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New Left Review I/169, May-June 1988

Lynn Garafola

The Last Intellectuals

The 1980s have not been good to American intellectuals of the Left. The election of Ronald Reagan brought neo-conservatives to power, and with them a host of new institutions—most notably, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute—that set about rewriting the intellectual agenda. In the ensuing debate about the purposes and failings of American education, the New Left found itself the principal scapegoat. Johnnie can’t read, Susie can’t write, Dick and Jane haven’t a clue when the Civil War took place or why tea was dumped into Boston harbour or what books make up the Great Tradition. A semi-literate citizenry was graduating from America’s high schools. Blaming this on the 1960s was easier than teaching Susie to write or Dick to think. But then, the debate was not really about education. At stake was the meaning of Americanism, the subversion, as the Right saw it, of young minds by liberal ideas of pluralism, individualism, and equality. To the chagrin of neo-conservatives, young Americans knew more about Sojourner Truth and the slaughter of the Indians than about Teddy Roosevelt’s rough-riding imperialists and America’s manifest destiny. Kids like these would never fight the next Vietnam War.

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