Diary of a pre-certified teacher, Vol. IX: Camelot and punitive liberalism

Augustine Brehon Contributor
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I am taking a class to become certified as a teacher, and this week we are learning about the different school curriculums. According to my textbook, “Teachers, Schools and Society,” there is the “visible curriculum,” which is the formal content of what the teacher teaches and the children must learn—the official syllabus. The “hidden curriculum” is what kids learn unintentional from the culture of the school itself—what friendship is like, how sports competition affects relationships, how teachers can change over the course of the year, etc.

Then there is the “null curriculum.” According to my textbook, the null curriculum is “all the material that you do not learn in school. When some one or some group decides that a topic is unimportant or too controversial, inappropriate or not worth the time, that topic is never taught and becomes part of the null curriculum”. Then comes this: “If your American History class never went beyond World War II, then your null curriculum included the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the fall of communism; the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements; an assassination and an impeachment; the disaster in Somalia; widespread corporate corruption; the technology revolution; the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. When a school board decides not to teach about the theory of evolution and sex education, they have made a decision that these topics will become part of the null curriculum.”

I really liked the idea of a null curriculum, mostly because I found it interesting that the pedigree of the concept of a null curriculum is itself a null curriculum. That is, we have in fact been prevented from exploring the liberal mentality that created the very idea of the null curriculum. But perhaps I should explain.

The most powerful and paradigm-shifting book I’ve read in the last year is James Pierson’s “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism.” It is the kind of book that so deeply and accurately diagnosis a cultural or political Weltanschauung that your entire consciousness is changed. You feel like you fully understand the world for the first time. Pierson’s thesis is that the liberal establishment dealt with the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 by, first, blaming it on the wrong people, and second, becoming paranoid, punitive, conspiratorial and anti-American. Lee Harvey Oswald was a Castro-sympathizing communist who murdered Kennedy, an atrocity that exploded liberal arguments that had downplayed the threat of communism. Instead of facing this, liberals pivoted, shifting the blame for Kennedy’s death on racist rednecks in Texas and the “larger climate of hate” that had become part of America. “I want them to see what they have done,” Jackie Kennedy said, refusing in the immediate aftermath of the assassination to change her bloody clothes.

As Pierson writes, the “they” she—and the media—referred to was the violent, reactionary, racists United States. The day after the assassination, James Reston wrote this in the New York Times: “America weeps tonight, not alone for its dead young president, but for itself. The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.” Pierson observes that Reston “seems to have reached an instinctive conclusion about the cause of the event without any reference to the actual identity of the assassin.”

Before Kennedy’s murder, liberalism had been the dominant political ideology in America. But unlike the “progressive” far left, which criticized Kennedy and other practical liberals for lacking boldness and imagination, American liberalism before Kennedy’s death was optimistic, anti-communist, sexually modest (at least in public) and patriotic. It was programmatic. It believed in progress, but progress that did not cause too much upheaval and was achieved in order to make America better and stronger. It wanted to extend the New Deal but not go nuts about it. Kennedy was slow in getting involved with the civil rights movement, while at the same time cutting taxes and confronting the Russians in Cuba. Kennedy referred to himself as “a liberal without illusions.”

He was also a bulwark against the passions of the progressive left as well as the lunatic far right. In the 1950s and early 1960s, a group of what Christopher Lasch called “the new radicals” had emerged. Their goal was no longer, like the old progressives, to fight capitalism in the name of populism and democracy, but to attach cultural foundations: the family, education, sex (“especially sex,” Lasch noted). On the other side, the far right was infected with paranoia, resentment and anti-Americanism. Birchers warned of fluoridation in the water and condemned America for being communist. Liberal historians such as Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger used the far right to indict all of conservatism—although, as Pierson notes, the “vital center” of liberalism distrusted passionate ideology of both he far left and far right. “If the Progressive historians had viewed American history as a continuing battles between capitalism and democracy,” Pierson notes, “Hofstadter and his liberal colleagues portrayed a different kind of conflict, one in which the national psyche was divided between a commitment to liberal rationality on the one side and the temptation to engage in emotional and counterproductive tantrums on the other.”

When Kennedy died, liberals performed a reconstruction that discarded the real JFK. Kennedy’s timidity on civil rights was forgotten, as was his dislike of the far left. No one talked about his support of Joseph McCarthy, or his criticism of Truman for not being enough of an anti-communist. No one mentioned his huge tax cuts. Pierson: “Kennedy, through his life and death, had somehow managed to change the terms of American liberalism from a doctrine of programmatic reform with an emphasis on economic security and national defense to one of cultural change and criticism with an emphasis on liberation and the reform of traditional morals and ways of living.”

The New Left arrived, and with it what Pierson brilliantly calls the era of “Punitive Liberalism.” Punitive Liberalism was different from programmatic liberalism, which Kennedy exemplified. Punitive Liberalism was angry at the United States, and sought to punish her. The rednecks in Texas had killed Kennedy, so they should be written out of politics. Profits were wrong, and Christians were illiterate and uptight. If one person was suffering it was a crisis that reflected badly on us and needed to be addressed right now. Marriage was a patriarchal trap. America was not a flawed but essential good country; it was a malevolent colossus that needed to be brought down. Looking to the future with hope was replaced by the idea that a golden age, Camelot, was lost and there was no going back. Punitive liberalism was more interested in assigning blame for our racist, greedy, homophobic country than creating any actually programs that might work. Punitive liberalism became what the far right of the previous era had been: paranoid, frustrated, given to hysterical rhetoric, fearful of the future and anti-American. Punitive liberalism wasn’t utopian; it was narcissistic and punishing.

Which brings us back to the null curriculum. The idea of the null curriculum holds that there are certain things—the abuse at Abu Ghraib, of course, and sex ed—that those bad old conservatives will keep off the official curriculum. Yet I daresay it would be more common to find classes on sex ed and Vietnam in your average American high school than on, say, Whittaker Chambers, Joan of Arc, “The Road to Serfdom” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Also missing would be James Pierson’s brilliant “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” which masterfully traces the history that led to the aggrieved, anti-American bias and sex-ed cheerleading of the textbook I was reading. Pierson himself was part of the null curriculum. And unlike the official liberal null curriculum, this null curriculum is one that the left will be sure is never discovered.

Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.