Monday, September 14, 2009

Mark Lilla on the Precarious Position of Conservative Thought in Universities

What are universities for? Indoctrination or debate? The Medieval universities, from which all Western universities and their non-Western descendents have come, were not unitary entities but rather more like Parliaments with parties engaged in constant debate. A university that embraces one philosophical position, like Marxist-Leninism in the Soviet universities, deviates from the mainstream tradition of what a university is. Modern, Western universities have likewise become places where it "political correctness" has become a commonplace. Yawn . . . But behind this seemingly innocuous phrase lies a committment to a set of first principles that is every bit as narrow and exclusionary as Islam or Marxist-Leninism.

The Medieval university was not even exclusively Christian, although it was wholly compatible with, and even an outgrowth of, Christianity. The medieval university embraced classical Greek and Roman learning and, in time, also engaged the Islamic world in debate as well. St. Thomas Aquinas was preoccupied with debating Muslim philosophers and theologians, as well as with integrating the best insights of Aristotle into Christian theology. This openness to various traditions of thought was a consequence of the Medieval university's belief in and committment to truth. If there is such a thing as truth (and Medieval European man believed there was) then only a fool would not want to find it, embrace and study it.

All this is background to Mark Lilla's recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Taking the Right Seriously," in which he reflects on the recent establishment of the "Center for the Comparative Study of Right-wing Movements" at the University of California, Berkeley. This new endeavour is housed in the Institute for the Study of Social Change, which is described online as "as an institution placing "issues of race, gender, and class at the center of the agenda," conducting "research with a conscience," and capitalizing on "Berkeley's history as the birthplace of transformative social movements." Lilla elaborates: "Needless to say, the center is not promoting conservatism. This is, as the university reminds us, Berkeley." Indeed.

Lilla, who claims that it has been over two decades since he could describe himself as any sort of conservative, reflects on the meaning of this development. He freely admits that student bodies are more conservative than university faculties in American universities and that conservative professors have a very difficult time getting hired and tenured. On David Horowitz's claim to this effect he says: "Horowitz is an annoying man, and what's most annoying about him is that … he has a point." Lilla says that he cannot think of a single prominent conservative faculty member at his university (Columbia).

After a few anecdotes in support of his assertion, Lilla considers a book written by the late Paul Lyons, a liberal historian who decided to design and teach a course on conservative political thought and keep a diary as he taught it. He then wrote American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It (Vanderbilt University Press). Lilla describes this diary as follows:

"The diary is fascinating and reassuring, at least about our students.
Lyons's class was split almost evenly between liberal and conservative students,
who had no trouble arguing with each other. They seemed to understand what
thin-skinned professors wish to forget: that intellectual engagement is not for
crybabies. The students had loud debates over Reagan's legacy, Bush's foreign
policy, religious freedom, abortion, even the "war on Christmas"—and nobody
broke into tears or ran to the dean to complain. And the more the students
argued, the more they came to respect one another. According to Lyons, students
learned that that conservative guy was no longer just the predictable gun nut or
religious fanatic. And the conservative students learned that they had to make
real arguments, not rely on clichés and sound bites recycled from Fox

There were many surprises as the students examined the history of
conservatism. The biggest one, for both Lyons and me, was how attractive all the
students found Whittaker Chambers and how much they enjoyed his cold-war memoir, Witness. Who knew? If anything, the liberal students were more enthusiastic because they saw Chambers as an idealist participating in a cosmic battle between good and evil, which is how they saw themselves. Apparently it never
occurred to them that conservatives, too, could be idealists. Even Lyons caught
the bug, admitting that before reading Witness he had considered Chambers a
"degenerate," but now saw him as a "compelling if sad figure." It turns out a
book can change your mind. Again, who knew?"

Then, Lilla practically gives an altar call:

"The course was wide-ranging and gave the students a good sense of the various
strands of conservatism. They read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek,
Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others, including
Lyons's personal favorite, Peter Viereck. (Now, answer honestly, dear reader of
The Chronicle Review: How many of these authors have you yourself read?)"

Lilla even has a tear-jerker of an illustration.

"Lyons also invited to class a young colleague, who had recently won tenure
and was rumored to be a conservative, to talk about living as an ideological
minority in the university. She told them how hard it had been and why she had
kept her politics hidden until she got tenure. Apparently she had had a sharp
political argument with one of her senior colleagues shortly after she was
hired, and he told her that unless she moderated her ideological views, she
would never get tenure. Whether this was a prediction or a threat was unclear,
so she took a vow of silence. Lyons was appalled.

Paul Lyons clearly loved his students and must have been a wonderful teacher. We
should be grateful for his modest book, which has lessons for everyone. It
reminds liberal academics of just how narrow-minded and conservative (in the
nonpolitical sense) they are in their hiring and teaching, and how much they
have to learn if they want to understand the political world we live in."

Lilla preaches a great sermon in this article and his call for conservative thought to be taught seriously and its best thinkers read carefully is one that might do more for American civility and communication between people of different philosophical and religious convictions than almost anything else I could imagine. If liberals ever thought precisely about what conservatism is and how the various kinds relate to each other and to liberalism and socialism, it would lower the heat and improve the lighting immensely. (And it might even lead to the abandonment of that simplistic term "Right-wing" in the title of the Berkeley Center. That term might have its uses, but in the name of an academic center it is a bit of an embarassment.) It might surprise liberals that many conservatives understand liberalism and socialism much better (even if imperfectly) than liberals and socialists understand conservatives. Who knows? It might even inspire universities to hire a few conservatives and let them speak openly in the debates of the day. Dangerous as that might seem, it would be compatible with the original mission of the university.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a stimulating post and for pointing the way to Lyons' book, which looks fascinating.

I have recently concluded, to my own embarrassment, that I understand conservative thought very crudely and inadequately. It has been thanks to interactions with some friends from church (over Facebook, of all things) that I've been forced to really engage intellectually with viewpoints to which I have a visceral reaction of repugnance. For the first time in my life, I'm reading (e.g.) Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.

While I will still find conservative kvetching about some kind of cultural-elite hegemony irritating at best, I have to admit that in my own case the horizons I inherited from my mass media and university and grad school were sadly narrow.

Craig Carter said...

I too just read The Road to Serfdom this summer and I found it lucid and that it contains some arguments that are so logical that I don't see how anyone can refute them.

Hayek, of course, is a classical liberal (which makes him a conservative in 20th century terms) and so he is still too much a product of the Enlightenment for me when it comes to his prescriptions. But his critique of socialism is powerful. I wonder if anyone who has actually read him with an open mind can actually answer his critique. I get the feeling a lot of people recognize his name as one of those "dreaded conservatives" but have never felt it necesary actually read him for themselves. I commend you for doing so.