J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Even in Stereo, These Podcasts Sound Like They’re Coming from the Right

The Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs’s Teaching American History program offers free seminars for downloading. Its podcast page says:

The Teaching American History podcast will provide subscribers with a weekly seminar from a leading history scholar from our extensive audio archive. These seminars are designed to encourage teachers to seriously examine significant events in American history in light of the principles of the American founding, and also to encourage the use of primary source materials in the classroom.
Many of the offerings explore the Revolutionary period, and most others look back on that period from other crucial times in U.S. history, such as the Civil War and the Depression. The older recordings are available, for old times’ sake, in RealAudio format, too.

There are a couple of things to be aware of before you dive in. These recordings invite a big commitment of time. For example, Hadley Arkes’s seminar on “A Reconsideration of the Original Case Against the Bill of Rights” comes in two parts, meaning the two downloads comprise almost three hours of contrarianism.

And that stretch is surpassed by Jeremy Bailey’s “Thomas Jefferson and Executive Power” (3:07), Harry V. Jaffa’s “The Declaration in American History and World History” (3:14), and Gordon Lloyd’s four-part series on the “Constitutional Convention” (6:04). So any one of them offers more than a single commute’s worth of listening.

Secondly, these seminars reflect the thinking on part of the American political right. The Ashbrook Center was named after a Republican Representative from Ohio who ran against Richard Nixon in 1972 because he thought that President was too leftist. Its home is Ashland University, which describes itself as “associated with the Brethren Church, where Judeo-Christian values are the foundation of the educational and social environment.” Its collective blog is called “No Left Turns.”

The Ashbrook Center’s Board of Advisors includes the editors of both the Weekly Standard and National Review, and a token female. The podcasts do a little better on gender inclusion, with two female scholars to be heard—out of more than twenty.

On the other hand, the center has the sense to host a lecture on the political symbolism of Captain America.


Eric said...

Aside from them sounding "like they're coming from the right" what *substantive* things are wrong with the seminars?

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t say anything was wrong with the seminars per se. Because they’re so long, I haven’t had the time to listen to a representative sample.

I am dubious about a university that takes “No Left Turns” as one of its slogans. Its leaders are presenting themselves along political lines, and promising not to support policies their constituents would see as left-wing. How far down into the teaching does that extend?

I think listeners should have that knowledge while they partake of and assess the Ashbrook offerings. But I’m not going to institute a “No Right Turns” policy and ignore this podcast site.

Larry Cebula said...

I do a great deal of work with teachers and have been involved in many Teaching American History grant projects. I have often seen these podcasts listed as a teacher resource and I am glad that you have raised these questions about them.

But really someone needs to listen to the darn things, or at least look up critiques of the scholars who are involved, before we jump to any conclusions. I remember a few years ago everyone was upset that Gilder and Lehrman, two conservatives from New York, were doling out big money to found and institute devoted to history. It must be biased! I worried about that right up until I noticed who they brought in for 19th century history--Eric Foner! I think we can safely say that Eric Foner is the furthest thing from a tool of the right in the profession. Since then, Gilder-Lehrman has provided absolutely top-notch history and history education programming.

So someone needs to listen carefully and fact check a few of these. You first.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve downloaded one two-part seminar from this site to listen to on my way to work. However, since I usually work at home, it will probably take me several months to hear it all.

The only Ashland University professor whose work I’ve read (or, to be frank, whom I recall noticing before) is David Mayer, one of the hand-picked “Scholars Commission” assembled by the “Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society” to deny the evidence that Jefferson was the most likely father of Sally Hemings’s children.

He posted his argument here. In it Mayer makes the ludicrous statement that “the circumstantial case that Eston Hemings was fathered by Randolph Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s younger brother, is ‘many times stronger’ than the case against Jefferson himself.” (Note the connotations of the word “against,” suggesting Mayer’s distaste at the thought of Jefferson having sex with a woman like Hemings.)

Mayer is not among the people represented in the podcasts, however.

Anonymous said...

Read the scholarship and listen to the talk before you start hanging those scarlet letters.

J. L. Bell said...

Apparently, anonymous commenter, you find identifying the Ashbrook Institute’s political outlook as being right-wing to be affixing a badge of shame.

Ashland University doesn’t think so, given that it takes “No Left Turns” as one of its slogans. And the institute seeks advice from the editors of the country’s leading right-wing political magazines, but not from any left-wing or centrist magazines.

So when I say this material sounds like it’s coming from the political right, I’m taking the college and the institute at their word.