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The University Guild vs. Glenn Beck

The University Guild vs. Glenn Beck

By Amity Shlaes - June 4, 2010

Drive them crazy. That's what Glenn Beck seems to specialize in doing, whether the "them" at issue is fellow radio hosts, fellow tv hosts, or, now, professors at universities. This last group is opening its own front in the war against the television king. An associate professor, Joseph Palermo of California State/Sacramento, took to the Huffington Post to mock the broadcaster as "Glenn Beck, Ph.D." I personally noticed this since Professor Palermo mentioned me by name, in tandem with author Jonah Goldberg, as an effort to "misinform" the gullible.

The rage at first seems odd, coming from professors. Why should these serene Yodas care what a man on television bellows? Yet they are on the warpath. The academic fury is at first directed at interpretation. Mr. Beck's explanation of how the Framers viewed religion, Mr. Beck's depiction of how Franklin Roosevelt's policy affected the Great Depression; Mr. Beck's argument that regulation is currently curtailing liberty in general -- all fall short in academic eyes. Prof. Palermo, for example, calls Mr. Beck's views as "stupid and false." But the real issue, the reason professors are on the attack, is not specific content. It is rather the professional and, in the end, economic, threat that Mr. Beck represents. To academics, Mr. Beck is more dangerous than any other radio show host, and they know it.

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. As in the classic guild, members require a lengthy period of training, with formal stages. To be in any way authoritative, a writer must have a Ph.D., a guild seal. Members of this guild have enormous discretion when it comes to the conferring of the seal - also typical. In the humanities and social sciences, Ph.D.s. and, it goes without saying, tenure-track posts -- are usually awarded to those not hostile to the master professors' views. For many decades top universities have been especially rigorous in this practice, with the result that it is difficult to find non-progressives with top credentials in the humanities. The guild demands much from its apprentices, graduate students, including dull work in obscure texts. Indeed it is proud of that obscurity, for it distinguishes academic work from, say, the easy popular histories on bookstore shelves or tv.

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.

Amity Shlaes, the author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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