Inaugural Lecture Text, Plus Some Follow Up Notes

So my lecture Thursday evening, “Why Are There So Few Conservatives in Higher Education, and Does It Matter?”, prompted a lively discussion, and I have posted the complete text below.  On one point I gave a poor or inadequate answer (what do you mean one point?  I’m sure some in the audience thought it was more than one, but one’s enough for now): what is a conservartive?  I punted on attempting a definition. Russell Kirk author of The Conservative Mind, could do no better than a definition that came in six parts.

I’ll discuss this further in due course, but a single sentence from Leo Strauss is useful: “The conservatism of our age is identical with what originally was liberalism, more or less modified by changes in the direction of present-day liberalism.”  Here I’ll add that it is quite helpful that many people on the left today no longer refer to themselves as “liberals,” but as “progressives” instead.  This is highly significant, about which much more in due course.

In the meantime, below the jump here is the complete prepared text of my lecture.  It’s more than 6,000 words, so you’ll want a pot of coffee.

Why Are There So Few Conservatives in Higher Education, and Does It Matter

Steven F. Hayward

Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy

University of Colorado at Boulder

Lecture prepared for the Center for Western Civilization

August 29, 2013

 

Last week out in California there appeared a headline in a Bay Area newspaper that read: “Hayward Implosion,” and the lede said: “A Hayward implosion was conducted Saturday while a crowd of hundreds looked on.”  A number of my friends emailed the story to me, asking—“Already!  I’d have thought this would have taken a few months at least.”  Of course the story concerned the controlled demolition of a building at a Cal State University campus.  My friends are still deeply worried, though, because I let them know that I’ve started riding my bicycle everywhere, and even though I’ve been here a month, I still haven’t bought a tank of gas.  If I start to eat granola, they’re likely to hire a Blackwater extraction team to come get me out.

This may just be the beginning of the potential for confusion, however.  Down the road at Colorado College, there is a Canadian-born novelist teaching the English department with my exact same name and spelling.  I don’t know what his political views are; he may not have any in particular, and I haven’t read his novels.  But regardless: the poor man!  A few months ago he had a book review published in the Wall Street Journal, where I also frequently appear.  In fact I’m not certain the editors didn’t have us confused, because once again I got a number of emails from friends saying they liked the review though it seemed a bit of a topical departure for me, and in any case they hadn’t realized I’d started my post in Colorado already.

It reminds of a story from the early 1970s today buried deep in conservative folklore about the time William F. Buckley made a cameo appearance on the NBC comedy revue Laugh-In.  At the time his brother, James Buckley, was serving in the United States Senate, having been elected in something of a fluke in New York in 1970.  An indignant constituent wrote in to Sen. Buckley complaining how he had demeaned his high office by stooping so low as to appear on such a crass program.

[I can’t resist here a “my-how-times-have-changed” aside.  One of my favorite old books that I have occasionally taught is Xenophon’s overlooked classic, The Education of Cyrus.  Needless to say, this week I’m thinking we need to update Xenophon with The Education of Miley Cyrus.]

Anyway, Sen. Buckley responded to his constituent by saying, “I have forwarded your letter to my brother, the columnist William F. Buckley Jr.  It was he, not I, who appeared on Laugh-In.”  Brother Bill couldn’t resist piling on, writing separately to Mr. Hitchcock:

“It is typical of my brother to attempt to deceive his constituents.  It was of course, he, not I, who appeared on Laugh-In, just as you suspected.  On the other hand, his greatest deception is as yet undiscovered.  It was I, not he, who was elected to the Senate.  So you see, you have nothing to worry about.  You are represented in the Senate by a responsible, truthful man.”

This provides an obvious opportunity today: if I do or say anything that creates a significant controversy here, I’m going to say, “Oh no, it wasn’t me—it was that that other guy down at Colorado College.”  And if it turns out that this other Steven Hayward does have some conservative inclinations, perhaps he can come here next year as my successor in this program, and the university won’t even need to reprint the business cards.

