On Conservatives and Higher Ed

I don’t know why I bristle at articles like Steven Hayward’s in The New Criterion. It’s called Conservatives and Higher Ed. Maybe I just don’t see or understand as he sees and understands and that might be my problem. He makes this comment in reference to Max Weber and some form of academic gamble:

Now it’s no longer just a steep hill—more like a rock climb without ropes. Max Weber said over a hundred years ago that “Academic life is an utter gamble.” The odds are getting steadily worse, and if you’re a rational person calculating the odds, you may shy away from a Ph.D. track, or consider non-academic paths as more attractive than academic paths. This probably describes conservatives more than liberals.

What Weber was making reference to was the tenuous position that academics have in attracting students to their courses. They might be fantastic scholars but horrible teachers, and this was a real issue. Hayward would seem to imply, also, that one rank is rational and other isn’t. But this is small beef.

My bigger question throughout the piece goes to definitions. Hayward writes

On the surface you’d think that the pool of conservative students who express satisfaction with higher education would lead more of them toward graduate paths, except for their evident alienation from the liberal dominance of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps along with a perceived higher salience for conservatives on pursuing “practical” professional vocations.

I don’t think it’s interesting to frame liberals and conservatives on a scale of “practicals.”

The larger implication in these kinds of articles is that Academia excludes and that college teaching just isn’t attractive to Conservatives because they either want to make real money or feel alienated or there is some sort of systematic bias against their hire in the Humanities. I think the matter is irrelevant to the core mission of the college.

First of all, how does one read Dickinson? The reader reads the poem. If the reader or scholar is Liberal or Conservative or has two heads, the reader must read the poem, unless the poet is banned for being some sort of radical to establishment ideology. Interlocutors can go from there. Does a political persuasion matter? Maybe, but at least we have the poem to work with. Reading or studying poetry may be implicated as a “narrow” pursuit rather than as grand generalist’s concern for breadth. Hayward’s call to Weaver is just odd. There are plenty of poetry readers who see the larger culture at play. Why Ideas Have Consequences became a Conservative “slogan” is beyond me. He quotes this from Weaver:

By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of a ruler.

Maybe this made sense in 1949, when specialists were studying atoms rather than attending to some requirement of becoming a ruler of something. The larger point matters, sure: we shouldn’t get so caught up in one thing such that the future is shut out and that we forget where we live. But this has very little to do, it seems to me, with who’s the liberal or conservative in the room but with the kinds of questions that might be asked: is a science focused charter school a good idea or is a school that treats all subject in depth the way to go? Artists require focus and serious study, however, and we shouldn’t confuse intense concentration with “narrowness.” Programming is difficult. It takes a lot of study. As in poetry. The person who takes up the guitar will find this out fast.

We just hired a new faculty member in our Humanities department. “We want more liberals around here” never came up as a question.

9 thoughts on “On Conservatives and Higher Ed

  1. Darren Bruno

    I’m not so sure that the issue of political persuasion is irrelevant to the mission of the college, although that would probably depend upon the mission of a particular college. Liberal Arts Colleges, whose efficacy has been time-tested and civilization approved, exist to liberate the mind and foster free inquiry. It is certainly hard to see that broad goal succeed without intellectual diversity. The irony that results from the actual ideological encampment on campuses, and at large in higher education, only makes the situation more lamentable; those sounding the call for diversity at all cost have done so at the expense of intellectual diversity. I think Hayward is right on there.

    In regard to your point about the text, I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at. I assume you mean to say that, by engaging with the texts, the student may develop the skills, knowledge, lexicon, etc, that he must in order to truly avail himself of the education on offer. I would contest that this is necessarily the case, and it seems as though it lacks the context that the article supplies. In short, you could ask the question: How does one read Shakespeare? But what does the answer matter if one is not required to read him? Hayward notes how many universities and colleges now offer an English degree without the requirement. What’s worse, many degrees can now be attained without reading the great thinkers within each respective discipline. Little more than the “white Anglo-Saxon phallo-logocentric hegemonic discourse” need be invoked to demonstrate why such authors are better forgotten than studied.

