U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ideology and Teaching

One of the things I love about my blogmate L.D. is how deeply–and publicly–she reflects upon her place in the history discipline. Her most recent excellent post, The Reluctant Historian, where she discusses the necessity of approaching her subjects with “judicious sympathy,” is a case in point. Although I also enjoy reading scholarship written by the injudiciously unsympathetic–and although I agree with Corey Robin who wrote in the comments section that “contempt can actually press a writer, even inspire a writer, to see things in a subject that others have not seen”–I have found that it is to the benefit of my own scholarship when I am judiciously sympathetic to my subjects.

But teaching is another matter entirely. Also in the comments section, L.D. writes: “It’s not my job to change their understanding about life in general, or politics, or religion, or whatever.” Is such political objectivity, or neutrality, or whatever you want to call it, really the best approach to teaching?

Perhaps I’m an outlier, but two of the three teachers who had the most profound impact on my life–those responsible, really, for me becoming a historian–were openly ideological and honest with their students about their political commitments. The first, my high school English teacher, was an Ayn Rand objectivist who assigned Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and treated both books as the Truth. She literally got angry with students who disagreed, not in a mean way, but in a way that demonstrated she was honestly dismayed anybody would disagree with Rand. She was disappointed in her students who could not see Truth revealed in Rand’s works. It was a weird classroom, but I loved it. My objectivist English teacher never convinced me to like Rand or become a libertarian, quite the opposite, but she did teach me that ideas are really important. That ideas matter, a lot. This has stayed with me.

The second honest ideologue teacher who had a profound impact on me was my undergraduate college history professor, a grumpy, avowed Debs-style socialist from Oklahoma who used to play Woody Guthrie songs in class. The persona this professor forged in the imagination of his students was larger than life, and a huge part of this larger than life-ness was his political identity. Admittedly, I was an easy target since I didn’t need to be convinced of the merits of socialism, but this teacher had a huge following on campus, and not all of his acolytes were leftists. Teaching is often at its most joyful when trying to convince students of the merits of a deeply felt belief, whether political or aesthetic or whatever. And conversely, learning is often most meaningful in such a situation. This I learned from that ideological professor.

My third most influential teacher was in graduate school. This particular professor didn’t necessarily wear his politics on his sleeve in the classroom. He once told me he didn’t care if his students were communists or monarchists as long as they didn’t say stupid things. And he was honest about this, not just paying lip service to wanting ideological diversity in our student population, as most of us tend to do. Yet despite his lack of political commitment in the classroom, he regularly made political statements that some students found offensive, or at least counterintuitive. This was part of his pedagogical method.  Part of his charm. And it was quite effective. It disrupted the copacetic bubble that governs most of our classrooms–the copacetic bubble where learning goes to die.

I teach students who want to be teachers. They often come to my classroom convinced they need to go to extreme lengths to avoid revealing their political selves to their future students. They are conditioned to be neutral by a college of education that inculcates professionalism and that seems to believe political ideology is anti-professional. In an educational culture that values testing and so-called accountability above all else, this might be the right pedagogical approach. But it is exactly wrong if we want students to be inspired learners.

44 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks so much for these reflections, Andrew. My experiences of teachers has been a mixed bag: I can name 3-4 teachers who clearly won me over to their Marxist/Neo-Marxist/Wisconsin School outlooks, but I’ve been turned off by profs who have tried to persuade without factual foundations, or who themselves refused to change when confronted with alternative evidence. Which brings me to my main point.

    Isn’t objectivity the foundation for transformational learning? It absolutely is my job to change my students’ understanding of their world, and I try to do so in a subversive, Sermon on the Mount style (“you’ve been told this . . . , but I tell you . . . ). But I can’t say or do whatever I want; I’m constrained in so many ways–by the records of the past, by present colleagues and other scholars, etc. Case in point: Thinking many of my students buy into the “post-racial” America narrative, I (with help from Gary Gerstle, Ed Blum, Kevin Kruse, and others) work very hard to convince them that race will be one of the greatest challenges facing them in the twentieth century. I try to convince them that we’re even more segregated today than the 1960s, and that “separation breeds suspicion.” I argue thus because I believe the facts justify these convictions. With facts on my side, I’m set free to be passionately partisan about racial justice. (and yes, I know “facts” is so pre-linguistic turn, but a guy’s gotta eat!)

