Conservatives and Higher Education

I am long overdue in delivering a World Wrestling Federation-style smack down on Damon Linker, one of my favorite liberal writers, for a column he wrote in The Week way back in August on “The Real Reason There Are So Few Conservatives on Campus.” The piece is still prompting discussion—a rare column with a long half-life—such as Warren Treadgold’s response in Commentary recently.

Let’s take Damon’s second major claim in the piece first. Conservatives, he says, are less interested in breaking “new knowledge” that is the mode of operation for universities these days, even in the humanities. In other words, conservative academics are like baseball players trying to play in the NFL—it’s just a different game. There is something to this criticism, but only because it accepts as its premise that breaking “new knowledge” is the sole function of a university, rather than being partly a repository for conserving and passing along the knowledge capital of our civilization. Perhaps it might be said that small liberal arts colleges are where that older kind of function should go on, but most liberal arts college have followed the big public and private research universities in emphasizing “new knowledge” over conveying the traditions of our civilization.

This problem was understood to some leaders of higher education when our universities were deciding to emulate the German research-university model in the late 19th century. One of the presidents of Harvard at the time (I forget which, but as I’m on an airplane at the moment I can’t check Louis Menand’s account of this) thought it might be necessary to have two faculties at Harvard—a graduate research faculty, and a purely teaching faculty to carry on the older mission of being the transmission belt of our heritage, unburdened with the task of grinding out endless journal articles that almost no one will read.

So it is true that most conservatives in the humanities are wholly alienated from the mode of humanities instruction in universities today. Linker and other liberals should ponder that the number of majors in humanities and social sciences (excluding economics) has fallen by two-thirds over the last 30 years even at our most elite universities, corresponding precisely to the transition in the humanities from the old style to the “new knowledge” style. By contrast, note that the scarce conservative professors and their courses are often very popular with students (my courses all have long waiting lists, while the radical left courses—most that I check on are barely half full; also, check out the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Great Texts at UT/Austin—it’s ragingly popular with students). Maybe there’s a lesson here?

Besides, even conservative keepers of supposedly “old knowledge” have relevant challenges to make to the so-called “new knowledge.” For one example, just think of the vigorous debate to be had about Machiavelli between Harvey Mansfield and Quentin Skinner. With no Mansfield around, students will not know that there is an alternative way of thinking about Machiavelli.

Second, most of the so-called “new knowledge” in the humanities is, simply put, crap. And the increasing narrowness if not irrelevancy of large swaths of academic social science (including, sadly, economics in too many cases) is leaving students cold. (See: Any of my “academic absurdity” posts here, which I could file on an hourly basis if I wanted to.)

Which brings me to Damon’s first claim in his article. Damon says that “conventional wisdom holds that the source of the [ideological] imbalance is flagrant ideological bias on the part of the faculty members and administrators who make hiring decisions,” but that this view is “almost entirely wrong.”

Let’s see about this. Consider this following current and entirely too typical job announcement for a position in political theory in Cal State Long Beach—a field where there are many qualified conservatives:

College of Liberal Arts, Department of Political Science, Tenure-Track Position Opening

POSITION: Assistant Professor of Political Science (Political Theory)

EFFECTIVE DATE: August 20, 2018 (Fall Semester)

SALARY RANGE: Commensurate with qualifications and experience

DESIRED/PREFERRED QUALIFICATIONS:
• Evidence of broad training in the canon of Western political theory.
• Evidence of ability for excellence in teaching and research grounded in political theory and focusing on topics central to the discipline at large: e.g., ancient, modern, and contemporary theories; democratic theory; critical race theory; immigration; the carceral state; postcolonial theory; identity; hybridity; intersectionality; queer theory; deconstruction’s focus on alterity; globalization, and neoliberalism.

The subtext here is pretty clear: Conservatives need not apply. It is a certainty that no conservative will be hired. I doubt they any conservative will even get an interview. This is not a position that will be breaking “new knowledge,” except new ways of spinning out jargon-laden ideology. Such job ads are surprisingly common, making it hard to see how Linker or anyone can say that there isn’t “flagrant ideological bias” in higher education.

By contrast, see these two job listings from Arizona State University’s new School for Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which has been set up by conservatives:

Assistant Professor, Classical and Medieval Political Philosophy 

The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University invites applications for a full-time tenure-track faculty position as Assistant Professor, in Classical and Medieval Political Philosophy, with an anticipated start date of August 2018. . .

Required qualifications include: a doctorate in political science, history, or closely related field by time of appointment; dissertation or research focused on Classical Greek, Roman, or Medieval political philosophy, or the intellectual history of Classical and Medieval Political thought; an active research program with clear potential for excellence in research activity and publications; evidence of university teaching experience. Desired qualifications: interest and ability to teach courses that span Western political theory and some comparative theory; interest in civic education and leadership; interest in study, teaching and discussion of civic education and leadership as well as the great texts and debates of the Western tradition and liberal education; demonstrated success meeting the needs of diverse student populations and/or reaching out to diverse communities.

Assistant Professor, American Constitutionalism and Political Thought 

The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University (https://scetl.asu.edu/) invites applications for a full-time tenure-track faculty position as Assistant Professor, in American Constitutionalism and Political Thought with an anticipated start date of August 2018. . .

Required qualifications include: a doctorate in political science, or closely related field by time of appointment; dissertation or research focused on American constitutionalism and institutions, and American political thought; an active research program with clear potential for excellence in research activity and publications; evidence of university teaching experience. Desired qualifications: expertise and interest in the American presidency with a historical focus, and in civic education and leadership; interest in the study, teaching, and discussion of civic education and leadership as well as the great texts and debates of the Western tradition and liberal education; demonstrated success meeting the needs of diverse student populations and/or reaching out to diverse communities.

Rather easy to spot the difference, no? There are no ideological code words or signifiers of bias in these job descriptions. And to which program would you rather send your kids?

In sum—the Missing Linker showed up with a rare miss here: he usually gets the problem of identity politics leftism just right.

Note to Arizona Power Line readers: Now I know what you’re thinking. Yes, it’s very tempting, but no, I won’t be applying, as much as I love those guys at this terrific new program.

NB: For my longer thoughts on this subject, I refer interested readers to my New Criterion article from 2014: “Conservatives and Higher Education.” If Damon had read this, it would have saved him from making a left turn against traffic on a one-way street.

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