    It’s not hyperbole and it’s not on the fringes. This is standard operating procedure in many colleges including the one from which I just graduated. I learned very quickly that Political Science at my school meant Comparative Politics and Political Economy, not the Aristotelian conception of the master-science. English had a massive multicultural flavor and only haphazardly gave mediocre treatment the greatest of great. The student interested in his own past was entirely unable to major in American History as the classes were too rarely taught, and, when offered, approached from the “bottom-up” perspective. The approach left untouched the history of ideas in an attempt to focus on narratives of oppression and cultural self-flagellation. If one were to seek solace in the “American Studies” department, the courses would happily introduce one the legacy of American violence, racism, sexism, classism, and general white-man badism.

    It was a genuinely difficult ordeal to learn about our Western culture that has sustained four thousand years of civilization, but I found it remarkably easy hear about its shortcomings. I would offer as an explanation to Tunxis’ lack of politically charged decision making one of many possibilities. As a Community College, Tunxis’ mission is more focused on skillsets; ABE, the lexicons of disciplines, etc. I found that as a student my experience at Tunxis and Trinity were very different.

    Biases of professors at Tunxis were occasionally visible, but only to the (at least) somewhat initiated. The instruction is so necessarily tailored to developing basic skills that larger questions of ideology and the like are very far out of reach. There are enough exceptions to this, but they do well in proving the rule. At Trinity, by and large, political affiliation was so palpable that the experience was often overwhelming during lectures, and the flavor was more than occasionally bitter. I could go on at length with anecdotes, but that will have to suffice for the point at hand.

    I also take issue with the bit about specialization and the effect on higher education, but it’s too long of a topic to explore. That said, E.O. Wilson, who is a liberal by most metrics, still sees it as a problem and has long sought to unite the Humanities and the Sciences. I think I just wrote as much as you did for the post, so I’ll end here. Hope all is well. :)

  2. Steve Post author

    I think you did a better a better job than Hayward. But is there some suggestion that Conservatives are averse to “liberating the mind” and “fostering free inquiry”?

    I thought about using Shakespeare as an example but thought that would be too obvious.

    But you fail to confront the definitional critique. If an institution wants to concentrate on the shortcomings of Western Culture (say I want to rail on Columbus), why not argue, then, that the “said” institution has become too conservative?

  3. Darren Bruno

    I’m not exactly clear on what you’re asking. Are you referring to the question of practicality?

  4. Darren Bruno

    Well, to the practical point: it is because it is. Addressing the issue realistically, the data is nigh incontrovertible.

    To the abstract. I only have to summarize the arguments made my people far better educated and more experienced than myself. The Blooms, both Allan and Harold, Jacques Barzun, Harvey Mansfield, and countless others have addressed this in detail.

    A few strands of Modern and Post-Modern thought have come to dominate the academe. Of those, the most influential are that of Hegelian Progressivism, Kantian Cosmpolitanism, Nietzschean Exigetical Textualism, and Marxist Economic and Social theory. These strands were picked up and carried into the current professoriate by Heidegger, Derrida, the Existentialists, one of the strands of Feminist thought (Friedan and others), and others.

    The philosophy is radically egalitarian, shuns all notions of distinction and separation, sees history as linear and tilted upward, sees government as a tool and not an end, and sees the school as another battlefront. From standardized testing to “the right to privacy” this force is at work.

    Why is it a problem of Liberals and Liberalism? In a manner of speaking: it just is. These are intellectual and ideological outgrowths of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. They’re at war with another set of philosophical presuppositions that see the world very differently. Those of the conservative which (might I add) are at the core of the Liberal Arts model. Most obvious is then notion that human nature is essentially static and that it can and ought to be studied. And not just a matter of scientific or “socially scientific” investigatory analysis.