I was inspired to propose tonight’s topic—“Why Are There So Few Conservatives in Higher Education, and Does It Matter?”— because of a recent book with the converse title: Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal, and Why Do Conservatives Care?, which Harvard University Press published several months ago to considerable notice and wide reviews.  Gross is a Canadian social scientist, and he takes us through a grand tour of the subject, weighing original and panel survey data, and considering various explanations that have been in play.

I don’t want to engage in a critique or commentary narrowly on Gross’s book, which has many strengths and weaknesses like all books that take after a complicated problem, but use it rather as a starting point and touchstone for what I hope is a fresh critique of the fast-changing landscape of higher education today, especially in the humanities and social sciences, which is where most of the ideological battles in higher education are played out.

The standard conservative complaint about higher education tends to lead with ideological discrimination in hiring, which is derivative of the second factor conservatives single out for extra-special disapprobation: the ideological fervency of contemporary doctrines, usually boiled down to the holy trinity of race, class, and gender.

Now I think there is some quantitative evidence (and more is on the way) of ideological discrimination in hiring: Gross notes some of this, while concluding that the phenomena is overstated or overestimated.  And I generally share the substance of the conservative dislike of the holy trinity of race, class, and gender as they are typically treated in many departments—not that they are unworthy subjects, and this is an important point.  However, these critiques are well known and, frankly, have become a bore.  There’s not much need to rehearse them again.

In any case, they do not, in my mind, get to the heart of some of the more interesting and important dimensions of the ideological shape of today’s humanities and social science departments that come into play before you even reach the fever swamps of race, class and gender, which is why I’ve become a little impatient with the near-exclusive conservative focus on them.

Liberals have pushed back against the charge of ideological discrimination in hiring with an entirely valid point: you guys don’t show up!  There simply aren’t many conservative graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.  If the top 200 universities—whoever U.S. News and World Report decides them to be this week—set out to hire a conservative for each of their humanities departments, they’d run out after about 50; in some departments, they might run out of qualified conservative job candidates after about 2.  And if you can’t find newly-minted Ph.Ds for tenure track jobs, you’d have to poach the thin ranks of conservatives already in academia somewhere, leading to no net increase in conservative presence in universities.  How exactly can liberals be blamed wholly for this?

There’s more to say on this point, but I want to try to stake out a fresh approach to this wider issue tonight, as it connects to my being here at CU in the first place.  This analysis comes in three parts, in ascending order of contestability.

First, I want to begin, in good social science fashion, with some data points– what we still sometimes quaintly refer to as “facts”—along with a couple of propositions about the shape of modern university controversies that I do not think are especially controversial; Facts about the state of higher education at the present time that I think should be worrisome to everyone regardless of ideology.

Second, I want to pose a series of questions about might be learned from the particular places where you do find conservatives in higher education—questions that are susceptible of a range of possible answers, and therefore perhaps more controversial.

Now, in Hollywood you’re not supposed to foreshadow your surprise ending, but these questions lead directly to the third and most important part, which is an analysis of the inescapable substantive differences between left and right about education itself, how these differences explain a lot of things that have escaped notice, and how these differences might be bridged in ways that, ironically, might make liberalism more robust on campus.

So, first some data, itemized with minimal commentary.

• Item 1: Everyone knows what has happened to the cost of higher education: a 500% increase in college tuition in last 25 years, while CPI rose just 115%.  By contrast, health care costs have risen 300%. The figure the White House put out to accompany President Obama’s recent speech on this subject noted that since the 1983 tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have risen by 257%, while typical family incomes have advanced 16%.  What is less well known the adverse result: Today, only about 7% of recent college graduates come from the bottom-income quartile, compared with 12% in 1970 when federal aid was scarce.  We’re going the wrong direction.

• Item 2: Everyone has probably heard of the recent report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a similar report from Harvard, about the more than 50 percent decline in student enrollment in the humanities over the last generation.  This is true even of Harvard, Yale, and our most elite institutions with the most legendary humanities departments.

From the Wall Street Journal summary of these reports: “In 2010, just 7% of college graduates nationally majored in the humanities, down from 14% in 1966. At Harvard, humanities majors have fallen to 20% in 2012 from 36% in 1954. In the last decade, the decline in humanities students at Harvard has been particularly pronounced, with one-third fewer prospective freshmen expressing interest in the field.”  In a 2009 American Scholar essay William M. Chace noted that from 1970 to 2003 the number of students majoring in English fell by nearly half, from 7.6 percent of all majors to 3.9 percent.

