Ed Driscoll

The University Guild vs. Glenn Beck

Old meme: those knuckle-dragging right wing talk show hosts have never cracked a book! New meme: how dare those knuckle-dragging right wing talk show hosts introduce viewers to books we haven’t sanctioned!

Amity Shlaes writes at Real Clear Politics that “To understand the nature of the Beck challenge, you have to recall that our system of higher education is a throwback to medieval economics: a guild.” And even beyond Beck’s attack’s on academia’s sclerotic reactionary politics, they’re none too happy that Beck is building an alternative reading list for his students viewers:

In the field of history, the guild also maintains a monopoly on education by generating curricula, syllabi, and, of course, a canon, a set list of texts for each period of the past. Of course the academic guild, generally on the progressive side, has made many concessions to conservatives or classical liberals. Professors have assigned the odd conservative book; they mentioned the opponents’ arguments. But such offerings have generally been presented as an afterthought, secondary, less authoritative. Looking back at their education many adults saw through this pretense of fairness. They resented the guild monolith. Something was missing.

Enter Mr. Beck. At first, the radio show host appeared no different from the rest of conservative radio. In other words, another product of the 1987 repeal of the old Fairness Doctrine, which said that a radio license “may not be utilized to achieve a partisan or one-sided presentation.”   Pre-repeal that requirement was so strictly adhered to that radio tended the dull. After the repeal hosts were free to deliver soliloquys of rage and individual insights, legal, historical, political.  This change which turned out to be welcome to millions of viewers. The first to take advantage of this market opening was Rush Limbaugh, who remains the undisputed king of conservative talk radio.

The second explanation for Beck rage however involves the guild. For unlike other hosts, who tend to pick up and drop topics, Mr. Beck has begun to develop a new canon for adults. And unlike other hosts, but indeed like a professor, Mr. Beck tends to demand a lot of his viewers. For example, he recently devoted the better part of an hour to a biography of Samuel Adams by a historian without a Ph.D., Ira Stoll, whose book highlights the revolutionary firebrand’s piety. Mr. Beck breaks other tv rules. He insists viewers read books by dead men – W. Cleon Skousen’s work on the Constitution, the “5000 Year Leap.” It is all a long way from “Oprah,” “The Newshour” or even much of public television. Mr. Beck’s broadcast was barely over when Mr. Stoll’s book shot up to the highest heights of the Amazon list, where it has resided ever since. Beck-recommended books sometimes sell as well as, heaven forfend, textbooks. I had the good fortune to experience some of this after Mr. Beck talked about my Great Depression history.

Every author is glad to sell books. But the victory is far more Mr. Beck’s than any individual writer’s or publisher’s. His genius has been in his recognition that viewers do not want merely the odd, one-off book, duly pegged to news. They want a coherent vision, a competing canon that the regulated airwaves and academy have denied them. So he, Glenn Beck, is building that canon, book by book from the forgotten shelf. Since the man is a riveting entertainer, the professors are correct to be concerned. He’s not just reacting or shaping individual thoughts. He is bringing competition into the Ed Biz.

What to do? The Glenn Beck reading list may not satisfy everyone. Some of his views are indeed worth questioning. Some of us don’t agree with important components of his politics. Beck’s personal attacks put a lot of us off. Maybe there should be yet a third new reading list. As for the guild, a better response than its own ad hominem smearing is to widen their own reading lists and lectures. Professors can blame only themselves if Mr. Beck has taken an opportunity to teach. It is they who gave it to him.

As Jonah Goldberg wrote in and about Liberal Fascism, which Beck has also widely promoted:

Like the editors of the old Soviet encyclopedias who would send out updates to instruct which pages should be torn out, American liberalism has repeatedly censored and rewritten its own history so that the “bad guys” were always conservatives and the good guys always liberals.

And not knowing that history comes back to haunt them when they least expect it.