    Conservatives differ as much as Liberals but I would contend that a few things are generally shared. Skepticism of government and human beings. Anti-utopianism in regard to all things structural. A belief in the transcendent, and in objectivity to some degree. Not all, as Nietzsche contends, “is text.” Russell Kirk has done a very nice job articulating much of this as well, but I’m merely summarizing.

    So with that context the answer, I think, is clear. Modern liberals see human nature as malleable and so too with the state, the Constitution, etc. They seek to change the world and man and translate both into a certain mold, a vision, that satisfies their conception of justice. This vision varies in regard to each thinker, which some realize is one of its greatest failings, but the goal yet remains.

    So the bitterness, the bias, the project at work is a problem of an ideology that seeks to manifest certain changes. Conservatives in the academy may have an agenda, but it is generally to teach the Liberal Arts curriculum. Not hijack its namesake while undercutting its presuppositions. Conservatives don’t use history as tool for legitimizing mistakes in the past in order to repeat them all in the name of equality, fairness, and justice.

    I have really only begun to slide down the tip of the one iceberg untouched by climate change, but hopefully it will do for now.

  5. Steve Post author


    I’m really not following you. You write: “Conservatives in the academy may have an agenda, but it is generally to teach the Liberal Arts curriculum.” That’s not an agenda. I’m assuming this means that Bloom is a Conservative. My response is, “so what”? What makes what he says “conservative” (note that I’m very familiar with Bloom and with Kelly) and my critique of “Columbus” liberal.

    Why is Picketty a liberal in his critique of wealth when he’s after facts, right or wrong? Note that recent anglophone philosophy is a critique of the denuding of ontological dispositions or their confusions (re: Schopenhauer). And Heidegger drew from Husserl, whose major question pointed to ontology (in Kundera’s terms: the disappearance of being).

    Husserl: what are the right questions, drawing from the Greeks, for whom the world became a dynamic question to be answered.

  6. Darren Bruno

    The comment about the “Conservative” agenda was a backhanded way of saying that they have no agenda but to teach. Which is to say that they wish to restore the Liberal Arts curriculum. To go back to studying the great thinkers because they were great, and not denigrating the civilization and culture that it exists, in part, to uphold and sustain.

    In regard to Bloom, what he says is “conservative” in the sense that he’s appealing to and invoking that tradition that I provided a rudimentary definition of before, and that I’ve described above. In short, he finds that the ancients still have wisdom to impart and that, human nature being basically static, to throw out that wisdom because it is (insert adjective here) is remarkably foolish. To a frightening degree, that is exactly what is occurring on many campuses. Not much has changed since Bloom authored The Closing, sadly.

    If you’re looking for specific references and an explanation, I can do that, but it would be a longer task to accomplish. My copy if his book is pretty well marked though, so it’s not exactly arduous.

    On to Piketty. First, facts are always interesting things. You know this as well as I do. Statistics can be squeezed until they sing any song one would like. I haven’t read his critique, and I don’t really plan on doing so, but I think I can still attempt an answer. What makes any critique political, no matter what the side may be, are the presuppositions that underlie the argument and the recommendations that are implicitly or explicitly advocated for.

    For instance, what is the conception of human nature, the role of government, the market, etc that is being employed to both come to a conclusion about an issue, and then to offer any given reform? Marx’s critique of Capitalism may have had some merit, but it failed because he failed to understand the nature of human beings, at the very least those human beings in the West to whom he was writing. Marx’s interpretation was inherently not conservative because of this. The term, as with any term, has some elasticity, but the understanding of human beings as more self interested than not is a pillar of the political disposition.

    In the case of Piketty, without having read it and only having engaged with the secondary sources, it is more his reforms that are leftist in orientation. That doesn’t make then correct, incorrect, without merit, or even the best of possibilities. I, for instance, like the idea of taxing rates of return on investments at a higher level than we do at the moment. I don’t think it’s the silver bullet, however, and I’d rather see a higher “Death Tax” if I were able to make the decision.

    It should also be obvious that I’m not an economist (thank God) and I’m more interested in economic questions as they relate to social questions. Such questions, however, are of secondary importance for me. I do believe that the best economic system is once that adequately allows for man’s more dubious qualities to work to the advantage of himself and the group at large, while also making space for virtuous action in the private realm. That is why I reject Marx and others.