This decline began long before the current economic downturn made students more hyperconscious of the marketability of their degree.  And if the enrollment in humanities courses continues to slide, can a reduction in force of humanities faculty positions be far behind?  I think we are not far from starting to see “double-retirements,” that is tenure line faculty positions in the humanities discontinued when a senior professor retires.  Already we’re seeing signs of a rapidly shrinking hiring market in the humanities and some social sciences.  Political science hiring is down sharply in recent years, according to numbers out of the APSA.

• Item 3: A survey conducted several months back by InsideHigherEd and Gallup found a large plurality of parents saying that no degree, or a vocational education certificate, was preferable to a liberal arts degree.  (The numbers were roughly 70 – 30 on this question.)

• Item 4: Florida Governor Rick Scott has raised hackles with his proposal that students who take majors in STEM subjects receive deeply discounted tuition, while students who major in the humanities pay full price.  This comes on top of Gov. Scott’s proposal to shift dwindling state education dollars away from the humanities and into STEM subjects.  This is, according to many, exactly backwards, as STEM fields are much more expensive to offer than humanities and social sciences.  And indeed, some universities have flirted with the idea of charging higher tuition for the more expensive STEM subjects on the entirely common-sensical basis that STEM graduates typically gain higher paying jobs that graduates with humanities and social science degrees.  It just keeps getting better and better for the beleaguered humanities.

• It could be even worse, however, as my Item 5 suggests: In Vietnam, still run by the Communist Party, the very selective national university is offering free tuition to anyone who signs up for the university’s curriculum in Marxism.  They’ve had to offer free tuition because no students have been signing up for these courses, as in zero.  I can’t help but be amused that the market-clearing price for courses in radical philosophy is lower in a Communist university than in American universities.

• Item 6 is the other elephant in the room right now—or is it the mythical unicorn?  I speak here of the burgeoning effort to develop online instruction, in the form of MOOCs.  The premise and nervousness here is that universities today may be in roughly the place newspapers were 20 years ago—about to get run over by disruptive technology and a new delivery model that outcompetes the current model.  I, and many other conservatives in academia, have a lot of skepticism about this—especially for the humanities and social sciences.

But the recent dust up out at San Jose State University over MOOCs may be a harbinger of what’s ahead.  A few months ago the provost at San Jose State urged the philosophy department to make available to students, for credit, Michael Sandel’s globally popular online course on Justice.  Let me add here briefly that although Sandel is a liberal (though of a particularly interesting kind in my mind), I think he teaches that subject as it ought to be taught, and it is no fluke that 1,000 students routinely sign up for his lecture course when it is offered at Harvard.  I would have no hesitation recommending to conservative students that they join that classroom.  I’ll return to this a bit later perhaps.

Right now, what’s important to know is that the philosophy faculty at San Jose State reacted bitterly to this proposal, and fired off a sharp letter to Sandel that essentially boiled down to this message: “Are you trying to put us out of work?”  Sandel responded rather weakly I thought, saying absolutely No I wouldn’t want to see that happen.  But he didn’t indicate he would withdraw or limit his online offerings.

• My last item is just an omnibus observation, about which there are lots of data that I’ll skip over in the interest of time, that the road to a professorship, always steep, is getting steeper.  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, but as I say it takes a while to sort out.

It is here that some of the data Neil Gross, Harvard’s Louis Menand, and others have unearthed and re-analyzed is interesting and helpful, and provides the transition to my short set of queries.  Drawing on student survey data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, Matthew and April Woessner find that self-identified conservative students report higher levels of satisfaction with their university educational experience than self-identified moderate or liberal students, though not surprisingly conservative students report lower levels of satisfaction than liberal students with the humanities and social sciences.  (Incidentally, the HERI data find that liberal and conservative students tend to get higher grades that moderates or students who report no political outlook.)