    • Great comments, Mark. I don’t disagree with anything you say here. In my teaching as in my scholarship I want facts and logic to do the heavy lifting. It’s one thing for a high school English teacher to be an Ayn Rand objectivist. Her main job was to make me a better writer, and to get me to love literature. She was successful in both objectives in part because I was so fascinated with her strange political persuasion. But it’s yet another thing for a university history professor to be immune to arguments that challenge his or her political presuppositions. I’m not immune to such, and don’t advise as much. Rather I would like to make the simple claim that the best teachers embrace whatever it is that inspires us to do this type of work in the first place.

      • Well said. Sorry if it seemed like I was disagreeing with you; certainly not my intention. I should add that the most fun I have is working out the political/moral/ideological upshots of the texts we read–this week, that was Sehat’s Myth of Religious Freedom and Sean Scott’s A Visitation of God in conversation with Blum’s Reforging the White Republic.

  2. I do not encourage the future teachers in my classroom to air their political views (and prefer to stay a bit more aloof myself). However, Diana Hess’s recent book, “Controversy in the Classroom” (Routledge, 2009), provides quantitative and qualitative evidence to support your position, Andrew. Popular wisdom notwithstanding, teachers do not necessarily intimidate or sway their students by discussing their own beliefs. I think the real issue is the classroom dynamic into which that information is injected. –Cam

    • Thanks, Cam. I’m familiar with Hess. And I agree that classroom dynamics are extremely important. Especially for younger students, who often only explore new ideas if they feel like the classroom is a safe place. I suppose the same goes in a college classroom, though I don’t want my safe classroom to be a copacetic bubble. So it’s a fine line. I want students to feel comfortable exploring new, challenging ideas, and yet I think they need to experience cognitive dissonance (a decidedly un-safe experience) in order to do so. How do we balance these pedagogical imperatives? That’s the fine line we walk.

  3. I usually reveal my own political preferences *when prompted* by a student. And then I don’t hold back. Even so, I always try to evaluate the trade-offs and weaknesses of my position—as well as my normative assumptions. I don’t want it to end in an “everyone’s fine and correct” fashion, so I do bring up some universally-accepted ethical principles as benchmarks. That said, in history classes I always try to come back to contextual factors—in relation to historical actors and myself. – TL

    • Seems reasonable, Tim. I don’t want it to sound like my main goal, or one of my central objectives, when I walk into my classroom is political indoctrination. That’s a rather banal teaching goal, and one doomed to failure. Rather, I think it’s OK to be honest about our politics, about how our politics motivate our work as scholars and teachers.

  4. Thanks for this, Andrew. I think it highlights why politics in the classroom can be very valuable — indeed, in my mind, indispensable to good teaching. Insofar as the reaction against teachers who are openly political is not just a right wing strategy, I think there are a lot of people who sincerely believe that politicized classrooms result in students being stifled, intimidated, or indoctrinated. And surely every once in a while this is indeed the dynamic. But you lay out here how it ought, and often does, work — teachers who are honest about their political viewpoints, but make it clear that their students’ job is to be equally honest with themselves and engage with the teacher on these viewpoints – not just reinforce or regurgitate them – are the ones who force their students to think in ways that will bear some relevance to their own lives and to the world they inhabit. And perhaps this is another slightly controversial thing to say, but even in the field of history, I feel at the bottom of it, this is our job.

    • “It remains an unfortunate reality of American higher education that social scientists and historians can get through their training with only the most passing acquaintance with conservatism.”