  7. Steve Post author

    Not a bad explanation but I think we’ve left the subject behind and have gone elsewhere. The Liberal Arts can be defined in many ways. I was in grad school when The Closing was published and we had a lot of fun with it, as I was teaching in a Great Books and History of Ideas curriculum at the time. But I was also in the mesh of the rise of theory in the English Department. I was experiencing the shifts in higher ed you speak of as they were happening. I never liked lit crit its philosophical bleed.

    But we also didn’t speak of the shifts as conventional political shake-ups, but as arguments about priorities in the academy, which is why I get stuck on party definitions. In these debates we often lose sight of specific instances of historical record and confuse points of view with party frames. For example, numerous Conservative blocks are decrying the current mess over Bergdahl. This is not a new story. Nobusuke Kishi is a pretty good case in point, as well as all the other instances of post war swapping/dealing that happened throughout the ages (that most Americans maybe never heard of) and provides some amount of perspective on present events.

    Note that it is not Conservatives who want to revive the Liberal Arts. Conservatives or Liberals have nothing to with this. Those of us who want people to understand or to think about why people do what they do lament the problem of vapidity and vacuity in current systems that put a damper in this. Bloom was right about the historical dialogue between generations. But he is wrong, in my view, about how much we should cover and we can always cover more, including Marx.

  8. Darren Bruno

    I think I may have misunderstood your question initially. It seems to me now that you were asking what makes one a liberal or conservative. I wasn’t before, and I’m not now, quite sure how to deal with that question in the context of your article.

    I do detect one potential issue which could upsetting much of the debate at large and this discussion particularly. That is, what I take to be a conflation of Liberal/Conservative and Democrat/Republican. I think I’ll be able to adequately address this as I respond in order of the points you’ve made and questions you’ve raised.

    Perhaps when these shifts we are speaking of took place, the characters involved did not fall along obvious party lines. But these were academic questions being addressed in the colleges by learned people. Political affiliation in regard to the academic questions at the time would have been considerably less relevant.

    The current polarization, inside and outside of the Academe, did not arise out of a vacuum though. I’m sure that point is self-evident. Ideas, as it were, have consequences. I would contend that the environment of academic discourse at the time was far and away different from the ideological tribalism that has come to dominate higher education both structurally and socially. And, by and large, this has polarization has been to the detriment of what I’ve referred to as “Conservative” thought. The preponderance of evidence is pretty overwhelming to this effect.

    I can only call the thought in question “Conservative” because the lines that have been drawn since you were having fun with Bloom’s book have made it possible to do so. Bloom, Barzun and the like were, to my knowledge, never self-described Conservatives. But their concerns as educators and administrators (insofar as they were both) were different than their present counterparts.

    I am no authority on this, but I’ll take the numbers illustrating political affiliation of faculty on college campuses, coupled with the complaints about the ideological polarization, and come to the conclusion that this phenomenon did not exist to the same extent at that time. If it had, it would likely have been a greater portion of the larger discourse. This is not to ignore Buckley or Kirk, who were both very outspoken and self-described Conservatives, but only to say that the situation wasn’t as… dire as it is today. Buckley’s condemnation was specifically about Yale and its deviation from, I suppose, its “proper” curriculum. But it was not, at least initially, about all Liberal Arts colleges and universities.

    It was, however, Buckley’s early observations about Yale that outlined his future criticism of everything else. This led, as you know, to the reformations in the Republican party and, to so it would seem, initiated the culture wars. At this point in the story, the problem of curriculum becomes one of politics. I find it very difficult to see Buckley’s salvo as anything but defensive, therefore implying that it was in response to changes which were taking place, and not his own machinations for the future. I would rescind my assertion that Conservatives want to restore the Liberal Arts curriculum, due to the sloppiness of my articulation, but I’m unable to do so because of the underlying truth. Even if there is not an active effort to achieve “restoration” necessarily, the attack upon the ancient curriculum is really only coming from one side, one political persuasion, and for a finite set of reasons. Conservatives, then, only wish to maintain the status quo of (at least) the prior two centuries in the United States, and cannot logically be perceived as the reformers.