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.  While these factors can’t be dismissed, Neil Gross points to compelling data about how the most important determinants of whether students go into graduate study are not large ideological factors, but mundane things like whether students have close relationships with professors or find academic mentors to encourage them along graduate paths.  And lacking mentors and direct encouragement means that liberal predominance in graduate education and hence the ranks of professors becomes self-reinforcing, even if there is zero political bias in hiring decisions.

There’s a lot more to be said about these factors, and in particular a fascinating survey datum Louis Menand points to that job satisfaction is much higher for non-academic Ph.Ds, which I can tell you is certainly the case with non-academic conservative Ph.Ds.  Menand also observes that there are fewer non-university places for liberal intellectuals than conservative intellectuals, and while I don’t think he’s quite correct about this, he’s on to something important.  I can tell you from my own experience and that of other conservatives who took Ph.Ds in political science that an academic career path was often number five or six on the list of desirable career paths, whereas for liberal students in Ph.D programs it is probably number one or two on the career ladder.

But I still don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter, and I think everyone has overlooked thinking on what we might be able to learn from examining the particular places where you do find conservatives in higher education.  Hence the following four queries.

First, why is it that when you take in the universe of conservative professors, you tend to find most of them in private liberal arts colleges, and comparatively very few at large public research universities like Colorado, or Michigan, or Ohio State, etc?  There are some exceptions to this, but I think any serious survey would validate this proposition.

Second, why is it that you find a fair number of conservatives in political philosophy, but not in philosophy proper?  I’d estimate the ratio of conservative academic political philosophers to traditional philosophers to be at least 10 – 1.  Furthermore, why is it that when you do find a right-of-center academic philosopher, most of the time he or she (but usually he) will turn out to be a libertarian of an especially dogmatic variety?  (I’ll add a third corollary question here: why is it that, by most conservative reckonings, political science departments are the least politicized—or least prone to politically correct absolutism or conformity—of the social sciences?  The reason for this may turn out to be significant.)

Third, why is it that there are quite a lot of conservatives among the ranks of academic economists, but very few in other social sciences, even though many other social sciences employ the same quantitative methods and treat many of the same questions?  Conservative economists have dominated the Nobel Prize since it was launched in the early 1970s, and if I was a social psychologist, I think I’d be worried right now about the fast-growing field of behavioral economics, which finds enthusiasts across the political spectrum in economics.  Economists can sometimes take on rather imperialist ambitions and attitudes, and I note that there is no Nobel Prize for any other social science.  To borrow the terminology of the critical theory left, this is as clear case of “privileging” a specific viewpoint as I’ve ever seen.  There have already been at least two Nobel Prizes awarded for work in behavioral economics—one of them to Vernon Smith, who runs the only economics program in the nation that owns and operates an MRI machine.  I’d watch my back.

These queries admit a range of answers and are susceptible of fresh controversy, but I think you can move past them by asking the obvious larger and last question: why are conservatives drawn to certain fields or disciplines, and not others that on the surface might seem roughly equivalent?

Thus far I’ve tried to speak analytically, but at some point there is simply no avoiding fundamental differences between the intellectual outlook of liberals and conservatives that are not only at the root of all of our current disagreements, but also explain much of the skewed profile of the humanities and social sciences—even if there was no hiring bias at work at all.

I usually try to resist large generalizations, but sometimes they are necessary to sharpen our thinking.  And one of the chief conservative critiques is that liberalism and its radical left variants tend toward utopianism, and even when it is not explicitly utopian, it operates on tacit premises that are.  There is no utopian right, with the partial exception of dogmatic libertarians, which supplies an answer to my query of why you sometimes find libertarians among the ranks of philosophers.  There’s quite an irony at work here, by the way: liberals quite easily and quickly point out the real world defects and weaknesses of doctrinaire libertarianism, without pausing to notice that the converse defects afflict nearly every species of liberal-left utopianism.

So for example, most academic philosophers today seem utopian in their premises and argument, although of a constricted and uninspiring kind: you don’t see a lot of grand utopian visions that you’d line up next to Thomas More or even Marx.  Instead you see an egalitarian presumption that takes little account of the difficulties and limitations that are central to political philosophy.  It seems to be Rawls all the way down, if you know that old apocryphal story about Bertrand Russell and turtles.