      Of course, what Corey Robin means by that might be different than what it means to a normal person. And while it’s true that passion is the sexiest pedagological tool of all, a diet of nought but Guthries and no Bach seems unwise, and unfortunately Woody would not have been a qualified teacher of Bach. Too many notes.

      • Tom: I don’t know about passion being a sexy pedagogy, if by sexy you mean trendy. Rather, I tend to think professional correctness is the rule of the day in our classrooms. And one more thing, for me, Woody was a gateway drug to Bach.

      • Oh, Andrew, by sexy, I mean intoxicatingly powerful and effective if backed by actual competence. Actually, intoxicatingly powerful and effective even when backed by incompetence, wherein lies the rub.

        As for Corey Robin being a gateway drug to Aquinas and Hayek, it’s an entertainingly perverse thought, as I’d hoped to intimate above. However, my encounters with his admirers leave me with the impression his work is most effective as left-wing erotica.

  5. Thank you Andrew for this insightful piece. I can’t help but wonder if there is a tendency to conflate ideology and passion when assessing a teacher. Nearly all of my favorite teachers have been passionate about their field of study and debates within it. In the specific case of history this passion is often channeled along political lines. I hesitate to call politically active teachers I have had “ideologues” because most have been honest about their views and open to discussion about why they hold them.

    I think it is important to be mindful of how we present our political views as teachers because we possess authority in the classroom that can intimidate and even bully those who may feel differently. Many students express their frustration with politically active teachers passive-aggresively complaining in end of semester reviews that “if you disagree with [such and such professor] you will get a bad grade on a paper” or that they didn’t participate in class because they felt their own views would be received with hostility by the professor. While some of this is just whining about receiving a grade lower than expected, these complaints often speak to concerns about imbalances in power between teachers and students in debates about politics (or other topics that can be construed as political, which today is almost anything). I think passion in the classroom is one of the attributes almost all successful teachers possess, but when that passion is used as a means to impress upon students a particular political ideology I think it can be unfair to students who may disagree but fear that disagreeing with a headstrong professor could hurt them come grading time.

  6. This is a great post. Usually, I find it best to step outside of present-day politics in my teaching. For example, today in one of my classes we were discussing 1935-1937 critiques of the New Deal, and one of my students started off our discussion by saying “I don’t like [one of the points of view expressed in the primary sources].” Rather than agreeing or disagreeing with him–or letting the rest of the students construct an ahistorical discussion that would teach them nothing about the 1930s–I said that we needed to consider the historical context and understand the source and its author upon their own merits before we jumped to conclusions based upon our own points of view or experiences. Ultimately, I do think that it is NOT my job to teach my students a particular point of view, but it IS my job to get them to critically examine all points of view, including their own. Nevertheless, I am aware that my own politics are evident on some occasions, and perhaps I am more critical of ideas with which I do not agree. When it is appropriate to do so, I don’t mind telling my students about my own political leanings; however, I try to be reflective about it. I point out that my political views (and life experiences, historical training, historical context, etc.) shape the way that I do history–the kinds of questions I ask, the topics I cover, perhaps even some of my conclusions. I see it as an opening point for a discussion about who we are and how our identities affect the way we understand the past and the present–not as an opportunity for indoctrination. I would rather influence students to think critically, than to think like me.

    Of course, I have to confess that if they end up thinking like me, I guess that’s not so terrible after all, as long as they are conscious of why they are doing so.

  7. Andrew you are too kind.

    LD writes a lot of stuff — almost all of it well-intended, but not all of it well-worded. The passage you quote above, for example — the “It’s not my job” thing — could have been stated better, because as written it sounds like I am disavowing the purposes of pedagogy, and the politics of pedagogy (as Robin Marie aptly pointed out in her comment on my post).