    It’s the curriculum and not, as you say, the “mission” wherein lies the problem. I won’t presume to know exactly what you mean by “why people do what they do,” but that is not what I believe to be the nature of the Liberal Arts mission. It certainly is inextricable from the process, but it is specifically not that. Without the curriculum (great books, ideas, the canon, etc), that mission would be far too susceptible to agendas and indoctrination. Because of the (misperceived) malleability of both the goal and curriculum (derived from postmodern philosophy and other sources), we find ourselves in the current predicament.

    The authority of the past has been eradicated and replaced by new sources, primarily science, which has achieved a perception of objectivity that only the Papacy could have rivaled in its prime. It has even built into its schema a protection from criticism that exists by virtue of its own apparent checks and balances, peer review and the like, which assure the lay public of its efficacy and accuracy. Politically brilliant by all accounts. “Facts” (see: evidence), the supposed currency of that realm, have become the standard by which all serious things are now judged, and the sciences hold a monopoly upon both their value and capacity to be exchanged. Exhibit X: Neil Degrasse Tyson on philosophy. His objectivity and authority excuse his philistine commentary on what and how students should be studying at present. But I digress…

    We have too, through the crossbreeding of Science and the Humanities, a new beast called social science. It seeks the same authority, funding, and audience that the “hard” sciences have attained, and have thereby co-opted the language, terms of art, and general obscurity of their specialized cousins, thereby managing to ascertain a piece of that authoritative pie. But I do not write this as merely a Jeremiad. These, any many others, are developments that exist because of a liberal orientation regarding education.

    When history becomes too oppressive, ideas too old and irrelevant, the greatness of a culture too ethnocentric to mention, and the stakes too high, the Liberal Arts curriculum folds in upon itself. All major disciplines in much of higher education are now part of a project of recasting young minds in a certain image and dispelling various “prejudices.” How can one properly confront philosophical questions, or extract any of the ancient wisdom, if Plato and Aristotle are portrayed as relics, acknowledged in order to arrive at the important material? I’ve had that exact experience at more than one college in more than one class at each institution. In the sciences, both hard and soft, there is, as there always has been, a point of view that predominates. Not so much in the basic instruction, of course, but within the higher echelons of thought that inform and guide the rest of the teaching. This has been described at length by those far closer to the problem than I will ever be.

    In an attempt to find the ending to my diatribe I’ll assert this: There are two major worldviews at conflict with one another in our culture; naturalism and… something else. Something Else may be theism, deism, etc, but all of the possibilities revolve around at least the slightest of accommodations for, or belief in, the transcendent. The conflict has never been (in the United States) as contentious as it currently is. These two views are at war, and higher education is without a doubt a bloody area of conflict. Future generations of thinkers are in attendance and their minds are of the utmost importance. But I will maintain that the status quo in regard to that culture and the system of higher education that sustained it, is upheld by one tradition of thought and not the other.

    Degradation of Higher Education is obvious. It may be the product of an historical accident or a philosophical /academic conflict among thinkers. But it has seeped out of the ivory towers. The conflict is no longer benign and its causes threaten education, the polity, and the culture, not to mention each mind whom it affects. Sustenance for the the instances of this degradation is being supplied by a discrete set of philosophical strands of thought. Those strands originate in, and are primarily maintained by, a specific philosophical disposition. Often a correlation is visible between those who hold those philosophical presuppositions and those who do not as they relate to political parties. Modern Liberalism is the umbrella under which this philosophy has fostered, and through which it is cultivated. So for ease of language, I’ll refer to the problem area as ‘Liberalism’ and its adjective/noun form as ‘Liberal.’

    I’ll have to leave the issues of Bergdahl, Kishi, and Bloom’s breadth of curriculum in order to save your eyes.

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