I think the concentration of conservatives in political philosophy and economics is explained by one common factor: both fields are more directly connected to, or oriented toward, the concrete over the abstract, to asking the kind of large questions that tend to be lost in today’s increasingly finely-sliced specialized academic inquiry.  Many conservatives are drawn to economics because of its close practical connection, ever since Adam Smith, to the postulates of individual liberty and free markets; the connection with other social sciences is much more tenuous, if not opposed in many precincts.  It also helps that a Ph.D in economics can substitute for an MBA; if you don’t get an academic job, you can go work for a hedge fund or a bank (or the government), and do very well.  And while this may come as a revelation of sorts, I can tell you that conservatives who do graduate study in political philosophy also have glittering opportunities outside of academia.

And here you may see the beginning of an answer to my first query, about the scarcity of conservatives in the humanities in large research universities.  Conservatives (but also some liberals as we shall see in a moment) tend to be alienated from the research university mode of inquiry.  Some of this connects directly to the long-standing conservative skepticism or even opposition to modern social science, as it emerged from thinkers such as Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin.

My own opinion is that the old conservative critique of social science needs to be revised considerably in light of some of the refinements in social science that have occurred over the last 20 or so years, and in fact you can point to models of consequential conservative social science, such as, for example, James Q. Wilson, whom I knew fairly well.  I wish I had time tonight to develop what I think are some very valuable perspectives that bear on this whole question available from the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, which is based in part on the analytical framework of the late Aaron Wildavsky, a one-time liberal-turned-conservative political scientist who had a long career at Berkeley.  Or likewise the fascinating work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, an Obama-supporting liberal, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.  I’m hoping to get Jon to Boulder for a visit while I’m here; I know him a little, but he’s in very high demand these days and hard to get, but I’m going to try.

But the core of that critique still stands in some ways.  This is a long subject, impossible to treat adequately in one lecture. So let me enlist briefly two witnesses, one a halfway forgotten conservative, and the other a contemporary liberal.

My halfway forgotten conservative is Richard Weaver, a professor of literature who wrote a sort of famous book—sort of famous because everyone recalls it but almost no one ever reads it—called Ideas Have Consequences.  The book came from his Walgreen Lectures at the University of Chicago in 1949.  The title has become a popular conservative slogan (the Heritage Foundation at one time included it on their letterhead), but large portions of this short book are ironically almost unreadable.  It seems to me that ideas only have the potential for consequences if you can understand them.

But there are accessible parts of this uneven book that speak to the conservative disposition against social science and ever narrower specialization:

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. . .

You’ll see here that this English professor has the political dimensions in mind with this view of pedagogy, about which lots more can be said—some other time.  Bear with me through two more short paragraphs:

The significance of the movement we are here tracing is that the former distrust of specialization has been supplanted by its opposite, a distrust of generalization.  Not only has man become a specialist in practice, he is being taught that special facts represent the highest form of knowledge. . . .

The theory of empiricism is plausible because it assumes that accuracy about small matters prepares the way for valid judgment about larger ones.  What happens, however, is that the judgments are never made.  The pedantic empiricist, buried in his little province of phenomena, imagines that fidelity to it exempts him from concern with larger aspects of reality—in the case of science, from consideration of whether there is reality other than matter.

Weaver’s noting a “distrust of generalization” leads to my second witness: Anthony Kronman, a former dean at Yale University who still teaches in Yale’s legendary directed studies program—a liberal, near as I can make out from the pride he expresses in his student activism in the 1960s on behalf of the SDS.

He writes about the humanities with an almost embarrassing charm, as can be seen from the title of his recent book: Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.  As I say, even to state it like this is to risk a blush these days.  The meaning of life?  As Woody Allen put it, how can you be concerned about the mysteries of the universe when you can’t find your way around Chinatown?  (I’ll just add briefly what requires an extended separate treatment—namely, that it is well neigh impossible to ask the old questions about the meaning of life if you don’t believe objectivity is possible, and Neil Gross’s survey research finds that nearly a third of sociologists and English professors do not believe objectivity is possible.  This always prompts me to ask: then why exactly are we having this conversation?  More importantly, how are we having this conversation?  I think this defect it not lost on students, and helps explain why students are being lost from liberal arts enrollment.