    A better way to say it (or maybe not!) might be as follows…

    [wrote something here, then looked at the blog dashboard, read Brian Ingrassia’s comment, and promptly deleted what I wrote in order to give the Amen to what he said]

    So a better way to say it would have been this:

    “Ultimately, I do think that it is NOT my job to teach my students a particular point of view, but it IS my job to get them to critically examine all points of view, including their own. Nevertheless, I am aware that my own politics are evident on some occasions, and perhaps I am more critical of ideas with which I do not agree….I would rather influence students to think critically, than to think like me. ”

    And I would add that this approach comes (in my case) from a commitment to pragmatic pluralism, or pluralistic pragmatism, or something along those lines.

    I should note that I did not start my academic career with such commitments, but I have picked them up along the way, from texts and from teachers. Whether that was the teachers’ intent or not, I can’t say. In any case, I have made such values my own, consciously and deliberately.

    But I would never insist that my students share/adopt my values; they just have to figure out how to abide by my expectations for how we conduct academic discourse in the class — how we approach arguments that rub us the wrong way, how we engage fellow class members’ ideas critically without being critical or disdainful of them, etc., etc. Basically, that involves asking my students to abide by my professional values/norms while they’re in my classroom, but it doesn’t include any expectation that they will/should/must think this is the best way to conduct a class, or the best way to handle ideas. It’s just a procedure they have to negotiate while they’re in my tiny little fiefdom.

    That’s as close as I hope I ever come to being guilty of being a doctrinaire ideologue, in the classroom or out of it. The fact that my knee-jerk reaction to certain ideas still takes me by surprise is an indicator that I still have a ways to go.

  8. Great post! I’ve always made it my goal that my students never be able to sniff out my politics, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make political statements in class. I try to challenge anyone who makes an unsupported argument. Do example, today my students discussed right and left critics of the New Deal and as they tried to assess Hoover’s position, one student said, “he just takes it too far!” “Why? How?” I asked. I argued that the NLRB circumvented the justice system (using some contemporary documents as an example) and asked them to make a counter argument. Thy struggled, but eventually used specifics and questions about the way policies worked to come up with a response. What was interesting was to see how they were able to clarify their own opinions — both right and left — through this exercise. Seeing me take an evidence based position and asking them to do the same elevated te debate, and in the process, helped them figure out and hone their worldviews. I can play Devon’s advocate with any position, but I also try to do so only when I see that students need an example for how to construct an argument on a particular issue, and when it’s clear that I’m trying to get them to push back, so they don’t feel bullied or like I’m trying to give them the right answer. This post is a good reminder that there are various ways to help students figure out their own beliefs and to argue them intelligently, so thank you!

  9. Thanks for all the great comments, peoples. I don’t have much to add, except to say that I think there are a multitude of approaches good teachers take. I highlighted one such approach: being open about one’s political commitments in the classroom. The reason I feel obligated to highlight this approach, as opposed to the other excellent pedagogical approaches all of you have offered here, is because it is often denigrated. But as I argue, such an approach reached me as a student in ways that others didn’t. But like I said, I’m probably an outlier. Cheers.

  10. Tom Van Dyke writes about Corey Robin: “my encounters with his admirers leave me with the impression his work is most effective as left-wing erotica.” I think this is an unfair assessment. Perhaps, Tom, you should just read Robin!

    • I read this


      and not only was unimpressed by the thesis, thought Mr. Robin got quite the worst of it in the exchange with his commenters, not to mention, say, Mark Lilla, et al., among “respectable” scholars.


      [USIH-blog got a mention there. High Five!]

      But there is always a place for “Conservatives dig oppression and violence” as progressive porn, and his fans are positively hot for it.

      I’m being gentle right now, in anticipation of the exquisite LDB having her promised go. I will demur in that I have no problem with the “tone” [neither did John Derbyshire], but with the tone-deafness.

      • I would point out to T. Van Dyke that not every self-identified leftist, left-liberal or whatever agrees w everything C. Robin writes. I thought that Chronicle piece Van Dyke links was quite unimpressive, to put it mildly, and said as much a while back in a Crooked Timber comment which Robin didn’t bother to respond to.

