Fleshing out the University (Pt .4)
(Update: One line changed to directly quote Megan McArdle instead of inaccurately summarizing her position.)
I think we’ve nearly sucked all the marrow from the bone of ‘liberal academia’ (in pts. 1, 2, 3). Discussing the topic is always exhausting because half the people you discuss it with want to hear that there is a smaller percentage of conservatives in academia than elsewhere because they’re just not cut out for the profession, while the other half wants to hear that conservatives are either persecuted and ostracized by academia, or just too smart for the profession. My sense is that liberals don’t see a problem or want to address one, and conservatives see the problem as overwhelming and beyond their control and just want the system to collapse so that we can start again. Both ideas strike me as non-starters.
Instead, it seems clear that there is a problem- the conservative viewpoint is, unsurprisingly, underrepresented in those fields where there are few conservatives, and this creates an intellectually dull, if not stultifying atmosphere. It’s not that there are too many liberals in the humanities; but there are too few conservatives. Since I’ve been through the system, and spent a lot of time ‘backstage’, I don’t really see a point where conservatives are being blacklisted, attacked, or drummed out, and I don’t think most people who have looked at the situation think that’s the issue. And yet, they’re simply not entering grad schools or the profession in any great numbers. This is something I know a bit about, having actually reviewed those applications for the last few years- the gender/culture/class stuff that people have tagged as “conservative”- they come in wanting to study those things en masse.
The results are fairly predictable. It’s not that undergrads face the demagogic fire breathing professors of conservative lore (and, when that’s a problem, I’m okay with instituting some sort of professional guidelines for how to treat undergrads). Instead, there seem to be less hostile, but perhaps more problematic, assumptions made among our colleagues. If we’re among other academics at a conference, people feel comfortable griping about Republicans or conservatives, with the assumption being that the interlocutor is an academic, and thus a liberal. Some judgments seem weirdly skewed- for instance, a colleague from Rochester told me about working with Christopher Lasch: she liked him personally, in spite of his scholarship being “anti-woman and anti-gay”, a claim that strikes me as exaggerated. Finally, sometimes there are lazy mental shortcuts in the discourse that are taken uncritcally because they’re stereotypically liberal (gender is contructed, crime is the result of a racist society, anti-abortion means anti-woman, etc.) As I’ve phrased it, there’s a sort of consensus effect over time that is less terrible than outright discrimination, but harder to ameliorate because it is less conscious for the most part.
[Now a few caveats here: reading books and journals from that era, I do suspect that the academic profession was more politicized in the 70s and 80s than it is now, which could have started the bleeding; and I am in History, which has a reputation for being more conservative than other departments anyway. In other words, I usually find myself around academics who are fairly moderate politically and this could be why. Finally, as others have noted, I’m a grad student (and I’m 36!) and there are some signs that younger academics are considerably more moderate than past generations have been. It certainly seems true of undergrads.]
Many commenters have responded that conservatism, or something called “movement conservatism”, has its own ideological blind spots that have weakened the nature of conservative discourse and probably discourage conservatives from entering the profession. But this only proves my point that having more conservatives in academia would be good for the political discourse as a whole because those ideological blind spots would likely be challenged in an academic environment and conservatives would have some need to sharpen up their arguments- I don’t think the liberal academia/conservative think tank divide is healthy for anyone’s thinking.
At the very least, academics should consider the simple fact that if there were more conservatives invested in academia, it would be harder for Republicans to run for office promising to defund academia.
It seems to me that two things are discouraging conservatives from entering the profession: the first is exactly that consensus effect in the way certain fields think- if 80% of the field is liberal, they will tend to answer certain questions in predictable ways. It’s not so much a rigidly enforced groupthink as an underlying culture and this likely makes conservatives who do enter those fields feel isolated and lonely. Academic work is lonely anyway, but I’d imagine this makes it more so. Undergrads pick up on that. Also, over time, this consensus effect weakens academic scholarship, which can perhaps also dissuade young people from joining the profession. In other words, the symptoms of skewed representation likely perpetuate and reinforce the conservative migration away from the profession.
Secondly, we can’t ignore the fact that public conservatives have been making the case for four decades that academia is not for them. There is something profoundly un-conservative about trying to bring down one (barely) remaining center of cultural authority as a blow for ‘democracy’ or to suit one’s own political agenda. Maybe the goal really isn’t to weaken the university (and aggrandize the state in predictably authoritarian ways)- probably it’s just even more predictable tub-thumping. But, as someone who actually wants to improve the university, and open it up to all viewpoints, I am losing faith that the public conservative critics of academia are anything but mountebanks.
Nevertheless, the problem will only ever be solved if scholars in the profession, whatever their political orientation, work together with conservatives outside to address the situation. On the one side, academia should not only recognize and acknowledge that the profession has a weak spot, but work to increase support for aspiring conservative academics- scholarships for research into areas of interest for conservatism, conferences, or even interdisciplinary departments to study the history of conservative thought, and public roundtables to discuss topics of interest would help- the things we would do for any other underrepresented group in academia. A kind word of encouragement for our colleagues, regardless of their personal opinions, is always welcome in a profession that is often monastic and isolating.
In turn, conservatives need to stop sitting on the sidelines waiting for what they see as a rotten edifice to collapse of its own accord. Conservative recommendations for academic reform are often embarrassingly glib. Andrew Sullivan, for example, suggests that getting rid of tenure will make young academics more willing to challenge the status quo- because, making people functionaries who can be fired at any moment tends to increase the likelihood of them speaking truth to power. Megan McArdle’s suggestion that “what conservatives want most of all is simply recognition that they are being shut out” is probably true, but even if that happens, it doesn’t get bright young conservatives into grad school, which is where things would start to change. And David Horowitz’s “students’ bill of rights” is along the lines of a bill requiring Democratic politicians to stop beating their wives. The fundamental flippancy of these sorts of responses give the impression that the critics see this as not being not their problem to solve. But, when you’re the one trying to “raise awareness” of a problem, you do have some responsibility to take part in the solution.
Academia should call them on this. Conservatives could easily found scholarships, journals, and start encouraging young conservatives to enter the profession. For instance, we have a grad student in our department studying the response of evangelical Christians to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Why isn’t there a foundation for research into topics of interest to conservatives that he can apply to for funding? What is undergraduate education like for the conservative students who come in from day one seeing themselves as underdogs? How does this attitude undermine their intellectual self-sufficiency? Finally, haven’t conservatives studied cultural collapse for long enough to recognize the dangers to a society in which the university finds itself under attack from political parties? Historically, it’s been a short march from kicking the profs to goose-stepping. At the least, conservatives should prove that they aim at reform instead of fund raising.
Instead of dragging out the culture war until all its veterans are dead, conservatives and liberals alike could be reforming and improving academia and intellectual life as a whole in a sort of mutual effort. Academics could look at it as calling out their conservative critics and calling on them to take part in addressing those issues they raise, while liberals and conservatives alike could see it as strengthening one of the central pillars of civil society and creating a space for slow, serious thought about some of the questions that are barely answered by our political discourse. A democratic society needs to maintain a sphere that is separate from politics and the manias of the present day. The loss of that sphere is catastrophic for the culture in ways that liberals and conservatives should be able to recognize, especially today.
Now, will this mutual effort actually happen? I’m not staking any money on it.