Like Weaver’s old title, I find Kronman’s book to be very uneven, repetitious, and poorly thought out in places.  But I think his larger point is worth taking in.  Here’s one (of many) broad statements of his argument that appear in his book:

I have watched the question of life’s meaning lose its status as a subject of organized academic instruction and seen it pushed to the margins of professional respectability in the humanities, where it once occupied a central and honored place. . .

Why did the question of what living is for disappear from the roster of questions our colleges and universities address in a deliberate and disciplined way?  What is the source of the appeal of the research ideal, and why is it so hostile to this question?  Why are the ideas of diversity and multiculturalism and the belief that values are merely expressions of power so corrosive of the attempt to explore the question of life’s purpose and meaning?

I ask [these questions] as a former dean who worried every day that the demands of the research ideal and the spirit of political correctness have together put the humanities on the defensive and their authority to guide us in the exploration of life’s meaning under a cloud.

Just to reiterate: this is not the ghost of Allan Bloom speaking here; this is a liberal.  And if Kronman and Weaver, and also Harvard’s Louis Menand (whose politics I can’t make out and who I must mostly skip over here in the interest of time) who also argues in a similar vein as Kronman and Weaver—if they are right or partly right, then the style of education today also sweeps against certain kinds of liberals as well as conservatives.  Menand points out that Richard Rorty, whose neo-pragmatism was a very intellectually ambitious and at times openly political project, was persona non grata in the philosophy departments at Stanford and Virginia; he had to be housed in the English Department, as was, equally oddly, Jacques Derrida.   Both Kronman and Menand argue that the research ideal, when taken too far by the humanities and social sciences, has the effect of narrowing our intellectual range—that they make the humanities and social sciences boring.  This may be why we’re losing students in these fields, as much as the concern over high cost.

I’ll give one last contrasting example of the unbridgeable gulf between left and right that I think is highly revealing.  It turns out that at a shockingly high number of universities—though not this one—it is possible to take a degree in English without having to take a single course on Shakespeare, which strikes me as absurd as taking a course in radical philosophy that omitted reading Karl Marx.  On the other hand, if you have a close look at the political science departments around the country that lean conservative or have a strong conservative plurality in the department—these would be Boston College; Notre Dame; Chicago; Georgetown; Loyola; Claremont; U Dallas; U. of Virginia; Kenyon; St. Johns Annapolis; Ashland, Hillsdale; maybe a handful of others—you will typically find in the political science course offerings one or more courses on—Shakespeare.  (You’ll notice, by the way, there’s only one public university on that short list—Virginia.)  In this contrast I think you can really begin to grasp the very different educational philosophies dividing left and right.  While many English departments now regard Shakespeare as optional material because he’s old, or because he represents the “white Anglo-Saxon phallo-logocentric hegemonic discourse” that needs to be swept away, conservatives think you can find wisdom of permanent value in reading the works of the great dramatist.  Actually conservatives argue vigorously among themselves about how Shakespeare’s politics should be understood: was he the last Aristotelian philosopher, contesting against Machiavelli, or was he in fact simply a more genteel version of Machiavelli?

There are some possible remedies for this—but all extremely difficult for a public research university to implement even in the humanities.  One is that universities ought to try to re-cultivate the fast-fading role of the “public intellectual,” that is, professors who can write cross-over books that appeal to a wider reading public beyond fellow specialists.  This is increasingly rare today.  Jonathan Lear of the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago lamented in the New York Times a few years ago that “academic philosophy in the United States has virtually abandoned the attempt to speak to the culture at large.”

It seems to me we have fewer Richard Hofstadters, Lionel Trillings, and Arthur Schlesingers than we once had.  I was reflecting in class this week that when Lionel Trilling died in 1975, his death notice rated the front page of the New York Times.  Is there an academic literary figure today who would merit that placement?  Maybe Terry Eagleton or Gerald Graff, but I doubt it.  Why is it that, with the great public and publishing industry interest in books and biographies about American history, especially the founding, almost all of the best-sellers are written by journalists like John Meacham, rather than by academic historians?  (There are exceptions, like Joseph Ellis, but there ought to be a lot more.)  One problem here is that professors, who are plenty ambitious and hard working and talented, are not rewarded for this kind of work any more.  In fact, popular work can be a detriment to your career.

