patrician ideal of politics without parties” (6). Washington’s critique of parties, in other words, reflected his genteel sensibilities. (Of course, it was also easier for a man elected unanimously to see parties as unnecessarily divisive.)

Later, Wilentz describes Progressive era postpartisanship in a similar way. “Driven by severe class anxieties, incapable in the North of formally excluding the poor and the uneducated from politics, [liberal reformers] aimed instead to change other rules of the political game. By founding various independent clubs and quasi-learned societies, they sought to educate the electorate properly. Instead of denouncing parties outright, the elite liberals, with their style of ‘independency,’ appeared to be inside the parties but above politics. The independent style rejected the old party flim-flam—including a stridently partisan press—in favor of a cooler, more detached politics, free of the old emotional partisanship” (20). This would appear to have relevance in our own time. Postpartisanship is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other, but rather of the “elite.”

In other words, legitimate anti-party feeling might, in fact, be a bourgeois tendency, reflective of a deep-seated aversion to conflict and social “ugliness.” In any conflict, after all, elites are the ones with more to lose. And when those elites do lose power, attacking partisanship becomes a convenient way to re-assert themselves without appearing overly self-serving. Thus, postpartisanship is fundamentally conservative. Or, as Wilentz puts it, “The antiparty current is by definition undemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters” (28). To achieve a politics that is free from conflict, we must necessarily limit the number of voices and perspectives. By maligning parties—that is, the means by which millions of diverse voices are organized and made audible—we move away from the nation’s democratic ideals.

For the title of his first chapter (“The Postpartisan Style in American Politics”), Wilentz draws on Richard Hofstadter, who famously wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter’s work has received renewed interest in recent years, which should come as no surprise given our president’s tendency to engage in conspiratorial thinking that fires up his populist base. So is Donald Trump the latest manifestation of postpartisanship?

In running against “politicians” and promising to “drain the swamp,” Trump tapped into a feeling that only an outsider could possibly represent the interests of “the people.” His campaign certainly looked much different from those of Obama, but he also appealed to people who viewed the Republican Party “establishment” as hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. The fact that Trump has not yet drained the swamp suggests that his approach was perhaps postpartisanship of the disingenuous sort—an attack on parties as a partisan ploy. And for as much as he lambasts them, Trump is a member of the elite. The tax bill currently under consideration reveals the limits of his (and the GOP’s) populism.

All of this reminds me of an article I read by Joe Scarborough, written in the days after this year’s gubernatorial elections. According to Scarborough, some might interpret Democratic victories as “a political primal scream aimed at President Trump and his dangerous excesses. Some may even conclude that a Democratic sweep of next year’s midterms will follow along with the speedy impeachment of Trump. Then, surely, reason and order will return to the business of running the United States. Unfortunately, that pipe dream ignores the more profound meaning of this week’s election results: The shellacking Republicans took proves again just how unmoored American politics has become in the 21st century.”

Scarborough then offers, much like Wilentz, a broad overview of American political history. “Democrats and Republicans,” he writes, “have held a duopoly over Washington since Franklin Pierce got elected president in 1852. For most of that time, both parties saw their governing majorities rise and fall over the course of entire generations.” That is changing, however:

“[T]he political alignments that once endured decades of change have begun collapsing in two-year intervals. In 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a permanent Republican majority. Just over two years later, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House. In 2008, many hailed Barack Obama’s winning coalition as a new Democratic majority, built on a well-educated and demographically diverse coalition. Fast-forward two years and the tea party laid waste to all previous political presumptions. . . . [In 2016,] Trump destroyed the Democratic establishment, but only after reducing the Republican political machine to rubble. Now, less than a year after seizing control of all branches of government, Trumpism is in full retreat.”

I’m not sure I agree with his last statement, but that’s not the point. In Scarborough’s view, “The fact that Trump’s GOP was beaten so badly . . . proves again that voters are voting against political parties instead of voting for inspiring leaders.”

Is this what comes of postpartisanship? Is this, in fact, the root cause of our seemingly broken political system? Like many others, I’ve long worried that the partisan divide is the cause of our problems. In only 20 pages or so, Wilentz turns that conventional wisdom on its head.

