The Power Line 100: Jean Yarbrough

The National Association of Scholars is out today with a lengthy (359 pages and 1,159 footnotes) report about the leftward decay—“decay” is perhaps a mild word—of liberal arts at Bowdoin College in Maine.  There’s a backstory here, involving the relentlessly mediocre political correctness of Bowdoin’s president, Barry Mills, and how he caricatured a golf outing with Thomas Klingenstein (chairman of the Claremont Institute) in order to reinforce his comfortable stereotype that all conservatives are mindless racist-sexist-classists, etc.

The NAS report copiously documents a familiar story:

[A]fter 1969, Bowdoin abolished all general education requirements and turned from what it called “collegiate” education to what its president at the time called “liberating” education. Out went the old standards and in came a new focus on race, class, gender, and the environment. Out went the old style of scholarly generalists as teachers and in came the new style of research specialists as faculty members. The new Bowdoin dedicated itself to the achievement of social justice and to reshaping America in the image of progressive politics. Bowdoin today is the direct heir of these major shifts.

The report notes one major exception, however:

The government department is a significant enough exception, not just in its commitment to the West, to warrant comment. While this department has not escaped the Bowdoin zeitgeist, there is ample exposure to classical liberal ideas, ones that today we misguidedly call “conservative.” More Bowdoin students enroll in government than in any other department and that, we suspect, is no accident. Government is popular likely because, more than elsewhere, students find the intellectual nourishment that satisfies the human longing for knowledge and understanding.

And it is not a coincidence, as the Marxists used to say, that the Bowdoin government department is where you find Bowdoin’s conservative faculty members, in particular Power Line’s good friend Jean Yarbrough, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition, and several other fine books.

One way of understanding how Jean departs from the typical mode of soul-destroying political science as it is too often taught these days is to take on board just one article title that I especially like: “The Role of Military Virtues in Preserving our Republican Institutions,” in Thomas Jefferson’s Military Academy: Founding West Point (University of Virginia Press, 2004).  Can it get any better than that?

Why yes, it can.  Whenever I meet “gender studies” enthusiasts I often have fun with them by saying, “Actually, conservatives ‘do’ gender, too—we just don’t call it that, or limit ourselves to the latest grievances.  We use older words, and classic books.”  And then I delight in handing them the syllabus to Jean’s course, “Eros and Politics.”  Here’s the course summary:

Nietzsche argues that God is dead. Does that mean Eros, too?  In our own day, where “hooking up” is what passes for sexual pleasure, it is well to begin by recognizing that, as the characters in Plato’s Symposium argue, Eros is a god or at least that there is something divine in human longing.  Something mad, too, as we learn in The Phaedrus. Eros is not “safe sex,” or about remaining in control of our bodies, our selves.  It is about taking risks, abandoning moderation and prudence for the sake of someone or something greater than ourselves. As Socrates argues in the Symposium, Eros is kind of pregnancy, a giving birth, that carries the lover and the beloved beyond themselves.  In this course we shall consider how some of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization conceived of erotic longing. Is a longing for The Other, or for another self? Is Eros selfless or self-interested? Is it concerned primarily with bodily satisfaction, or does it ultimately point to something higher, and if so, what: Beauty, Nobility, the Good, God?  How is Eros modified by the teaching of the Bible? What light can Shakespeare shed on the pagan and Christian understandings of Eros? What happens to Eros in modern political philosophy, and especially with the emergence of materialist, scientific, and commercial society?  How, in particular, does Rousseau’s romantic project attempt to overcome these defects? And finally, what is the fate of erotic longing in democratic and commercial America?

Which do you think would be the better intellectual experience—a tour of the classic perspectives on this issue, or recycling the transient puffery of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem?

Typical is this comment from

Professor Yarbrough is an incredible professor. She is brilliant and challenges students. The class I was in may be the most interesting class I’ve ever taken. She’s definitely one of the best at Bowdoin. I’m a liberal and had no trouble with her conservatism. I can’t say enough good things about her. Definitely take a class with her.

There’s a broader point to be made here that transcends the issue of whether colleges and universities have a leftward tilt.  A lot of undergraduates, especially at large public universities, tell me that they regard political science as immensely boring, and at many universities there are relatively few political science majors.  Yet “government” (not, take note, “political science”) at Bowdoin is the most popular major at the school.  This occurs frequently at universities that have a critical mass of conservative faculty.

The biggest problem with colleges and universities that decide to jump on the “critical thinking” bandwagon and embrace the trendy “progressivism” of race, class, gender, and white guilt studies is not so much their leftism, but their mediocrity and sheer boredom.  No wonder conservative professors tend to be more popular, even with liberal students.  You’d think campus liberals would take a hint from this.  Don’t hold your breath.  But this does raise an important question that the NAS report may not treat fully: would we really want classic approaches to western civilization taught by boring, mediocre liberals?  Better that students flock to accounting and economics instead.  At least half of what they’ll learn there is true.  The liberal arts are indeed dying out in higher education, but liberals are helpless to save them.

Anyway, here is a long lecture from Jean about Teddy Roosevelt delivered at Princeton; worth a look if you have a few minutes.


Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.