Second, liberals ought to want to have more arguments with conservatives; I emphasize here “argument” as distinct from debate, which can be mere spectacle or theater.  John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit philosopher prominent in conservative circles more than 50 years ago, used to say that sometimes the most useful thing to do in life is to “achieve disagreement.”  An odd phrase: why is disagreement hard to “achieve”?  Murray pointed out that sometimes what appears to be disagreement is merely confusion.  We too often talk past each other and add to the confusion.

This leads to the final point and the subtitle of this talk: Does It Matter if conservatives are scarce in the liberal arts faculty?  Well, if we believe that monopoly power is bad in the economic marketplace for goods, why wouldn’t it also be bad for the academic marketplace of ideas?  Of course, as serious students of antitrust will tell you, not all monopolies or oligopolies in markets are the result of nefarious behavior; there are lots of reasons they come about, and remedies for market concentration are not always simple or easy.

You hear some skeptics of the initiative that brings me here say that it is unnecessary to have someone like myself around or hired into a department in the regular way, because even partisan liberal professors—being professional—can present conservative points of view in their courses perfectly well.  I think this is doubtful at best.

I think John Stuart Mill’s argument about this is just as compelling today as it was 150 years ago:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. . .  Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations.  This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or to bring them into real contact with his own mind.  He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.  He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

Lionel Trilling thought the same thing.  Go back and re-read that famous preface to The Liberal Imagination, where he is essentially warning his fellow liberals, then at the very apogee of their postwar confidence and near-monopoly on American intellectual life, that the absence of serious conservative opposition was very bad for them.

There was an interesting book published a couple years back by the late Paul Lyons called American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It.  Lyons was a professor at Stockton College in New Jersey, quite far to the left as near as I can make out, but an excellent writer, quite widely read, and I suspect an excellent classroom teacher.  He set out to teach a course on conservative thought, and his book is a detailed account of how it went.  From his account I can make no complaint of unfairness or bias in his presentation of conservative thought, but what I did notice often was an incompleteness.  He’d only get two dimensions of a thinker where a third or fourth was essential.  Putting the shoe on the other foot, I can readily acknowledge that on the occasions when I’ve decided to present Rawls to conservative students, because I’ve been dismayed that they’ve taken no account of him, I am struck by how inadequate and incomplete my account must be, because I’m not, as Mill put it, passionately committed to Rawls’ point of view, and therefore haven’t given it the time it requires or deserves for a complete account.  But it’s better than nothing.  And so to liberal minded professors here, and I’ve heard from a few, who present conservative ideas in their classes, I say, “Good—it’s better than nothing.  But it’s better still to have me do it, too.”

I’ve gone on too long, have left a lot of things on the cutting room floor, and have badly truncated even the thoughts I have included here, but I want to close rather abruptly and move to questions by paraphrasing Marx—Groucho Marx: These are some of my thoughts on the matter.  If you don’t like them, I have others!

 

 

This entry was posted in Conservative Thought, Public events on by .

About Steven Hayward

Steven Hayward holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Claremont Graduate School. He has been the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he was principal author and project director of the AEI’s “Energy and Environment Outlook.” Hayward has been a visiting lecturer in the Government Department of Georgetown University and is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. He has also served as a Bradley Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Hayward’s essays have been published in The Washington Post, National Review, Weekly Standard and other publications. His most recent book, published in 2010, is “Mere Environmentalism: A Biblical Perspective on Humans and the Natural World.”

4 thoughts on “Inaugural Lecture Text, Plus Some Follow Up Notes

  1. Pingback: God and Man at Boulder? | The Penn Ave Post

  2. Pingback: Quote of the day | Electricity Blog News Aggregator

  3. Pingback: Educational policy: pricing | menwithgloves

  4. Pingback: Why so few conservatives in higher ed? | Insomniac memos

Comments are closed.