A Conservative Defense of Academia


It has become a commonplace assumption that conservatives are a vanishing breed in academia and that American colleges and universities are inherently hostile to right-leaning political views.  This assumption fuels not only the often tiresome complaints from the right about “political correctness” on campus, but also the increasingly destructive assault by Republican-controlled legislatures on tenure and academic freedom — not to mention college and university finances — like we have witnessed in, for two examples, Wisconsin and Missouri.  But informed academic conservatives know better.  Last June, two conservative faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, one a former Republican legislator, spoke out against Republican governor Scott Walker’s assault on tenure, arguing that “Scott Walker’s Latest Crusade Will Hurt Conservatives Like Us.”

51CNtDv4K3L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_Now two other conservative scholars — Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs — have published a book, based on 153 interviews with right-leaning academics, on the conservative experience in contemporary academia.  I haven’t read Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University but Shields and Dunn conveniently summarized their argument in an op-ed piece published last week in the Washington Post, which I recommend.

That op-ed, “Forget What the Right Says: Academia Isn’t So Bad for Conservative Professors,” argues persuasively that “right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown.”  In fact, the authors “believe that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”

First, they argue, “conservative professors are not helpless victims.”  While they say about a third of their interviewees claim to have hidden their political views until they earned tenure (something that many with views out of the mainstream on the left may do as well, I should point out), “once tenured, conservatives are free to express their politics and publish research that reflects right-wing interests and perspectives.”  They conclude, like their Wisconsin counterparts before them, that “the tolerance of the university does not rest entirely or even primarily on the social psychology of professors. It is supported by the institution of tenure, a fact that should give pause to those conservative thinkers who advocate its abolition.”

Second, they argue that right-wing claims about the politicization of the university are greatly exaggerated, pointing out that “major swaths of the social sciences and humanities are riven more by methodological and theoretical divides than by political ones.”

Third, they argue,

conservative professors do not say the university is implacably hostile to their ideas and values. In fact, about half the professors we interviewed began drifting toward conservatism while in the academy itself. While some recoiled against the perceived excesses of leftist students and faculty members, conservative professors more commonly moved right because of positive experiences. Some took undergraduate courses in economics that exposed them to the virtues of markets. . . .  Others began to drift rightward after encountering conservative students for the first time. . . .

For these professors, the university is not an adversarial institution — it is the birthplace of their conservatism and intellectual identities. As one literature professor told us: “The university has really given me my life. It’s a very wonderful place.”

“Conservatives even report close friendships with colleagues far to their left,” they write.  Indeed, they report, “many of the conservatives we interviewed feel surprisingly at home in universities — often more so than in the Republican Party.”

Instead, conservative professors are troubled by the populism that has swept the GOP in recent years, embodied by the tea party and some of its intemperate candidates. Unlike many of their progressive colleagues, conservative professors are leery of mass movements promising to remake America; they express a strong preference for established elites with long political résumés. As one typical professor complained to us, “There has to be some actual respect for expertise.” With the ascent of Donald Trump, the chasm between conservative professors and rank-and-file Republicans has undoubtedly grown larger still.

None of this should be very surprising to those of us — Left, Right and Center — who are actually in the academy.  Our dependence on academic freedom, the necessity of collegiality for effective shared governance, and our common respect for professionalism and expertise may bring us together more frequently than our political differences drive us apart.  But one factor that Shields and Dunn do not report in the op-ed (although they might in their book) is the common interest of those on both the left and the right in defending academic values and the professoriate itself in the face not only of external political assaults but also against the steady erosion of educational quality, independent scholarship, and professionalism fostered by corporatizing college and university managers, who increasingly treat higher education as a business producing graduates like manufacturers do widgets.

The division within conservatism over the university, academic freedom and tenure is not new.  Shields and Dunn begin their op-ed with reference to William F. Buckley’s 1951 book “God and Man at Yale,” which launched, in their words, “a campaign against higher education that has helped define postwar conservatism.”  Russell Kirk, author of the 1953 bestseller The Conservative Mind, also decried liberalism’s alleged stranglehold over academia.  But Kirk’s 1955 book, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition, offered a quite different analysis of the problem.  “Kirk was the most prolific conservative author of the last century,” Buckley once wrote, but Kirk refused to keep his name on the masthead of Buckley’s National Review, in good measure because of its editor’s disrespect for academic freedom.

Writing partially in response to Buckley, but also to other threats (not least McCarthyite anti-communism), Kirk, as Luke Sheahan put it, “appealed to the nature of the academic enterprise as a search for truth, the history of academic freedom in the Western universities, and the proper role of free discourse in society.”  Unlike Buckley — and, for that matter, in a different way unlike the AAUP as well — Kirk did not justify academic freedom by its results, although he believed that the academy was ultimately of use to the common good.  Kirk called the scholar “the guardian of the word” and argued that academic freedom is founded on “the enduring idea of a special liberty, or body of liberties, that is attached to the academic institution, the teacher, and the scholar.”  He wrote:

The principal importance of academic freedom is the opportunity it affords for the highest development of private reason and imagination, the improvement of mind and heart by the apprehension of Truth, whether or not that development is of any immediate use to [society].

Adding that

The theory of academic freedom is that the search after Truth involves certain risks: for Truth is not always popular in the marketplace, and there are opinions and fields of speculation that cannot prudently be discussed in the daily press or in the public meetings.

In a hostile review of Kirk’s book Buckley wrote that Kirk “blandly assumes that all teachers are scholars engaged in searching out truth.” To Buckley most educators were not philosophers but mere sophists.  But Kirk explicitly recognized the presence of such sophists. His opposition to Buckley’s approach arose from his fear that if the sophists were rooted out, a great many philosophers would be rooted out with them. Academic freedom, he believed, exists for genuine scholars, but it must also be applied to sophists and other non-scholars inevitably present in the academy. “It is only out of concern for the Philosophers that the Sophists are tolerated in their license,” he wrote.  Indeed, “it is part of the duty of the philosopher to preserve freedom in the Academy even for the sophist.”

This is hardly the place for a full exploration of Kirk’s views or of the differing approaches to academic freedom that have characterized modern American conservatism. Certainly Kirk’s ivory-towerish justification for academic freedom differs from that of the AAUP, with its Deweyan emphasis on “the common good.”  But what is important for the moment is how much in common Kirk’s approach had programmatically with that of the AAUP and how sharply his views differ from those embraced today by most politicians on the right.  I don’t know if Shields and Dunn would endorse Kirk’s version of conservatism, but it is both clear and welcome that they reject the tradition descending from Buckley’s 1951 screed against his alma mater and higher education more broadly.

Shields and Dunn conclude that  “movement conservatives should deescalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university. Such polemics, after all, may inadvertently solidify progressives’ troubled rule over academia by discouraging young conservatives from becoming professors.”  Whether that is true or not, when it comes to higher education and academic freedom it is increasingly the case that scholars are being pushed to hold “liberal” views by the unthinking opposition to their work of the mainstream of today’s conservative movement, heirs more of Buckley and less, at least with respect to academic freedom, of Russell Kirk.  In addressing this problem liberals in the AAUP should welcome the intervention of Shields and Dunn and other like-minded conservative colleagues.

One thought on “A Conservative Defense of Academia

  1. Pingback: Another Tiresome Insult to Academics | ACADEME BLOG

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don't impersonate a real person.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s