        I don’t claim to have Corey Robin’s erudition, but as someone on the left I wd say that the notion there is an essentially violent core to conservatism — the thesis of that Chronicle piece — strikes me as unpersuasive or at least as in need of a better demonstration than contained there. Some conservatives have been and are in love w violence and others aren’t. I see little pt in forcing them all into one procrustean bed.

      • Cheers, LFC. I’m still feeling my way around here and was hoping/waiting to see some demurrals from the left. Or center, or wherever.

        …and said as much a while back in a Crooked Timber comment which Robin didn’t bother to respond to.

        However, Corey Robin is the type who litigates his reviews.


        Frankly, for a “public” intellectual to litigate a passing reference to his style and work


        personalized what was a valid and rather uncontentious aside, that LDB finds The Reactionary Mind‘s more polemical tone a less preferable path than Michael Kazin’s. To put Lora on the spot like that I think was more personal than the bounds of litigating one’s thesis or reputation allow. [With all due respect, sir.]

        It’s a fine line for a blog such as this, between the professional society and a gentlemen’s club, and it would be a pity that the clubbiness should come first. [It certainly didn’t when Brother Nils was in the docket. Tortures of the damned.]


        To Corey Robin’s thesis itself, there is some truth to the criticism that “conservatism” isn’t a philosophy, it’s a reaction to [progressive/left/liberal] action.

        If for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, to examine the “reactive” mind without looking at what it’s reacting to is unhelpful. William Jennings Bryan comes back to mind. Just what was he reacting to?


    • Robin’s book is great. Not without flaws. But I find his argument persuasive and his writing elegant. He melds theoretical influences deftly: Arendt, Arno Mayer, Karen Orren, Judith Shklar, in particular. The Reactionary Mind is sometimes treated as an ex nihilo rant paired with close readings of sources. That is a scandalous misrepresentation.

      The comparison with l’affaire Gilman is also unfair: Robin never used a guest post to ruffle feathers (an act I find unobjectionable, but which I know some others found impudent); he stepped in to offer some clarification to a reader of his book. I think that’s generous.

      As far as “litigating” reviews, I dunno. There’s a certain frustration that serious literary outfits like the NY Times book review section, the NYRB, and the New Yorker always seem to screw up reviews of important left wing books in ways that they don’t screw up reviews of centrist or conservative books. Lilla’s review was hostile and superficial, and his responses to Robin were deliberately obfuscatory and gaslighting.

      Robin’s most controversial claim is not, as I see it, particularly central to his book: that there is no “good” conservative past, or, in the local context, no “good” past of the US Right) to be recovered from the latest deviation or distortion (Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Tea Party, etc). It strikes me that perhaps Robin might have strategically disambiguated this argument from the other business of the book.

  11. Great post!
    My first concern is creating an environment in which my students feel comfortable debating with me in class (and learning how to do so in a respectful way). Establishing that rapport early on seems to make all the difference in students not fearing for their grade if they disagree with me, students feeling comfortable being critical of authoritative sources (mine, the textbook’s, etc.), and me being able to express my opinions in a way that furthers discussion rather than put an end to it. Depending on the “culture” of the classroom I’m able to establish, I decide how and when my views can enter the conversation. (That is, of course, ignoring for a moment the politics involved in how I’ve already constructed the syllabus and topics of conversation–a discussion for another time!)

    • Cara: Great point about ensuring students are aware that their grades are in no way related to the positions they take in the course. Early in every course I make sure to praise students who disagree with me or the texts.

  12. Great post, Andrew. I don’t think there’s any one right way to handle ideology in the classroom. (Apparent) neutrality, advocacy, devil’s advocacy, and engineering of student debates can all be appropriate. What is vital is building some kind of conflict into the course. A classroom without some kind of intellectual tension is a classroom without a point.

