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Can Flawed Books Be Good Teaching Tools?

Boom! Voices of the Sixties: Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today. By Tom Brokaw. Random House, 2008. ISBN: 9780812975116.

 

boomHistorians study the past, but we know its meanings change over time. That principle extends to books written about history–some remain vital and others age more like beer than wine. Aging badly is especially endemic among books on recent history–there hasn’t been enough time to sort classics from dross, or to distinguish between analytical and polemical.

 

It’s hard to find a history of the 1960s that works for today’s undergraduates. Problematic works include insider memoirs from those who presume readers will understand their oblique references, works from New Left intellectuals who went to elite colleges and ignore the heartlands, massive tomes that bludgeon rather than chronicle, and volumes with ideological axes to grind. These problems led me to reconsider a popular (but dated) work on the ’60s: journalist Tom Brokaw’s Boom! Voices of the Sixties. It too is ideologically suspect, but at least it’s well written. Sometimes it’s more useful to teach a breezy book that students will read than a Bancroft Prize winner they won’t.

 

Boom! has its virtues, the first of which is that it distills events such as the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Days of Rage, and Mississippi Freedom Summer. Specialists will bristle over the simplification of Brokaw’s truncated discussions, but even my better students know very little about the basics of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, feminism, or the early environmental movement. Most of them have never even heard of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the New Left, Abbie Hoffman, Huey Newton, Jack Weinberg, or Shulamith Firestone. What experts might see as shallowness of coverage enhances Brokaw’s book as a teaching tool.

He offers a sampler of ’60s events and personalities, but that too is a plus. Most scholars agree that the rapidity of social, political, and cultural change led many of those who lived through the ‘60s to experience it as if it were an outsized dim sum tray with more offerings than could possibly be consumed. Though Brokaw seldom references the “Long Sixties” construct, he presents the ‘60s as an ongoing dialogue not easily pegged to the calendar. Some will take umbrage with equating John Kennedy’s assassination with the beginning of the ‘60s–few civil rights scholars would agree–but he’s surely correct to refract Reagan, Clinton, and the Gulf Wars through a ‘60s lens.

The book’s faults run the gamut from empirically challenged to silly. These begin with his generational approach to history, an error that also mars his popular but ahistorical The Greatest Generation. Brokaw reifies generations, which are actually just sociological cohorts–not the objective categories that shortcutting journalists such as he imagine. Flawed constructs invariably lead to myopia. For example, let us consider Brokaw’s “greatest generation” that survived the Depression, won World War II, and preceded Baby Boomers. How “great” is it if we shift the focus to the racism, nativism, sexism, Cold War paranoia, and social intolerance that touched off Boomer discontent?

In Boom! Brokaw analyzes Baby Boomers, a term originally coined merely to describe a demographic surge that began in 1946 and ended in 1964. Brokaw extends it to mean anyone who participated in events during the calendrical ‘60s. So are we to believe that the following are Baby Boomers? Pat Buchanan (b. 1938), Dick Cheney (1941), Richard J. Daley (1902), Joan Didion (1934), Richard Holbrooke (1941), James Lovell (1928), John McCain (1936), or Phyllis Schlafly (1924)? Of course many of them are critical of the ’60s; they were part of the “Establishment” youthful New Left critics attacked for not being such a “great” generation after all. Brokaw chooses to let each “voice” speak its piece, but it’s deceptive not to emphasize insiders from outsiders in the ’60s drama. Indeed, though Brokaw wants us to believe his book is partly confessional, but he’s not a Boomer either; he was born in 1940.

Boom! is bursting with ideological biases, including Brokaw ’s unflappable belief in the objectivity of journalists such as he. Nonsense! His is a deeply bourgeois worldview that’s heavy on celebrity. He touches on working stiffs just enough to say he considered them, but his cursory coverage of Dolores Huerta is rather obvious when juxtaposed with the free rein he gives to, say, Patrick Buchanan. Brokaw views politics from a narrow respectability spectrum that extends left to right from Democrats to Republicans and Libertarians. To suggest others were extremist or misdirected reveals that Brokaw either never read or never understood New Left intellectuals. Or perhaps they simply weren’t famous enough–Brokaw’s “voices” come mostly from elected officials, cultural icons, and TV celebrities.

Two other biases are on display: Brokaw’s materialism-driven fawning over free market economics and his elision of patriotism and military service. (Typical of so many of today’s gung-ho military supporters, Brokaw never served.) Why assume that Diggers and commune dwellers were unrealistic? Or those who went to Vietnam were more patriotic than those who dodged it? (I am deeply proud of not having participated in that moral obscenity.) And, for heaven’s sake, why recycle thoroughly discredited urban legends about how badly vets were treated? (See Jerry Lembcke, Spitting Image.) There were no victory parades. Why would there be when the war was ongoing until 1973 and we lost? Brokaw (rightly) has profound respect for the mainstream civil rights and feminist movements, but little love for student protestors, the counterculture, radicals, intellectuals, or utopian dreamers. There was much excess and violence to condemn, but isn’t it equally valid to ask who left behind the most wreckage: the radical left or the radical right?

There are also amusing errors, like listing ‘60s musical icons and mentioning in the same breath Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Barbara Streisand. Streisand was talented and a Hollywood starlet, but let’s just say that if you were grooving to Mick back then, Babs probably didn’t rock your world. Like an appreciation of Sinatra, that came later.

There are other pitfalls–Brokaw’s 2008 projections already seem quaint and his command of cause-and-effect is analytically suspect. Still, I intend to experiment with Boom! this spring. Can a flawed but entertaining book open the door for undergraduate learning? Stay tuned!

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

 


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