Page Smith's ideas cling like a burr; Dissenting Opinions: Selected Essays, by Page Smith. Berkeley: North Point Press. 240 pp. $15.50.
This book is a burr in the cuff of American consciousness. The barbs surrounding its vegetable core stick and cling to one's socks as one moseys around the badlands of the American heartland. Page Smith will never be ''in power.'' And perhaps that is good; he has little respect for power and would probably misuse it. He doesn't even teach anymore, having left his post at the University of California at Santa Cruz in protest against a bungled tenure review (not his own). He has nothing to lose.
As the author of ''The People's History of the United States,'' Smith is well known for his ability to write history as story. The monographic approach - in which one masters and is mastered by an obscure but limited area of ignorance called one's ''specialization'' - is not for him. In an essay (included here) called ''Students Don't Study History - They Are History,'' Smith attacks those who think of history as facts and dates (he admits he is always forgetting facts and dates); rather he wants historians to make students ''conscious of themselves as historical beings.'' Starting with the students' own ethnic backgrounds is one of his suggestions. It is not hard to see why timid high school teachers avoid doing history this way.
Smith is no friend of conservatives, such as Russell Kirk; ''Dissenting Opinions'' includes Smith's 1955 review of ''The Conserative Mind.'' Of these conservatives, Smith wrote, ''They are, for the most part, men of little faith who dare not imagine a future that is not a pallid imitation of the past.'' I spent much of my time in high school reading books such as ''The Conservative Mind''; I wish Page Smith had been around to balance it out.
Twenty years later, gagging on the rhetoric of the neoconservatives during the US Bicentennial, Smith wrote ''The Revolt of the Radical Realists.'' In it he documents, after his fashion, the Founding Fathers' opinions about prosperity , which were not favorable (the Founding Fathers were radicals). He quotes John Adams, who declared ''as a kind of historical principle that 'human nature, in no form of it, could ever bear Prosperity.' '' Furthermore, Smith believes they worried about the future of a society ruled by powerful interest groups (they were realists).
Smith should be read for his style. When he argues for more memory work in school, he does so memorably. Some of his best pieces are very short - always the test of a good writer. ''Fidelity'' is a four-page essay that says more about sex and marriage than a whole shelf of sex manuals and sociological studies of modern marriage: ''Fidelity is made up of mutual belonging. Of belonging to each other. It is composed of the ties of affection and selflessness that allow us to enter deeply and tenderly into another's life, that precious kingdom so desperately vulnerable to indifference and cruelty. How else do we learn another's nature (and our own) but by patience and care and time.''
As they say, this alone is worth the price of the book. And burrs are really just spiky seeds, right?