We may be in the midst of a political realignment, but Wilentz suggests that we may also be in the midst or a reorientation with regard to partisanship. In the year since Trump’s victory, naked partisanship appears to be on the rise, and as he points out, “The Tea Party activists who emerged in 2010, for all their proclaimed alienation from both major parties . . . did not whine about the evils of partisanship, they worked on it and, with great success, used the party system to advance their hard-right agenda as a wing of the Republican Party” (29).

I noted in my first paragraph that Wilentz’s book is proving to be a psychological balm. Over the past year, I have found myself turned off by all the bitterness, but I also wonder to what extent that is a middle-class predilection on my part. Is it possible that the solution is, in fact, to get down in the gutter and slug it out against one’s partisan foes? This, in turn, raises a related question: Is it partisan bickering that actually disgusts me, or was my desire for “harmony” really just a desire for the forces of change to keep their voices down?

I still have 300+ pages to read in Wilentz’s book. Perhaps another post will be warranted.


Several months ago, a reader left a comment on my post (“Teaching Corroboration in the Age of Information Overload”) about teaching students to evaluate sources, interpret bias, etc. In his comment, this reader made reference to several sources from the website Socialism Realised, which I had not seen before. Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by someone affiliated with the website and asked to write a review, which—after spending more time exploring the site—I was happy to do.

Socialism Realised is an educational outreach project of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ISTR), an agency funded by the Czech government. According to the website, the ISTR was “founded in 2007 as part of the [Czech Republic’s] process of coming to terms with the past,” and Socialism Realised is designed to “present content aimed at a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in these regimes and a comparison of these experiences to the present.”

This last point caught my attention. Although drawing comparisons between past and present always carries some risk (a topic I hope to expand on here in future posts, as it is one I have been contemplating a lot recently), I generally believe the benefits outweigh the costs, especially for teachers of secondary students. Though uncritical “presentism” may lead students toward a distorted, ahistorical understanding of the past, I believe that before we can teach students to think like historians, we must actually capture their attention. For too many students (as it was for me at their age), history is a dry and dusty discipline, and they can’t imagine why they should have to learn it. By helping them first see its potential relevance in their own lives, teachers can spark students’ curiosity and help them begin to ask questions about the past. From there, the ahistorical comparisons can be corrected as students are guided toward more sophisticated historical thinking.

History teachers who visit Socialism Realised will immediately note its emphasis on video sources, and on visual sources more generally. Of the 38 resources available, 27 are videos. Of the remaining 11, five are images, leaving only six text-based sources on the site. Perhaps this is to be expected of an English-language site about the history of Czechoslovakia, and it is certainly not a fatal flaw. The videos and images are likely to be more engaging for students, though as a teacher who stresses close and careful reading of text, I must say that I would like to see additional texts to complement the visual sources.

One element of Socialism Realised that I very much appreciate, however, is its flexibility. There are a variety of ways to explore the site, organized by “Eras,” “Perspectives,” and “Pathways.” Eras, not surprisingly, organize the material chronologically, and “Perspectives” offer visitors the opportunity to “Choose the angle from which you’d like to look at a given era”: ideology, memory, oppression, or personal stories.

“Pathways,” meanwhile, are thematic groupings of resources in which “Experts and teachers have prepared their own choices out of the material on the portal.” At present, there are only three (“The Basics of Communism,” “The Life and Times of Milan Kundera,” and “Women During Socialism”), but this would seem to be an area ripe for future development. I, for one, would love to see an interactive element of the site which allows teachers—or even students—to develop their own “Pathways,” even if those were subject to editorial review prior to publication.

It is worth noting here that the site could be more user friendly. Though the design is clean and visually appealing, it offers little direction for the visitor with limited time to explore. It is akin to walking into a museum consisting of a single large room with many artifacts. For visitors familiar with the site’s resources, there are a variety of ways to reach what they seek. For the first-time visitor, it might be a bit overwhelming. In this sense, the site’s flexibility is also a potential downside, especially for harried teachers who are looking for more direction or a ready-to-use “packaged” set of materials. More prominent placement of the “Pathways” could be helpful for those types of visitors by serving as a more structured “gateway” into the site and all it has to offer.

