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David Josiah Brewer, usually counted among the “laissez-fairest of them all,” provides an example of the persistence of traditional pedagogy. Brewer’s principal teacher was Theodore Dwight Woolsey, an ordained minister and classicist at Yale. Woolsey’s political views presupposed “a divinely authored moral order,” and he rejected utilitarianism and modern natural-rights theory, preferring older natural-law philosophy. Brewer’s constitutional theory followed in these lines. He regarded the Declaration of Independence, with its view of government as the guarantor of preexisting natural rights, as the key to interpreting the Constitution. The 14th Amendment in particular more clearly articulated these founding principles.
Though late 19th-century political science had repudiated these ideas in favor of legal positivism—the idea that law was simply the will of the sovereign—classical liberalism retained vitality on the bench. It also resonated popular with the public at large: Brewer was the most popular justice of his day, and another popular justice, John Marshall Harlan, had a worldview whose jurisprudence was quite similar to Brewer’s.
Bailey’s account of the educational background of 19th-century judges reinforces the writing on 19th-century American law by legal scholars such as Peter Karsten. Nineteenth-century judges changed legal rules only very reluctantly; their intellectual tradition made them deferential to precedent. Far from being instrumentalists or pragmatists, they held a traditional view of the common law as the instantiation of the natural law. They did not think that they were “making” law, but that they were “discovering” it. And when they did change the law, they usually did so in order to aid the weak and the poor, rather than to subsidize entrepreneurs. Their values still derived from the Christian and classical sources of the Founding generation.
Late-19th-century judges were engaged in an earnest quest for justice. Bailey’s books provides an excellent way for us to recover the principles behind their decisions.
Young Adult Fiction
Nick Gillespie on Frank Portman’s King Dork
It’s a coincidence (one hopes, anyway) that the self-conscious category of “young adult” (YA) fiction and reason got started around the same point in the late 1960s. The year 1967 saw the publication of Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender, a novel about a black kid torn between the lure of ghetto fleshpots and the discipline of a boxing gym, and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a slim but powerful account of class resentment set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both were literary works published by top New York houses (Harper & Row, Viking) but specifically pushed at readers in their teen years. By the time reason hit the mag scene a year later, the YA genre was already firmly established in the minds of publishers, librarians, parents, and kids themselves.
Even more than their adult counterparts, YA novels are all about the perils and possibilities of creating meaning, identity, and community out of endless desires and limited options. How do you negotiate the past, brute reality, and your own dreams? These questions neatly parallel the chief concerns of a magazine devoted to free minds and free markets. Over the past 45 years, the YA genre has offered up an embarrassment of riches covering topics and themes ranging from puberty to parenting to politics.
The Harry Potter series alone covers not only virtually every aspect of adolescence in spades, but it helped spark a reading renaissance among kids lucky enough to encounter the novels as they were being published in real time (from 1997 to 2007). Authors such as Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, and Ann Head have taught the past several generations more about lust, longing, love, and honest-to-God coitus than all the sex-ed teachers who will ever live or die. Louis Sachar’s Holes (1998), set mostly in a boy’s reform-school prison camp in Texas, shifts among historical settings more fluidly than anything written by Kurt Vonnegut and is as deep a meditation on race, gender, and national guilt as anything Faulkner ever coughed up.
If one YA book stands out for special notice, though, it’s Frank Portman’s comic-epic King Dork. Published in 2006, King Dork is an extended tour through that particular ring of hell known as high school as only the creative force of the punk band the Mr. T Experience could render it. (Portman has long fronted the group as Dr. Frank and warbles wry, funny songs with titles such as “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” and “The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful.”)
Tom Henderson is a sophomore loser whom anyone with a soul will recognize and empathize with. “No one ever actually calls me King Dork,” he announces. “It’s how I refer to myself in my head.” His life is an endless series of forced, unfair negotiations with the past, present, and future. He is undersized in a world of bullying jocks and cool kids, and he fits “the traditional mold of the brainy, freaky, oddball kid who reads too much, so bright that his genius is sometimes mistaken for just being retarded.” At the start of the novel, his policeman father has died under ambiguous circumstances and has been replaced by “Big Tom,” a well-meaning but clueless “full-on hippie” who married Tom’s mother at a Neil Young concert.
At the heart of King Dork is a generational divide symbolized by the force-feeding of The Catcher in the Rye in virtually every class. “They live for making you read it,” Tom says of his baby boomer teachers. As Tom investigates his father’s death and tries to avoid trouble at home and school, Portman renders a rich fictional universe in which all things seem possible but also unlikely to pan out.
The power of the novel, which is steeped in high- and low-culture asides that will make you a smarter and funnier person, is following Tom to the point where he finally realizes that, “compared to Hillmont High School, Holden Caulfield’s prep school troubles seem like a sort of heaven on earth. But honestly, I’ve got my mind on other things.” That is, by the close of King Dork, he has made peace with the past while learning from it and is moving toward his own future.
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