Sunday, September 20, 2009

More University Courses on Conservatism?

Mark Lilla, via Sullivan, laments an alleged dearth of courses in conservative thought in liberal academia. He writes,

The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.
I find this pretty specious and want to make a few loose points here. Nonetheless, it's probably correct that if you apply the rigorous analytical method of "a look at online catalogs of our major universities," tally up what conservatives believe are liberal political courses versus ones they believe are truly courses on conservatism, and furthermore require the latter, apparently, to contain the word "conservatism" in the title of the course offering, then academia is indeed a totally liberal institution.

There's a lot wrong with Lilla's statement. Anecdotally speaking, I suppose there are indeed plenty of courses on post-colonialism and identity politics. But even if they're largely taught by scholars with leftist political concerns, it's not clear that these subjects are intrinsically liberal. Conservatives - perhaps rightly so since a lot of cultural studies is annoying to lefties too - haven't seemed to show much interest in taking them seriously, however, except to create leftist oogedy-boogedies out of them. They should take them seriously. Much of conservative politics today is deeply engaged in its own identity politics, although it doesn't call it that. A serious engagement with other historical and emergent identities may teach much to everyone about their own. It might also show more clearly how, regardless of all the swipes at cultural studies subjects as relativistic, conservatism has developed a rather radical, unrecognized form of cultural and moral relativism at its very core. On the other hand, however, cultural studies types of courses on identity and so on don't always spend much time on actual political philosophy, which you would find in more abundance in philosophy and political science departments.

As far as I know, though, much of current cultural studies focuses on the intersections between asymmetrical cultures/groups and the ways in which people's ideas, values, and beliefs are constituted through the interaction of multiple cultures and overlapping communities rather than somehow singular and essential identities or single communities. A certain brand of conservatism assumes the latter, perhaps by definition. Whatever one thinks of the methods and claims of cultural studies, that conservative assumption seems rather unempirical in our time. It would be helpful to understand better why.

Second, it's certainly true that the Heritage Foundation, AEI, etc. are hugely influential on Washington politics (although I have no idea what Lilla means by his Ivy Leaguer claim - these institutions would disappear if you got rid of their Ivy Leaguers). That would help explain a lot about the very essence of Washington that gets brushed aside in the age-old effort to paint political-bureaucratic Washington and its media as liberal. In fact, before John Podesta's Center for American Progress came along at the end of the Clinton presidency, the only genuine liberal contender in terms of thinktank influence was the ultra-moderate Brookings Institution. I guess it's important that we know the distinction between these different thinktanks. But isn't that ultimately kind of limited? Here are the self-professed conservative ones, here are the liberal ones. See you next semester.

There's a further element here that Lilla elides. These institutions are political animals most of the time and sites for the production of new knowledge and ideas much less of the time. The term "thinktank" doesn't mean that they're exactly like universities; rather, they're places where intellectual activity is directed at supporting certain ideological positions in the policy world. Studying these institutions would offer insight into the mechanics of thinktank politics and the crafting of policy in Washington. But it wouldn't necessarily give you as much as Lilla seems to believe in terms of substantive ideas.

Third, we have courses in academia like "Political Theory," "Ethics," and so on for which the course title doesn't tell you much about the ideologies/theories you might actually study in these courses. These courses don't appear to count in Lilla's "look at online catalogs." I read Allan Bloom in such a course back when he was all the rage with his book The Closing of the American Mind. I've read some of Sullivan's hero, Michael Oakeshott, in such courses as well as Plato, the medieval Catholic scholars, Hume, Burke, de Maistre, Strauss, and perhaps others thinkers that conservatives would claim as one of their own. I teach Robert Nozick, with whom I disagree but enjoy immensely, every semester. It's just false that there's no conservative thought presented in universities - you just might not be able to see it from glancing at course catalogs. Further, it's pretty difficult to disentangle what Americans mean by conservatism and liberalism from a shared ancestry in liberal political philosophy. John Locke, for example, left both contemporary political strains with probably the most important modern philosophical argument for private property. Nevertheless, I think it's also strange to have such a single-minded focus on identifying who counts as a proper conservative and then teaching that. But I suppose a lot of academics advance their pet ideologies to some degree.

A further complication, however, is that it's not all that clear in political theory/philosophy what precisely conservatism is as a rigorous philosophical view rather than a collection of political stances and cultural preferences. Much of political theory in general minimizes the importance of where things lie on a made-up political spectrum and more on which arguments are strong and which are weak. Without a reasonable and compelling political philosophy, it's difficult to agree on what we're talking about. This may be part of the confusion for everyone.

Fourth, Lilla's claim that conservatives don't get hired in academia, a claim David Horowitz has morphed into a lucrative witch-hunt, requires a lot of evidence that just doesn't seem to be there. Yes, the majority of academics characterize their own politics as liberal or progressive, but there are other legitimate explanations for this rather than some pernicious conspiracy to hire only liberals. I've been on the faculty side of academia now for nearly a decade and I've never witnessed someone being turned down because they were conservative. In my own experience, I've only seen or heard of a couple of scholars hired because they held conservative political views. But here we also have to make a distinction between reasonable conservatism and the sort that seems to dominate today's Republican Party and much of neo-conservatism. Should we have classes on the tea-party movement? Yes, as a historical event and as an interesting case-study of the formation of political movements. But does this belong in a course on, say, political theory? I wouldn't know how to teach tea-partyism. In political theoretical terms, it's really difficult to discern some coherent there there. In practical terms, it's difficult to discern any serious policy proposals (just no socialism, Marxism, and taxes, please).

Fifth, to be fair to Lilla, he isn't trying to push more conservative ideology on universities. He's suggesting that we ought to understand conservative ideas better and how they collectively comprise the intellectual core of a broader conservative political ideology serving as the backdrop for political action. We ought to have a better grasp of these ideas because they make up a big part of the roadmap for how Washington actually works. We might even see where conservative ideas work better in some cases than competing ideas.

But I think the lesson here goes both directions on a unilinear political spectrum. One thing we're after ideally in an academic setting is to further understand the world both broadly and deeply and to develop new capacities to form and understand stronger and better ideas and arguments - the spirit of liberal education - rather than to shore up a priori ideologies. Conservatives seeking to defend and advance some core set of principles, values, ideas, and beliefs which they sincerely believe to be true or good or right could serve their own cause by helping everyone else understand those things through reasonable, coherent, and strong arguments, rather than through foot-stomping, ad hominem put-downs, and straw men. They could also do themselves a service by genuinely seeking to understand where competing ideas work even better in some cases than their own.

Such an exchange, of course, has an immensely important place in the university.

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