Those who do take the time to explore Socialism Realised, however, will be rewarded with a rich and coherent set of resources. More or less at random, I selected three sources to examine, but I quickly realized how interconnected they were—an opportunity for a thoughtful teacher to guide students toward historical thinking.

“Class Cleansing” offers an excerpt from a 1952 document titled, “A recommendation on how to ‘cleanse’ agricultural high schools.” The commentary provided below the source (a seemingly minor point, but one which will encourage students to read the source itself before having someone else explain it to them) explains that “The children of people who originally owned a large farm or disagreed with collectivisation – referred to in the document as the ‘village rich’ – were unable to attend secondary agricultural schools during the collectivisation era. The regime was therefore not content with just forced collectivisation; the purpose of this measure was to overturn the agriculture system as a whole and limit the career prospects (even in the cooperatives) of the potentially disloyal descendants of big farmers and landowners.” Students will need some background knowledge in order to make sense of this document, but it is a rich source illustrating the point that schooling in a socialist society served political ends. (Of course, one might argue that schooling in any society serves political ends.)

“Rewriting History” is a clip from the 1990 film Lenin, the Lord and Mother, in which a teacher in the 1950s instructs her students to physically remove an image of Rudolf Slánský from their textbooks in the wake of his 1952 show trial. Again, to extract the most meaning from the document, students will need some background knowledge, but the source itself is intriguing enough to create questions among even younger students: Why is the teacher making them tear apart their textbooks? Who is the man whose photo they are tearing out? (Also, I love the bit at the end where one student accidentally tears out the photo of Stalin…) This would make an excellent source for a standalone “inquiry” lesson centered on question development and research, and once students understand the context, it would pair well with the source described above to illustrate the ways in which schools reinforced the existing political structure.

Finally, “Education for All” is a 1987 “documentary” touting the benefits of the Czechoslovakian education system, which supposedly provided high-quality education for all citizens from nursery school through university. According to the commentary, “This clip is from a film that was meant to prove that Czechoslovakia upholds human rights as set out in the Helsinki Accords. In regards to the right to education, knowing the period context allows to uncover a large degree of manipulation in the film.”

Though I did not select these three sources with such a goal in mind, I could see them forming the basis for a “Pathway” on the role of education in a socialist society—not only its “official” role according to the party line, but also the ways in which particular education policies reflect a particular vision for society. In my experience, students are always fascinated when teachers “peel the onion” around educational policy and practice, helping them understand the larger system in which their day-to-day existence unfolds. I could see this sort of exploration serving as a launchpad for a wider consideration of education policy, both historically and today.

The sources, of course, are the cornerstone of the site, but the authors of Socialism Realised are not content to be merely a “web archive.” Rather, they have carefully considered pedagogy in their curation of historical materials, stating boldly on the site’s “Pedagogical Approach” page:

The dominant image of the Eastern bloc is focused on conflict and political history. . . . To overcome the established dichotomic image, we offer a more complex look at the period through innovative kinds of sources and how we enable users to think about diverse and even contradictory interpretations of the past and the perspectives of different actors. At the same time, we’ve tried to lessen the amount of raw information, taking emphasis away from names and dates and instead focusing on key general phenomena, like the relationship of people to power and societal transformations. . . . For us, the fundamental principle of cognition is the analysis of historical sources, and the accompanying questions and texts guide this cognition process. [emphases mine]

This ambitious vision for history education largely matches my own, so it is not surprising that I find Socialism Realised a valuable resource. Furthermore, we should not be surprised that the site rejects a traditional view of history in which the important “facts” are handed down from on high.

Some teachers and students might be frustrated by a sense that Socialism Realised is long on questions and short on answers, but I suspect that this is a function of its authors’ anti-totalitarian vision. Unlike the subjects of the three sources described above, the site does not seek to define the terms of the past or circumscribe the inputs and outputs of the educational process. Good history, as Socialism Realised elegantly demonstrates, requires critical thought about complex issues, considered from varying perspectives. Those, not coincidentally, are the hallmarks of democratic societies, and often the first targets of nascent totalitarian regimes.

I recently finished reading Education and Democracy in the 21st Century, a slim but provocative book from Nel Noddings, Professor Emerita at Stanford. She packs a lot of punch into 157 pages.