    Most of the time, I prefer to help conflicts emerge from students’ own ways of thinking. I try not to be incredibly obvious about my own political views, mostly because students’ expectations about a professor (whether they agree or not) often let them evade responsibility for their own ideas. But in lectures, the dramatic tension has to come from somewhere, so more of my own opinions come out, in the way I frame a story if nothing else. That doesn’t mean I’m dictating what to think, though; my goal is to illustrate that events of the past are related to living debates and problems. If a student disagrees with a lecture on (say) the annexation of Texas because she thinks we disagree about federalism today, I’ve just done the most powerful thing I can do to change the student’s mind and fix the factual material in her memory.

    A teacher who simply holds forth on a certain ideology, instead of modeling how certain ideas have been reached and defended, is not going to be very persuasive. But what’s even worse is a teacher who doesn’t seem to think there’s anything in the world to disagree about, or who treats all ideological disagreements as dead and buried. “So Martin Luther King thought racism is bad. Um, discuss.”

  13. All very interesting. I think there are two levels of “political ideology” going on–the one involving acknowledged and conscious ideological choices (e.g. “I’m a radical, my students are liberals and conservatives of various kinds) and the other involving the political vision of education as a process itself. That is, the idea of fostering open critical discussion involves a political vision–your students may remain “conservatives,” but what you’ve really inculcated is a notion that the most valuable way of knowing is coming to it through a process of critical examination, challenge to received authority, and respectful attention to the views of others. I would describe that vision of selfhood and social process as “liberal”. So, no matter how radical (or conservative) your own consciously held ideology, the ethic of respect, tolerance _and_ criticism that you bring to the classroom is, in fact, liberalism through the backdoor. Not that that’s a bad thing–in fact, it’s my thing as well.

    • This is a really good distinction, Dan. What I argue is that a pedagogy dedicated to the first level of political ideology–“I’m an Objectivist,” etc–can often, if done well, help foster critical discussions of the second type, “liberal education.”

    • Are we then to assume that radicals and conservatives are disrespectful, intolerant and lacking in self critical skills? Isn’t this line drawn a bit darkly? I have to admit I’m a sucker for your argument but can’t help think this is a status quo point of view.

      • Good point, Paul. I don’t draw the line so starkly as Dan. In other words, I think political radicalism–or conservatism for that matter–and liberal education are not mutually exclusive endeavors.

      • Paul–
        I would distinguish between a political ideology and the forms of behavior actually practiced and promoted. Not to go all Louis Hartz or anything, but at some level most Americans adhere to liberal values in the large sense, even if they call themselves something other than liberals. A conservative vision might emphasize respect for received authority and rote mastery of a body of information as a pedagogical style, but no one appears to be on the side of ideological indoctrination (even phrasing it that way makes it appear ideologically suspect to the liberal mind). In fact, conservatives have made a great deal of hay out of the supposed liberal “political correctness” that inhibits free speech. If conservatives and radicals are all for free speech and critical analysis of dogmatic and received truths, who will stand up for dogma and indoctrination?

  14. “Not to go all Louis Hartz or anything, but at some level most Americans adhere to liberal values in the large sense, even if they call themselves something other than liberals.”

    Then from Hartz’s perspective (and by inference your perspective) everything is defined through a liberal lens; conservatives are conservative liberals, radicals are radical liberals. They are all confined and defined by a normative set of liberal rules. Is this correct?

  15. Tom, this blog is a far cry from a gentleman’s club. Shit, it’s not even a frat house. No beer, no band, and no bongs.

    Corey Robin didn’t put me on the spot; I put myself in the middle of one godawful hot mess when I signed on to chair a panel with Robin, Kazin, Livingston and Robbins. How could that have gone wrong? Oh, let me count the ways! But I was game and good to go, and — yes — as a third-year PhD student I would have told Corey Robin to his face in front of a room full of people that he should stick to PoliSci and leave the history to the historians. But I would have smiled while I said it, and he would have laughed when he heard it, and then he would have handed me my ass on a polemical platter.

    But the conference didn’t happen, though it looks like the panel papers might find a home in the pages of a certain magazine that shades so far to the left that it almost looks like it’s headed right. In the meantime, I’m glad Corey took the time to respond to my drive-by critique — though I’m sure he never would have seen my comment if my good colleague P.T. Hartman hadn’t tweeted him the link.

