Annals of Liberal Cluelessness [with comment by Paul]

The New York Times on Saturday published an unintentionally hilarious article from Molly Worthen entitled “Can I Go To Great Books Camp?” The article went through all of the conservative educational programs that teach classic texts in a serious way, including several well known to Power Line readers, such as the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellows, and the Hertog Fellows program (both of which have featured moi as an instructor). In fact, several of the young conservatives Worthen mentions in the story I’ve had in some of these seminars.

Worthen thinks that liberals ought to have similar “great books” programs for its young people:

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Here Worthen veers close to the heart of the matter, but doesn’t quite get there. It isn’t that liberals are “squeamish” about the “history of ideas.” Liberals are actively hostile to the history of ideas, and even when not actually hostile, liberal professors tend to teach the great books in a manner guaranteed to bore students to death. The decline in the number of humanities majors over the last 50 years coincides with the steady rise of the politically correct university. This is not merely happenstance.

Still, we can give Worthen one of modern liberalism’s standout achievements—a participation trophy—for some of her unironic observations:

Instead of mocking conservatives’ ideological echo chambers and self-regarding fantasies, progressives should learn from them. For one thing, higher education should include a bit of self-regarding fantasy. . .

These conservative seminars make an enormous impact simply by taking students seriously. “They’re not at the children’s table,” said Tom Palmer, who directs Cato University, a program that mixes undergraduates with midcareer professionals and retirees. “No one pinches their cheeks and tells them how cute they are.”

There is another insight here: the power of teaching the canon. Most of these programs conceive of the canon far too narrowly, but the canon is an elite debating society that anyone can join. It shows students that the struggle for freedom and justice began long before the 1960s, and that this deep history lurks beneath today’s policy debates.

Unfortunately, at most universities, studying political philosophy has become a form of countercultural rebellion, a discipline marginalized by courses in supposedly practical subjects like business and communications. Campus activists may learn organizing strategies and the argot of identity politics, but few study the history of their own ideas.

Worthen would do some good if she would openly state whose fault all this is. (Don’t blame the business and communications departments.) But for now, we conservative thank the narrow-minded and shriveled souls of the humanities professoriate that have created a market niche.

One revealing part of the story is how liberal attempts to copy conservative programs have floundered:

A few years ago John Halpin, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, started the Progressive Studies Program. His reading list ran from early Progressive reformers to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Port Huron Statement on to President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech. But he could afford to bring students together for only a day or two. Soon his resources dried up altogether. “It’s hard to get long-term funding for ideological training of this sort” from liberal donors, he told me. “We get a lot more support for demographic work.”

Naturally. When you think you’re on “the side of history,” why would you ever look back to see how we got here—or where we might have taken a wrong turn? Being a liberal means never considering we’ve made a wrong turn.

P.S. While liberals might try to copy conservative programs in great books and great ideas, I’ll bet none of them will dare copy the Claremont Institute’s Publius Fellows Program, which allocates a day to visit a gun range. Heh.

PAUL ADDS: I once heard Jonah Goldberg tell a story that bears on this post. It went something like this:

A journal of political thought asked five conservatives and five liberals for contributions. Collectively, the five conservatives presented a pretty full array of the various strands of thought that represent conservatism. The five liberals all wrote about how to win the next election.


Books to read from Power Line