Saturday, April 28, 2007

Teaching the Sixties

Published January, 2005

Once in a while, something interesting comes through my school mailbox. The last time it was the notice of a history conference on how to teach the Sixties at the University of Maine Orono. It was a six-hour drive ‘round trip, but it intrigued me. For people my age, how one views the sixties largely determines one’s view the world at large. If you think they were wonderful, you’re very likely a Democrat. If you think our country went off on the wrong track during the 1960s, you’re probably a Republican.

Not that I expected to find many Republicans at the conference. Frankly, I’d have been surprised to find any at all. Teachers’ unions are the biggest contributors to the Democrat Party. I don’t think they’ve ever endorsed a Republican since I’ve been paying attention. University professors around the country are also ten to one Democrat. Some campuses are even twenty, thirty, or even fifty to one. Williams College has no Republicans on staff at all, according to an article I read this week. I hadn’t seen any statistics about UMO’s faculty, but I expected much the same, and I wasn’t disappointed. The conference was officially titled “Teaching History in Maine: ‘The 1960’s: A Decade of Hope, Rage, and Change.’” Educational conferences and university courses usually have pretentious titles like that, with the essential colon announcing something else. They seldom just name it something simple like “History of the Sixties” or “Teaching the Sixties.”

The keynote presentation had little to do with the sixties that I could see. A history professor from Hamilton College named Maurice Isserman bored us with stories of how some Americans climbed Mount Everest and were given awards by President John F. Kennedy. Professor Isserman was publishing something about it and he read it to us verbatim, droning on for over an hour. “For this I had to drive six hours?” and “Why did they invite this guy?” was all I could think about.

There were choices about what presentations to attend the rest of the day and the first one I chose was interesting. A panel of teachers explained how each approached the teaching of events during that decade - what materials they chose, what themes they emphasized, what research they assigned. They were all excellent teachers and their suggestions were helpful. One woman announced she was “to the left of liberal” and I appreciated her honesty. She was a thoughtful woman and she gave her students the opportunity to filter her personal and political perspective while taking in her historical unit. She encouraged students to consider alternative viewpoints and debate her. Unfortunately, too few history teachers do that. Instead, they present extremely slanted material as if it were objective.

My last chosen session involved three history professors from the UMO History Department. The first was an obviously radical feminist whose presentation reminded me of the proverb: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Her presentation tried to make the case that American involvement in Vietnam was the result of the Kennedy brothers’ - John’s and Robert’s - “obsession with masculinity and macho images.” She said Robert’s in particular stemmed from his stint as legal advisor to congressional committees during the 1950s, including Senator Joseph McCarthy’s. She claimed they demonized homosexuals, whom they referred to as “Lavender Lads,” and this attitude led them inevitably to involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

The next presentation was from a Vietnamese-American professor with extensive firsthand experience as an advisor to the US military during the war. I strained to understand him through his thick accent, made worse by his rising anger as he described the US effort in Iraq and made parallels with it and Vietnam. When I asked him his opinion of remarks by old North Vietnamese General Giap advising terrorists in Iraq on how to defeat the United States, he started losing it. Another professor from Israel who was acting as MC came to his aid and lectured me heatedly about how Middle Eastern conflicts were solely the result of American imperialism. When I suggested that Bernard Lewis, a Middle Eastern historian at Princeton would disagree with that, he lost it too and started yelling at me. After the conference broke up and people were going to their cars, we nearly bumped into each other. He told me that he didn’t mean to get so excited in there. We discussed the Middle Eastern situation a bit longer until finally he said, “We disagree,” in a civil tone and we said good-bye.

On the long drive up there, I wondered how many other conservatives I would meet at the conference. As it turned out I was the only participant out of more than fifty who openly questioned any of the uniformly leftist views of history delivered. And, it was abundantly clear that none of the three history professors who presented, nor the one who served as MC, were accustomed to it. It was also clear that they considered the legacy of the sixties something to celebrate. If there were any others there but me who thought it wasn’t, they sure kept quiet about it.

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