Noddings clearly leans progressive, both in terms of her educational philosophy and her politics, but she is even-handed. While some of her particular recommendations are likely to appeal more to “liberals” than to “conservatives,” she argues above all that we must teach students to think critically. At first blush, such a stance seems uncontroversial. (After all, what parent—Republican or Democrat—doesn’t want their child to learn to think critically?) Noddings, however, takes the rarer and more subversive step of actually thinking critically about the current state of education.

Notably, Noddings challenges one of the central dogmas of education in the 21st century: the idea that “all children can learn.” To be fair, Noddings, would probably not disagree with that simplistic statement; rather, she would flesh it out and add a qualifier. Throughout the essays in this book, Noddings argues that while all children can learn, not all children can learn everything we hope to teach them equally well. She acknowledges, for instance, that some children may not have an aptitude for or an interest in higher level math and that a true 21st century education should accommodate this. “Children are not equal in their capacity for academic learning,” she writes, “and a universal, academic curriculum may well aggravate academic differences. A richer, more varied curriculum might help students find out what they are suited to do . . . Even within a particular course, there should be a balance between common learning and individualized units and topics that provide students with opportunities to exercise their special talents and interests” (30-31).

Here I detect a similarity to Ken Robinson, who notes in his famous TED talk, “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” Why continue treating children as widgets, forcing square pegs into round holes? This is the outdated factory model of education. More to the point, Noddings argues against the notion that every child should learn everything; followed to its logical end, she says, that idea is fundamentally anti-democratic. In our pursuit of “equality,” she posits, we have created an educational system that is unfair and counterproductive.

Her point about aptitudes and interests leads me to reflect on Carol Dweck and the “growth mindset,” an idea that has received much attention from educators over the last ten years or so—and one which has become a central part of my own educational philosophy and practice. In her work, Dweck argues that while we may all differ in our natural aptitudes, we can all improve with effort. (Try as I might, I’m never going to surpass LeBron James in basketball ability—but I can become better than I am today.) Also, we have different mindsets in different areas. I, for instance, have a growth mindset when it comes to cooking but a fixed mindset when it comes to art. I believe that I can improve in the kitchen with practice, and to this end, I have taken a few cooking classes, bought onions to practice my knife skills, etc. If you were to ask me about my artistic ability, however, I would tell you, “I’m not an artist.” The reality, however, is that I simply don’t have a strong enough interest in art to justify the time and energy it would take to improve. If I did, I’m sure that I could improve.

Noddings argues for more student choice in the curriculum. She supports the notion that students—especially middle school students—should be encouraged to discover their aptitudes and interests, and that education should provide multiple paths to success. Not everyone can do calculus, but then, not everyone needs to do calculus. Contrary to one of the central tenets of “standards-based” education reform, an “equal” education does not mean that everyone should get the same education.

Similarly, Noddings notes that, despite our best intentions of sending every student to college in the name of equality, “there will always be unattractive work that needs doing” (102)—work which does not require a college degree. Thus, she argues that “schools should direct their efforts toward producing people who can act purposefully and morally in every domain of life. When people are forced to work at meaningless jobs, they need even more to find meaning in their personal and civic lives” (102). Again, the supposedly “equal” college preparatory track may not serve every student equally well—especially if that track serves to tell some students that they are stupid. Noddings calls for more respect—and support—for vocational education, a better vocational education that goes beyond the mere learning of employable skills to include some liberal arts exposure as well as training for parenting and home life.

Although the book will generally serve to further our thinking on education in the 21st century, it is not devoid of flaws. For instance, Noddings seems to believe that she is only suggesting tweaks to our current system, when in actuality, her proposals would amount to massive changes in American education. She is careful to point out that her intention is not to prescribe a full curriculum, and she restates several times throughout the book that we must work within the existing discipline-based curriculum framework. For instance, in her chapter entitled “Educating for Home Life,” Noddings writes, “I am not suggesting that we should develop detailed sub-curricula on houses and homemaking for each of the traditional subjects. That might well defeat our purpose. Teachers would revolt against one more demand on their time” (72). However, she then goes on to propose numerous additions to the curriculum. For history courses alone, she suggests adding material on “the history of homes or women’s history” (74) and “the history of childhood and child-rearing” (80). While these would be likely be valuable additions, Noddings does not seem to recognize that these add up to “detailed sub-curricula”: yet another demand on limited instructional time. To add them would mean cutting something else, and therein lies the rub.