    I’ve promised Corey (and our readers) a reasonably thorough reply, and I’ll get to it. I’m not hiding out or nursing my wounded ego. In case you hadn’t noticed from my writing, I am not some frail little thing. I’m just staggering under a ridiculous load of mid-semester work and mid-program angst, desperate for Spring Break to get here and despairing that it’s going to be nothing but one long slog. No beer, no band, and no bongs.

    God, I don’t even want to think about all the autobot spam comments we’re going to have to delete from this thread. Sorry, Andrew.

    • LDB, I get backchannel attaboys now & then from members of the academy, a little jealous that as a not-member of the club with no professional career at risk to academic politics, I’m free to speak my mind.

      As I noted to RayH, y’all have planted yr flag atop the USIntellectual History hill, so you get to determine what is and what isn’t, who’s in and who’s out. Who gets the kid gloves and who get the paddle.

      I’m just sittin’ here watching the wheels go round and round, whether this is a self-perpetuating daisy chain where everybody reads, approves and cites each other, or a genuine symposium. You had written you’re more attracted to Kazin’s style than Corey Robin’s more polemical one.

      OTOH, there is much to like about that piss-and-vinegar 3rd-year PhD student who seemed poised to enter the intellectual history scene with a bang instead of a wimper.

      I miss her already…

      • I’m right here, and I’m right here.

        I just said in my comment above that I think Corey Robin should leave the history to the historians, and I’ll write up a post or comment later to explain why. I don’t know how much more vinegar you want.

        As to getting into a pissing match — I’ll leave that to the dudes.

      • Tom, for someone who’s so free to speak his mind, it’s remarkable how little mind you’ve actually spoken.

        You’re big on assertions, mostly about me and my readers as opposed to what I’ve writing, but nowhere do you actually show that I’m wrong.

        So, since you are so free to speak your mind, and since you’re so manifestly convinced that my argument — again, I stress my argument — is wrong, have at it. Show me how — and don’t just tell me that — I’m wrong (there’s a difference, I’m sure you’re aware, between show and tell.)

        Oh, and by the way, it does help, before you wade in to claim my book is wrong, to actually read it. So I’ll save you right from the start from two mistakes you’ve already made.

        In my book I explicitly argue against the notion that simply because conservatism is reactionary it is not a philosophy. And I spend a great deal of time showing what it was that conservatism was reacting to. You might want to check out, oh, I don’t know, chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11.

        I gather you think I can be litigious with my critics. Consider then what I just wrote an effort on my part to be gentle and restrained.

      • Oooh I was hoping that doctoral student was still in there, LD. Bold & beautiful.

        Mr. Robin, nice to meet you. But not like this. You spend a lot of time confronting your critics that you’re not saying this, you’re saying that. Perhaps a restatement in order.

        In the meantime, work like this


        is not going to pry a coin out of my pockets to read the fuller thesis. But if you send me a copy, I will read it.

        With an instruction book on how to read it, I reckon. People keep getting you wrong.


        “The Reactionary Mind” has higher intellectual ambitions than talk radio or the right-wing pulp nonfiction churned out by writers like Ann Coulter or Bernard Goldberg, but it ends up replicating their breathless Manichaean attitude.”

        [I do confess that if I’m reading only for guilty pleasure, I prefer my political porn to be of the latter orientation.]

      • Mr. Van Dyke:

        I’ve disagreed with Corey Robin in the past about his unduly dismissive responses to critical reviews from Sheri Berman and Mark Lilla. But Corey is right that your comments exhibit a combination of arrogabce and ignorance – though I don’t think that in itself justifies holding you in contempt. Corey’s The Reactionary Mind, and his first book, Fear: the History of a Political Idea, each contain a number of first class essays, deftly combining deep scholarship with biting political polemic (as well as some lesser stuff). They can each be had cheap on Amazon. That you, sitting in your mansion high atop Los Angeles, are unwilling to pay anything in order to familiarize yourself with his arguments before continuing your ill-informed attacks simply means there’s no reason to pay attention to you.

