Sarah Palin, anti-intellectualism, and the plight of the liberal arts

"She was hungry, loved politics, had charm and energy, loved walking onto the stage, waving and doing the stump speech. All good. But she was not thoughtful. She was a gifted retail politician who displayed the disadvantages of being born into a point of view (in her case a form of conservatism; elsewhere and in other circumstances, it could have been a form of liberalism) and swallowing it whole: She never learned how the other sides think, or why."

--Peggy Noonan, "Farewell to Harms," Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2009

It's well known that feelings about Sarah Palin tend to run from red hot to ice cold, and for her supporters, statements like the one above are to be dismissed as ugly, unfair caricatures, developed at the hands of the liberal media and their acolytes of Beltway and Manhattan insiders.

And those supporters might be right. I've never met Sarah Palin; I don't know for sure how her mind works, or what she's read, or how thoughtful she might be. Like most Americans, all I know is what I've seen on television, in her speeches, debates, and interviews. Based on all of that, Noonan's characterization seems plausible.

But here's why it matters: There are lots of people in America who never learn "how the other sides think, or why." And that's a big problem for our country, and one that's likely only to grow worse as our education policies focus obsessively on making young people "college and career ready," the mantra repeated constantly by government officials, major foundations, and policy pundits across the political spectrum.

Sarah Palin was ready for college (five of them in fact). She was ready for a career (in the demanding commercial fisheries industry). But is that enough? Is it enough for any of our young people, even if they don't plan to run for higher office? Don't they need to be ready for citizenship, too? Doesn't preparation for citizenship entail learning the lessons of generations before us, by understanding the history of our country and the rest of the world; gaining insights from great works of literature; appreciating the potential of human creativity through exposure to majestic masterpieces of art and music; and engaging in the issues of the day so that we might all understand "how the other sides think"? Don't we want "thoughtful" people, not just ones "ready" for college and career?

There was a time when conservatives, Republicans even, valued candidates who could demonstrate mastery of subjects like history, geography, and political philosophy. As David Brooks wrote last fall, "Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals... conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind." These conservatives also stood up for the idea of a liberally educated populace.

Yet, explains Brooks, over the past fifteen years, Republican politicians, pundits, and talk show hosts have split the country between "wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland" and "the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts." In doing so, they repudiated some of the best aspects of modern conservatism, and paved the way for populist candidates like Palin.

And not surprisingly, says Brooks, this strategy has driven well-educated voters away from the GOP in droves. It also makes it nearly impossible for the Republican Party to be the standard-bearer for a rigorous education, as it seems uninterested in demanding such an education even for its candidates.

This ought to create opportunities for the left and the Democratic Party--to argue for a broad, rich, full curriculum, and to ensure that the next version of No Child Left Behind makes such a reality more likely in our nation's schools. Yet to my knowledge the group "Liberals for the Liberal Arts" has yet to be founded. Democratic reformers seem just as enamored with the utilitarian and narrow drive toward "college and work readiness" as their Republican counterparts, if not more so.

Consider the Obama Administration. One might think that a government led by a professorial, and yes, thoughtful President, who is so talented at demonstrating that he knows "how the other sides think" and who himself was fortunate to receive an excellent education, might be a natural advocate for the liberal arts. Yet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team are mute on the topic.

Take a look at Duncan's speeches. Over the past six months, he's made nine major policy addresses that have been posted on his Department's web site. And in those speeches, he's mentioned "history," "literature," and "geography" exactly zero times. Meanwhile, there were seven instances of "accountability," and "charter schools" left his lips an astounding twenty-nine times.

Duncan and his team are pushing for structural changes in the system; they, like most reformers these days, are ignoring the "stuff" of education--what students actually need to learn in order to become good Americans.

This is because the left remains uncomfortable saying that there is a body of knowledge that all young people need to master in order to be prepared for life in our democracy. They fear getting pulled into debates about which books students should read, which countries' histories are worth putting it the curriculum. Look what's happened to E.D. Hirsch. Here's a bona fide liberal arguing that poor kids need to gain "cultural literacy" through exposure to the liberal arts, and he lives with charges of racism as a result.

But these Democratic reformers had better be careful. An obsessive focus on nothing but basic skills in reading and math, which can be chopped into little bits of data with which we can make all manner of decisions, will result in a generation of students who will make Palin sound like Socrates.

So that's where we find ourselves today. We have a Republican Party that continues to celebrate anti-intellectualism in its candidates and in American life. And we have a Democratic Party, increasingly led and dominated by well-educated individuals, that is unwilling to stand up for a broad, liberal education for all.

In this case, there's little need to understand how the "other side" thinks, because both parties are on the same side: The wrong side.

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