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American Conservatism

Thinking It, Teaching It

Paul Lyons

Publication Year: 2009

This book offers a rare opportunity to read about how a scholar's teaching informs his research, in this case an examination of the nature of American conservatism. It is based on an interdisciplinary senior seminar Lyons taught in Spring 2006. His teaching log, including student comments from an electronic conferencing system, gives a vivid sense of the daily frustrations and triumphs. Lyons reflects on some of the most difficult issues in higher education today, such as how to handle racism and political passions in the classroom, as well as how a teacher presents his own political convictions.

Lyons begins with the premise that most universities have been negligent in helping undergraduates understand a movement that has shaped the political landscape for half a century. In addition, in a series of essays that frame the teaching log, he makes the case that conservatives have too often failed to adhere to basic, Burkean principles, and that the best of conservatism has often appeared as a form of liberalism from thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Kennan. The essays also cover the history of conservatism, conservative use of the city-on-a-hill metaphor, and an examination of how the promise of Camelot sophistication was subverted by a resurgence of right-wing populism.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It is an attempt to demonstrate what academic scholars characteristically engage in but rarely discuss: the transformation of ideas into both scholarship and curricula. In an interview, the distinguished historian Lawrence W. Levine described the two desks in his office, one for his research, the other for his teaching. He wrote...

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pp. xi-xii

My first and most important acknowledgment must go to the group of students who inspired me to write this book in the hope that it would illuminate the importance of coming to grips with American conservatism. They were one of the best classes I have taught in over forty years—passionate, inquisitive, deeply ethical, and willing to go above and beyond even the most hopeful expectations I had at the outset. ...

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Introduction: What Is American Conservatism?

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pp. 1-16

I begin with my dissatisfaction with the ways in which American conservatism has been defined and represented over the past half century. Perhaps there is something in the American water that distills and sanitizes conservative ideas and sensibilities, transforming them from their quintessential caution into a Reaganite “Morning in America,” just as we turned Freudian psychoanalysis into the power of positive thinking. ...

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Part I: Teaching Conservatism

What follows is based on a teaching log I kept during the spring term of 2006. As I was inaugurating my seminar on American conservatism that term, I thought it might be useful to keep a running internal conversation about how the course unfolded. In the past, I had found some value in such a disciplined approach to teaching. For one, it forced me to...

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1. Teaching Log: Starting Out

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pp. 19-63

I was more wired than usual, as it was not only a new term but a new course, and one I think of as more ambitious than others insofar as I see it as the core of a new book. We did the usual stuff—syllabus, basic information about me (office hours, e-mail, phone) and them (major, e-mail or phone). I wanted to give them a sense of the “why” of the course. So I started with procedures—three papers, electronic conferencing...

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2. Teaching Log: The Stretch Drive

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pp. 64-107

Well, we finally had one of those days. I looked forward to a discussion of neoconservatism with Marty presenting, with Kate as possible followup on Bill Bennett, and with Sarah on Allan Bloom. Marty did a bangup job on a difficult subject, but it was clear from the get-go that this was one weary group. Sometimes I forget that there are rhythms to courses. We are on vacation, spring break, next week; most of my students have...

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Course Syllabus

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pp. 108-115

This course seeks to assist students in understanding the roots of modern American conservatism, its ideological, philosophical and political groundings, and its history. The premises of the course include the following: that too little attention has been paid to the strengths of conservatism, that there is a need to understand the complexities and contradictions within a much disputed...

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American Conservatism Defined

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pp. 116-117

My students have occasionally asked for my definition of conservatism. I begin with a historical framework. Conservatism emerged as a response to what was perceived as the destructive nature of the French Revolution, New Deal–type welfare states, and the totalitarian threats—fascism and communism—of the mid-twentieth century. At its most decisive, American conservatives, in the spirit of Edmund Burke, were profoundly anti-utopian...

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Part II: Thinking Conservatism

In the following essays I seek to explore the nature of American conservatism through a number of themes. In Chapter 3, “From Camelot to Cowboy,” I look at the curious unfolding and then the seeming decline of an American cosmopolitanism from the 1960s to the present. In the essay, I raise the question of how we understand that moment mythologized as Camelot during which it seemed that the United States, through...

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3. From Camelot to Cowboy

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pp. 121-131

One can argue that much of American cultural history through the midtwentieth century was a struggle to overcome feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis European culture. Of course, there has always been the counterpoint; some would call it a compensation. That notion argued that American culture, its national character, precisely because of its New World innocence and egalitarian authenticity, was at the least morally superior...

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4. Cities on a Hill

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pp. 132-146

When President Bush proclaims that the United States has made the pursuit of democracy and liberty the basis of our foreign policy, what exactly does he mean? Anti-Bush critics tend to simply write off such rhetoric as cover for less-attractive goals, including maintaining global hegemony, U.S. access and control of critical resources, and maximization of the interests of American multinational corporations. Perhaps...

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5. Is There an American Conservatism?

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pp. 147-171

In the October 24, 2005, issue of the New Yorker, Tom Reiss argued that “the first conservative,” the historian and poet Peter Viereck, deserved to be lifted out of the relative obscurity that has been his experience since the mid-1950s. Viereck has always been credited in the literature with framing the revival of an American conservatism with his 1949...

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Postscript: As We Approach the Future

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pp. 173-177

I write in the immediate aftermath of the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. The 2008 election reinforces my sense that there is a rising tide against American conservatism or, more accurately, against the Bush administration and its policies and performance. As such, it remains essential to keep in mind both the distinction between the conservative movement and the Republican Party and the differences...


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pp. 179-186


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pp. 187-196


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pp. 197-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592569
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516251

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2009