      • Yes, this is a familiar pattern. I have not criticized Corey Robin the person, only his work. [And yes, litigating with his critics is the professional Corey Robin and comes under the heading of his work.] Yet here we are, I personally on the defensive? No thanks.

        I’ve invested enough time in his Chronicle of Higher Education essay


        his argument with Mark Lilla at the New York Review of Books


        his exchange with Daniel Larison


        and of course his charming self here at this blog to be left unintrigued. For a discussion of a “public” intellectual, this has gotten far too personal, especially with said “intellectual” now contemptuously in my face. So absent something interesting or compelling from Corey Robin here or elsewhere, I have nothing to add to Lilla or any of Corey’s other critics, whom I find more convincing than he.

        At this point, I find the politics of his status and stature in the academy and his confrontations with his critics far more probative as answer to the question “what is US Intellectual history?” I hope that the preliminary answer is that this isn’t it.

        Thank you for the forum.

  16. Oh, and L.D.: That comment that I just made above to Tom? The tone you’re hearing there? That’s contempt. Which is usually — I’d like to think solely — inspired in me not by ignorance or even arrogance but by the marriage of the two. Anyway, I thought it’d be useful to point this out, just so we get our definitions clear, as we move into our discussion of whether or not I do indeed have or show contempt for the subjects of The Reactionary Mind.

  17. Hold up a minute, Corey. You know the rules. Somebody writes a text and puts it out there, and then other people interpret it and (ideally) try to make a strong case for why their interpretations are sound.

    It’s up to me to come up with an analytical framework for evaluating your argument. If I think “contempt” is the right word, I’ll use it, and I’ll make clear how I’m using it. Then if you feel like my reading doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, you’re free to point out all the flaws in *my* text. But you don’t get to tell me ahead of time what the terms of my argument will be, or how I am to use them.

    • ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

      ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

      ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

  18. Corey, I spent all morning and much of the afternoon meeting with students who are revising/resubmitting their papers — which is why I cannot just hop to it and write a critique of _The Reactionary Mind_ this evening. I need to get all that earnest, aspirational, but still very wobbly undergraduate prose out of my head first, and before I can do that I still have to send comments to several students.

    But I will tell you what I told many of them in conference: a standalone quote from a text is not in itself evidence of anything but the fact that you *may* have read the text from which you are quoting. A quote becomes evidence within your argument when you explain to me what it suggests about the author’s thinking, and then go on to demonstrate how its presence here in your own text supports the particular point you are trying to make.

    Are you trying to argue a point with Humpty Dumpty and Alice, or did you just feel the need for a bit of Carrollian levity? Either aim is fine, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. If it’s levity you’re after, considering the (rapidly deteriorating) contextual moorings of this comment thread, an emoticon wouldn’t hurt. But if it’s an argument you are aiming for, then I suggest you argue something.

  19. Levity levity levity! Sorry for the confusion. Really, sincerely, just joking. And should have made that clear, you’re right, after the day’s, um, conversation.

  20. Well it’s a *good* joke, especially to me. I only owned a handful of my own books as a child — at least compared to the HUNDREDS that are stacked up all around me now — and Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass was one of them, an “unbirthday” gift from a dear uncle who was the first person who encouraged me to write.

    The encounter with Humpty Dumpty in _Looking Glass_ is my third-favorite “interview” in the series. The runner-up is the chapter “Pig and Pepper” from _Alice in Wonderland_. But top honors MUST go to “Advice from a Caterpillar,” which seems to me strangely reminiscent — or preminiscent, if I can Dumptify a word here — of every time I meet with my graduate dean or my advisor, or picture my oral exams / dissertation defense.

    But that cryptic caterpillar is why I’m in this business in the first place — to feed my head. Thanks for sitting down to the banquet table with me.

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