Also, in her call for “ecological cosmopolitanism,” Noddings reveals a certain degree of naiveté. She calls for a 21st century “ecological cosmopolitanism” (a love of and commitment to the Earth) to replace the 19th and 20th century emphasis on nationalism, she acknowledges that cosmopolitanism “does not ‘grab’ us emotionally as does national patriotism with its multiple supports in rousing music, flags, parades, uniforms, heroic stories, and celebrations.” However, she posits that “The possibility of destroying Earth through neglect and selfish exploitation might well have some emotional impact” (99). I won’t dispute Noddings argument that we must do a better job of protecting our planet, or even that such a call should inspire an emotional response. The fact of the matter, however, is that it doesn’t inspire an emotional response, at least not for most people. Here Noddings is guilty of preaching to the choir. (Here, too, she also proposes numerous additions to the curriculum for helping students learn about the Earth and develop their ecological cosmopolitanism.)

In the end, Noddings offers a powerful reminder that “Education is an enterprise with multiple aims” (41). In an era of increasing standardization, centralization, and politicization, that is a worthwhile thing to remember. Schools should never be anti-intellectual places, but to say that their focus should not be strictly academic is hardly anti-intellectual. It is honest. In fact, those who present the false dichotomy of schools as “intellectual” or “anti-intellectual” are the ones who are guilty of anti-intellectualism. It is possible to disagree with some—or even most—of Noddings proposals, but we can, and should, and must think critically about education rather than accepting the cant of “reformers.” Here, Noddings makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust

Deborah Meier, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization

The Tweetable Review
Meier, a passionate advocate for schools as democratic institutions, makes a case that what schools need more than anything else is trust.

Central to Meier’s thesis is the idea that in the days of yore, “learning” meant studying (often through apprenticeship) at the foot of an experienced adult, and she wants to see more of this in today’s schools. This is not nostalgia, though. She writes, “Greater, not less, intimacy between generations is at the heart of all the best school reform efforts around today and is the surest path to restoring trust in public education.” (13)

She uses the process of learning to drive as an example: “Think how efficiently virtually all young people learn to drive a car if they have lived for years in a family of drivers, have ridden in the front seat, have imitated (both in their heads and in their bodies) the motions of a driver, have gotten a feel for where the sides of the car are and how close the outside world is. . . . If we were to stop and think about all the discrete skills we internalized when we were pretending to drive, it’s actually both staggering and scary. Some of us need not much more than a few hours of formal instruction! . . . Lots of tasks that we think of as fairly simple seem so only because we learned them in settings like this.” (16-17) Key to effective learning in those situations is built on trust between “teacher” and “student”–and that trust is itself built on proximity, patience, and a belief that all students can learn what it is we have to teach.

As I read this, I found myself wondering: given the public safety that learning to drive represents, why don’t we “track” student drivers based on their early driver’s ed test scores: some people would only be qualified to drive at speeds of 45 mph and below, while others may roam the interstates with Autobahn-like freedom. And why is it acceptable to “grade” behind-the-wheel driving exams pass/fail but not math exams? It seems to me that a “D” driver represents a potentially greater threat to society than does the “D” math student, but the driver goes on about his merry way while the math student is stigmatized as inferior.

In keeping with her idea that students must learn in the company of adults, Meier reminds readers not to shy away from disagreements with their students. For one thing, the ability to disagree with others–even, or perhaps especially, those who might seen as one’s “superiors”–is a skill that goes to the heart of democratic participation. Beyond that, though, legitimate disagreements (as opposed to contrived “debates” where neither side has much of an investment in the outcome) also present some of the most powerful opportunities for personal and academic growth.

