More About Teaching College in the Reagan Years


Image of Rube Goldberg's Mousetrap Ronald Reagan Making the Gesture of a Village Idiot hamburger

Those of us who were starting our college teaching careers in the early 1980’s were flummoxed by the apparent embrace of ideology over fact by so many young people.

In yesterday’s post about young Reaganistas I mentioned that my generation of baby boomers couldn’t understand young people who were seemingly immune to social justice. The Reagan kids with their greased back hair and cheap suits had almost overnight been inoculated against complexity, but by what?  Those of us who were starting our college teaching careers in the early 1980’s were flummoxed by the apparent embrace of ideology over fact by so many kids. If, like me, you were entering a college classroom to teach in 1983 and you were, say, twenty eight years old, you imagined that you had a passport to youthfulness, that you could still enter the land of people who were 18-22 years old.

Reagan’s America was not the land of social justice and investigative journalism that I had imagined was essential–would always be essential to Americanism. The tribe of teaching assistants and junior professors that I worked with were universally stumped by a new and youthful indifference to critical thinking. Some of those kids at those little one armed desks were only six years younger than I was and they had adopted the view that history was bunk. “America first” was their easy neo-Horatian chestnut and they saw no reason to think any harder. “Consciousness is painful” we would tell them, echoing Carl Jung. They stared back like underwater asparagus plants. No one had to say it. “Who wants pain?”


Want Some Pain, Scarecrow?



I remember trying to teach Christopher Dicky’s memoir With the Contras in a course on new journalism. My aim (as I recall it some 23 years later) was to show students there were books that descended from the oevre of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson–smart, investigative narratives that took readers behind headlines and propaganda. (We also read James Baldwin and Mark Mathabane.)

Dickey, who spent considerable time with the contras (who I still won’t capitalize) reveals the inhuman realities of covert warfare in a poor country. In the book’s opening pages he quotes Ronald Reagan “the great communicator” who said famously that the contras were “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers“.

“Who,” I asked “were the founding fathers?” Silence. Projective passive belligerence. I was interrogating Reagan and asking students to be complicit. Who were the founding fathers?


Name a Founding Father, Any Founding Father




“I will concede,” I said, “that all of you know who the founding fathers were.” “What is the irony behind the placement of this quotation?”

I just couldn’t leave well enough alone.

There was more silence.

I quoted Schopenhauer: “Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis.”

One guy in the back actually laughed.

I left the room.



Amusing Ourselves to Death


How had so many young people been inoculated against complexity? And how had this happened so quickly? Junior faculty types gathered over beers and talked about Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Our students represented the second full generation of television watching American zombies and we divided the baby boomers into those who watched “some” TV and those who, coming of age in the late 60’s and 70’s watched enormous amounts of it. I recall one sweet, misguided professor opining that the college should ban TV from dormitories.

Of course the 60’s and 70’s were terrible. Who wouldn’t want to feel better? Who wants to be a cultural harridan, witchily proclaiming the failings of the nation? What a trap to be in, to be arguing for critical thinking to a generation that saw it as either hopeless or quaint!

With our books and bibliographies we were as odd to these students as tin smiths or wheelwrights.

Just as “relevance” came under attack in the 60’s content was now suspect for surely the purpose of an American life was to feel good. In the Reagan era we were losing what Neil Postman described as “the transcendent spiritual idea that gives clarity and purpose to education.”

We wanted to argue that the transcendent and spiritual idea was discernment or thinking itself. That’s a hard sell to a group of people who were collectively (and by means of wholesale disinterest) echoing Reagan’s famous utterance: “facts are stupid things”.

(Reagan was of course attempting to quote John Adams observation that facts are stubborn things.)


“What does an actor know about politics?” –Reagan criticizing Ed Asner for opposing American foreign policy.





There’s no profit in antagonizing people who are avowedly anti-intellectual. We saw that, those of us who were commencing our teaching careers in higher education in the Reagan years. It is possible to teach people who possess no curiosity or enthusiasm for education. One has to hunker down in a deliberative and systemic delivery of information. The operative analogy is the planting of seeds. The operative standard is Orphan Annie: “The sun will come out tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, today, wasting a perfectly good Sunday reliving those years I’m buoyed by these “Top 20” Republican quotes (as seen at Daily Kos):



20. The implication that there was something wrong with the war plan is amusing.” —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on criticism of his management of the Iraq war

19. If you’ve seen one city slum, you’ve seen them all.– Spiro Agnew

18. A good many things creep around in the dark besides Santa Claus.–” Herbert Hoover, US President

17.“I like the color red because it’s a fire. And I see myself as always being on fire.” —California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

16. Capital punishment is our way of demonstrating the sanctity of life.”– Orrin Hatch

15. It’s like the neighborhood I would have grown up in, I think, if I had have grown up here.” —Alan Keyes, on the Chicago neighborhood he chose to rent in after moving to the state to run for the U.S. Senate

14. If you think the United States has stood still, who would have built the largest shopping center in the world?– Richard M. Nixon

13. It may come as a shock to you who live out in the real world, but occasionally we do something up here. Not often, I admit, but sometimes. For example, I think the House has passed National Peach Month so far this year and we expect to act on it soon.” —Senate Majority Leader (and Presidential candidate) Robert Dole of Kansas in 1982

12.“If Lincoln were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.—Gerald Ford (on Nixon and Watergate)

11.The Democrats just want to ram it down my ear with a victory—George Herbert Walker Bush

10. Any lady who is first lady likes being first lady. They may say they don’t like but from my experience I know they like it.– Richard Nixon

9. Isn’t that the ultimate homeland security, standing up and defending marriage?” —Sen. Rick Santorum

8.These are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes. President Eisenhower commenting on racial segregationalists after the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision.

7. “For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three nonfatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just unacceptable, and we’re going to do something about it” —President George W. Bush

6. The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history. I mean in this century’s history. But I didn’t live in this century.” Vice President Dan Quayle

5. “President Washington, President Lincoln, President Wilson, President Roosevelt have all authorized electronic surveillance on a far broader scale.”–Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, testifying before Congress
(Quick! Somebody phone Al Gonzalez and tell him there were no phones or electricity during the Washington and Lincoln administrations)

4. I feel the best way to ensure Americans’ freedom is to tighten restrictions on that freedom in any way possible. Only through wiretaps, illegal searches and seizures, unfettered government intrusion, a controlled media and a complete crackdown on free speech can we ensure the liberties of all people.” — Attorney General John Ashcroft

3. I think gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman” — Arnold Schwarzenegger

2. “What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”- Vice  President Dan Quayle

1. Hmmm, uhh, hah — ummm — I, the answer is — I haven’t really thought of it that way, heh, heh. Heh. Here’s how I think of it. Ummm — heh heh. First I’ve heard of that, by the way, I, ah — uhh — the, uhh — I, I guess I’m more of a practical fella. Uhh. I vowed after September the 11th that I would do everything I could to protect the American people. And, uhh — my attitude, of course, was affected by the attacks.ha ha …ummm Let me see… I knew we were at a war. I knew that the enemy, obviously, had to be sophisticated, and lethal, to fly hijacked airplanes, uhh, into — facilities that would, we would, killing thousands of people, innocent people, doin’ nothing, just sittin’ there goin’ to work.”–President George W Bush, after being asked if the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse





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