15 Sep 2009

Academia & Conservatism

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Former conservative Mark Lilla, in Chronicle of Higher Education, welcomes the University of California at Berkeley’s opening of a “Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements” (which is obviously destined to link Edmund Burke, William F Buckley, Jr., and Adolph Hitler in a common pattern of pathological aversion to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful), expressing guarded optimism over the possibility of its getting “professors and students to discuss ideas and read books that until now have been relegated to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.”

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.

Why is that? The former left-wing firebrand David Horowitz, whom the professors do know, has a simple answer: There is a concerted effort to keep conservative Ph.D.’s out of jobs, to deny tenure to those who get through, and to ignore conservative books and ideas. It is an old answer, dating back to the 1970s, when neoconservatives began writing about the “adversary culture” of intellectuals. Horo witz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens. That’s why political diversity on the faculty does matter. As it stands, there is a far greater proportion of conservatives in the student body of typical colleges than on the faculty. A few leading thinkers on the right do teach at our top universities—but at some, like Columbia University, where I teach, not a single prominent conservative is to be found.

Contra Horowitz, the blackballing of conservatives and conservative ideas is by now instinctive and habitual rather than self-conscious, reflecting intellectual provincialism more than ideological fervor. I recall being at a dinner in Paris in the late 1980s with a distinguished American historian of France who had gathered her graduate students for the evening. The conversation turned to book printing in the early modern era, which she was studying, and the practice of esoteric writing, which was more widespread than she had imagined. I mentioned that there was a classic book on this subject by Leo Strauss. She searched her mind for a moment—this was before the Iraq war made Strauss a household name—and then said, “But isn’t he a conservative?” In a certain way he was, I said. Silence at the table. She smiled that smile meant to end discussion, and the conversation turned to more-pleasant topics.


Nonetheless, Lilla quarreled with David Horowitz’s “anti-intellectual” “dumbing down” indictment of exactly the same liberal dogmatism and intolerance he himself recognizes in an obviously more becoming and appropriate rueful tone which differs from Horowitz by its passive acceptance of the situation.

But even Lilla’s comparatively timid public recognition of the left’s tyrannical regime within most American universities provoked liberal pooh-pooh-ing in a follow-up exchange.

Bruce L.R. Smith, nearly inadvertently, finds real world practical considerations making denial just a bit awkward.

Lilla states that there is not a single conservative at Columbia University. I can assure him that this is not so. In 2000, I returned to Columbia after a 20-year hiatus as a fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities. Over the next five years I renewed friendships and acquaintanceships with many colleagues (and met new ones), some of whom can fairly be called conservatives. Perhaps I will prove Lilla’s point by forbearing to mention them by name, other than myself.


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