She writes:

Some of the best serious discussions we have with kids are moments of disagreement between adults or between adults and kids. They seem less afraid of strong disagreements than we are, and opening up alternate views is usually exciting to them, like the time some fourth and fifth graders were happy to miss lunch and recess to argue with each other–and James and me–about evolution, God, and damnation. While we all enjoyed it, James and I also saw skills and knowledge displayed that we had not seen before. Showing kids what a culture of debate might look like ought to be a function of democratic schools. (76)

This resonates with me, as I tell my students often: “Disagree is good for discussion.” I try to assign readings that will naturally promote disagreement at some level, but to my mind, there is nothing better than seeing two classmates go at it in a dialectical discussion, questioning each other’s ideas and assumptions, and forcing each other to provide evidence to support them. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it develops (often unexpectedly), it’s pure gold. The trick is make sure they understand how to disagree in a way that is productive for both parties (and for their classmates who are watching–often with bulging eyes and rapt attention).

Although it’s possible that a contentious classroom environment might make some students uncomfortable, I think it likely that many more students would be relieved to find themselves in a classroom where their ideas are taken seriously.

To promote trust between teachers, Meier advocates a school culture which makes regular classroom visits a norm. It’s frequently said that teaching is one of the most isolating professions out there, and I believe it. Sure, teachers are by and large a friendly bunch, and love to talk in the cafeteria or the faculty lounge, but how often do they actually observe each other doing their work? Rarely. Still, if we hope to create a culture where teachers can talk openly about the best ways to help children learn, they have to trust each other. Moreover, if we hope to create a culture where faculty can critique each other’s work (and model for students a “growth mindset,” to use Carol Dweck’s term), they have to trust each other. And that trust starts with seeing each other in a professional setting–as opposed to a social setting that just happens to be in the physical workspace.

Lastly, Meier makes a point of emphasizing the need for parent/community “buy-in.” For independent school educators, this is a given. We all know that parents and their tuition dollars play a significant role in a school’s budget, so a measure of transparency (especially about “big picture” issues of philosophy and policy) is appropriate. I find it even more interesting, though, that Meier is writing about public school settings. In “public” schools, how much do citizens–or even parents with school-aged children–really know about what goes on behind the scenes? And if the answer is (as I suspect), “Not much,” then can we really call them public schools?

Questions for Discussion, Critique, or Further Consideration

  • How can schools with established faculties (i.e., not hiring to build or remake a school “from the ground up”) promote the kind of share1d responsibility, trust, and collaboration seen at places like Mission Hill without the less than democratic use of carrots and sticks?
  • How can schools–particularly high schools–balance their role as a training ground for democratic participation with their role as a sorting mechanism for an increasingly competitive college admissions process?
  • How can schools best model the often messy and contentious nature of democratic discourse (among adults and students) in ways that promote passionate intellectual engagement and civility simultaneously?

Note: Several months ago, I set a number of goals for myself. One of those was that I would read at least one education or history book per month and post a review of that work here. Today I begin repaying my debt on that promise. I finished reading this book in October and have been working on the following review in bits and pieces ever since.

Gordon S. Wood opens his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different with a description of America’s continuing fascination with its founders. “No other major nation,” he writes, “honors its past historical characters . . . in quite the manner we Americans do. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or George Washington of the invasion of Iraq” (3). Although Wood’s tone suggests that he finds this all a bit silly, he actually makes a powerful argument to explain the continuing allure of such ahistorical thinking. In short, Wood argues that the “Revolutionary generation” marked the high point of American political culture. He states:

One of the prices we had to pay for democracy was a decline in the intellectual quality of American political life and an eventual separation between ideas and power. As the common man rose to power in the decades following the Revolution, the inevitable consequence was the displacement from power of the uncommon man, the aristocratic man of ideas. Yet the revolutionary leaders were not merely victims of new circumstances; they were, in fact, the progenitors of these new circumstances (10-11).

Wood’s thesis is too reverential for my taste (must men of ideas always be aristocrats?), but there is undoubtedly some truth here; even an occasional glimpse of contemporary American demonstrates the need for a stronger, more intellectual public discourse. In addition, Wood—as always—is careful and even-handed, and he writes with impressive clarity. He makes a strong plea for historicism, for understanding the “Revolutionary Characters” in the context of their own times and places and not as “demigods” whose writings and actions can be consulted to settle matters of twenty-first century debate.

