EngagePerspectivesUnderstanding American Conservatism Through Various Academic Frameworks
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Understanding American Conservatism Through Various Academic Frameworks

In designing, “American Conservatism from Taft to Trump,” Professor Brian Rosenwald structured his SNF Paideia designated course hoping to break down common stereotypes about conservatives and the Republican party and encourage his students to instead engage in a deep inquiry into the history of the political movement.

This is an image of activist Phyllis Schafly with women behind her holding picket signs.

Through course assignments, readings, guest speakers, and relevant examples from popular culture, he showed, “first, that conservatives are not a monolith, that there’s a lot of different strands that come together. And second, that the power of the conservative movement has waxed and waned over time.” Rather than take a moral stance on various conservative positions that might be offensive or problematic, Rosenwald asked his students to interrogate the policies and ideas from vantage points informed by history and political science. “Early on in the semester, I said to my students, we are going to spend time on George Wallace. And yes, he did and said terrible things that had terrible results, but it’s more interesting to try and understand why people subscribed to him, why he’s popular, why his ideas resonate with people, as opposed to just writing him off.” This allowed students to engage with political ideas and people with whom they didn’t necessarily agree, with a level of intellectual humility, acknowledging that their information might be incomplete and suspending quick judgement to listen and try to understand other perspectives.

HISTORIC AND REGIONAL CONTEXTS OF CONSERVATISM

Remy Gwertzman, a 2021 graduate majoring in history from New York City, enrolled in “American Conservatism” as her final research seminar at Penn. “Before taking the class, I didn’t have much background about conservatism and the conservative party. Having the historic context for what the movement means today and why it originated has been very helpful. I have a much more nuanced understanding of what is happening in contemporary politics.” This deeper understanding not only influenced her perspective on history, but also changed the way she enters into conversations with people. “One of our assignments at the beginning of the semester was to speak with someone with differing political views. If I were to approach the conversation now, after having a richer historical context and understanding of the conservative party, I would have been a bit more sympathetic.” The ability to analyze unpleasant and untoward aspects of the U.S. conservative political movement required a space where students could consider oppositional points of view in a respectful and non-confrontational way. Professor Rosenwald encouraged his students to challenge ideas brought up in class through respectful conversation. Gwertzman commented on how the course helped her see issues from the vantage point of different players in the policy process. “For example, we were talking about Bush’s tax cuts and Professor Rosenwald assigned us all different staffer roles of policy advisor, President’s team, etc., and we had to consider what policy decisions we would make if we were in that position. We were implementing and making decisions given what we had learned in class. That sparked really interesting debates within the smaller groups and in the larger class.” Taking on a first-hand perspective of a policymaker provided extra nuance, giving the students a sense of the complex relationship between personal views, party values, and the demands of governing.

Professor Rosenwald’s course presented various frameworks through which students could better understand and analyze conservatism. Sarah Poss, also a recent history and political science graduate from New York City, commented on how the course helped her understand both the historic and locational aspects of specific political events. “The topic that stood out to me was the Women’s Liberation movement and Phyllis Schlafly, the historic figure who has come to represent the more conservative side of the debate. Although I learned about the topic in high school, this class enabled me to place it within the larger framework of conservative history and where the country was at that time.” For Sarah, this had been a missing piece in her education as a history major. “This class placed things I had already heard about or knew of into the larger currents of what we call American Conservatism or the Conservative movement. What comes to mind is the anti-busing movement, we talked about similarities or similar goals happening in different places from Charlotte to Boston. Professor Rosenwald did a great job incorporating ideas that we had talked about from previous classes showing us how they influenced the history that came after it.”

INTEGRATING DIVERSE VOICES

One unique aspect of the course that students commented favorably on was the series of guest speakers. This included diverse figures such as, Former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo; Former Director of the Office of Public Affairs, DOJ, Sarah Isgur; Political Commentator, S.E. Cupp; and Political Commentator Amanda Carpenter. These guests clearly represent a wide range of conservative views. Jeannette Kean, School of Communications, class of 2021 commented, “hearing from the different guest speakers increased my tolerance for listening to people I disagree with. The guests represented a wide range of conservative perspectives and Professor Rosenwald modeled constructive dialogue with people who held different views than his own, leaving a strong impression on me.” Remy Gwertzman agreed that the guest speakers offered a nice range of conservative perspective, breaking through the stereotypes she had about members of the right prior to the course. “All of the guest lecturers consider themselves conservative and right leaning, but they had such different perspectives on issues, the election, and what’s happening in the Republican party. It’s just kind of a lesson in knowing that just because you label yourself as something there’s a lot more to it than that.” Not only did the external speakers provide a wide range of conservative views, but they also represented generational shifts in how conservatism takes shape. Professor Rosenwald wanted students to see that the political fracturing often portrayed in the media is not as severe when we move beyond elected officials. “When we get beyond the elected classes, people currently in office, there may be more agreement, especially among people in the younger generations there is more in common maybe than there isn’t.” He hoped to bridge the perception of polarization in the country by weaving in many different conservative voices.

“American Conservatism from Taft to Trump,” to be offered again in Spring of 2022, upheld the SNF Paideia values of dialogue across difference, political empathy, academic rigor, and acknowledging the connection between engaged citizenship and the wellbeing of the nation. Professor Rosenwald addressed this connection in his emphasis on crossing ideological divides through dialogue. “I do think that the part of our society that is sort of most dangerous right now is that we aren’t talking to each other. We are perceiving ourselves to be farther apart in our values and in our beliefs because we aren’t engaging [with each other]. It used to be that there was much more heterodox living where you might disagree with someone, but you were in an elk’s lodge together, or you were in a bowling league together. And we are seeing so much less of that.” The core of the course, engagement with ideas through a diversity of frameworks and a breaking down of stereotypes aims to leave students more willing to talk to people with whom they disagree. Professor Rosenwald wants “to teach my students that if you can get to a shared set of facts, if you can talk to people who disagree with you, you may be able to find common ground.” By both modeling and encouraging the skill of intellectual humility, Professor Rosenwald created an atmosphere of academic inquiry around a topic in need of common ground.

To learn more about the course, listen to the recent podcast featuring Dr. Brian Rosenwald and Dr. Deirdre Martinez discussing, “Political Empathy: American Conservatism, Its Past, Present and Future.”

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