Rather than a historical monograph, the book is actually a collection of essays, each of which considers a single “Founding Father.” Most of these essays were published previously, but remarkably, Wood manages to weave them together into a fairly coherent narrative. He “sets the stage” (a deliberate pun on my part, as you’ll see) by describing the four-stage theory of civilization developed in the eighteenth century by Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith and Lord Kames. Wood writes, “Societies, it was assumed, moved through successive stages of historical development, beginning in rude simplicity and progressing to refined complexity of civilization” (13). Societies began the process with hunting, and moved successively into pasturage, agriculture, and, eventually, commerce. Of course, it was obvious to men of refined taste that the wilderness of America fell in the first stage, and so (as Wood would have it) the elite men of the colonies were desirous of “achieving civilization”—in short, of becoming more like their brethren in London.

In the hopes of achieving civilization, men of social importance became highly self-conscious in a way that might seem off-putting in the twenty-first century. “Preoccupied with . . . the way they were represented and viewed by others, these revolutionary leaders inevitably became characters, self-fashioned performers in the theater of life” (23). (Hence, the pun.) According to Wood, the men of the “Generation of ‘76” saw no problem with portraying themselves in such a contrived fashion. Whereas we might criticize a modern politician for “pandering” to the culture, the founders understood “character” for a public figure to mean his “outer life,” or as Wood puts it, his attempt to “show the world that he was living up to the values and duties that the best of the culture imposed on him” (23).

Although we tend to view the founders as America’s first intellectuals (and read their words as cultural commentary that might have been written yesterday), Wood states that most of the founders—unlike intellectuals more generally—“had no sense of being in an adversarial relationship to the culture” (23). Interestingly, Thomas Paine offers a stark contrast to this statement, and Americans tend to dismiss him as something of an afterthought. According to Wood, Paine’s limited legacy might be attributed to his lack of a public “character.” He writes: “Paine was different from Franklin and all the other founders. . . . His appearance was careless and slovenly, with a large nose reddened from too much drink. His dress was drab and coarse, his wig worn and tattered” (214-215). It’s ironic, then, that in the anti-aristocratic (or is it?) America of the twenty-first century, we tend to revere the more “gentlemanly” founders while neglecting perhaps the most radically democratic one of all.

This contrast highlights the central weakness of Wood’s argument. Although he claims that the “Revolutionary Characters” are responsible for the changes that lead to a more democratic America, he never fully explains how. His sketch of George Washington illustrates the point. The first president, Wood writes, was “nearly as much of an aristocrat as the United States ever produced, in his acceptance of social hierarchy and in his belief that some were born to command and most to obey. Although he trusted the good sense of the people in the long run, he believed that they could easily be misled by demagogues” (58). In nearly the next breath, though, Wood claims that Washington “nonetheless was crucial in making this democracy feasible” (63). How exactly did Washington (or any of the founders) do this? Unfortunately, Wood doesn’t provide a fully satisfactory answer.

Actually (and ironically), the closest he comes is in discussing the effect of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary writings. He states, “Only in the 1790s . . . did many of the founders come to realize what the Revolution and Paine’s rhetoric had released: a democratic revolution of ordinary working folk that went well beyond what the revolutionary leaders had anticipated” (221). In short, much of the credit (blame?) for American democracy should rest not with Washington and Jefferson, but instead with a disheveled drunkard who spent only a handful of years in North America. That’s not exactly the stuff that patriotism is made of, I suppose, which perhaps explains why Paine’s contributions often take a backseat.

There is a certain irony here. As Wood suggests, there will never be another generation like the revolutionary one. America is now more democratic than they ever intended, and could they witness it, the founders might express dismay at the “intellectual quality of American political life.” Yet the nation has also plainly “progressed” to the fourth and final stage of historical development. Americans certainly still cherish their agricultural heritage, but they continue to “leave agriculture behind,” a process that began only a generation or so after 1776. Since then, the United States has become more urban, more industrial, and more commercialized, so perhaps the “Revolutionary Characters” are still working among us, albeit not in the way many Americans may think. This, however, leaves me with a final (and rather sobering) question: if America has reached that fourth and final stage of historical development, where do we go from here?