Peter Berkowitz, a political philosopher who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has an excellent short opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, "Conservatism and the University Curriculum," for which the title of this post is the subtitle. Berkowitz is an extraordinarily gifted thinker and writer, and this short piece is well worth reading by academics of any political persuasion, in thinking about the proper formation of the university curriculum:
Political science departments are generally divided into the subfields of American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Conservative ideas are relevant in all four, but the obvious areas within the political science discipline to teach about the great tradition of conservative ideas and thinkers are American politics and political theory. That rarely happens today.
To be sure, a political science department may feature a course on American political thought that includes a few papers from "The Federalist" and some chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."
But most students will hear next to nothing about the conservative tradition in American politics that stretches from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to William F. Buckley Jr. to Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan. This tradition emphasizes moral and intellectual excellence, worries that democratic practices and egalitarian norms will threaten individual liberty, attends to the claims of religion and the role it can play in educating citizens for liberty, and provides both a vigorous defense of free-market capitalism and a powerful critique of capitalism's relentless overturning of established ways. It also recognized early that communism represented an implacable enemy of freedom. And for 30 years it has been animated by a fascinating quarrel between traditionalists, libertarians and neoconservatives.
While ignoring the intricacies - no doubt not all of them debates for the ages - of the debates within conservative and libertarian and neoconservative thought, the academy has no difficulty accommodating the intellectual interests and political commitments of its members on the progressive side of the political spectrum:
While ignoring conservatism, the political theory subfield regularly offers specialized courses in liberal theory and democratic theory; African-American political thought and feminist political theory; the social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school; and numerous versions of postmodern political theory.
But the most important point of this op-ed is Berkowitz's attack on the natural, deeply instinctive response of the academy when pushed to address the lack of attention to a deeply important intellectual structure ... you conservatives must want some affirmative action of your own, a few token conservatives who self-identify as conservatives, some conservative identity politics to satisfy a particular interest group constituency ... we know all about this, we can negotiate something:
When progressives, who dominate the academy, confront arguments about the need for the curriculum to give greater attention to conservative ideas, they often hear them as a demand for affirmative action. Usually they mishear. Certainly affirmative action for conservatives is a terrible idea.
Political science departments should not seek out professors with conservative political opinions. Nor should they lower scholarly standards. That approach would embrace the very assumption that has corrupted liberal education: that to study and teach particular political ideas one's identity is more important than the breadth and depth of one's knowledge and the rigor of one's thinking
One need not be a Puritan to study and teach colonial American religious thought, an ancient Israelite to study and teach biblical thought, or a conservative or Republican to study and teach conservative ideas. Affirmative action in university hiring for political conservatives should be firmly rejected, certainly by conservatives and defenders of liberal education.
To be sure, if political science departments were compelled to hire competent scholars to offer courses on conservative ideas and conservative thinkers, the result would be more faculty positions filled by political conservatives, since they and not progressives tend to take an interest in studying conservative thought. But there is no reason why scholars with progressive political opinions and who belong to the Democratic Party can not, out of a desire to understand American political history and modern political philosophy, study and teach conservatism in accordance with high intellectual standards. It would be good if they did.
I suppose I count as a libertarian conservative of some vague stripe. It strikes me as a weird label, because only within the bowels of the academy do I think my political views would be counted as "conservative" in any real sense, or even libertarian. More to the point, I am not especially political; I'm interested in policy and ideas, and don't have much of a sense of politics, even while residing in DC. The politicization of everyday life by the socio-economic-professional-New Class I hang out with - the tendency, for example, to twitter one's fleeting political thoughts twenty times a day, or to Make Political Statements with status updates on Facebook a couple of times a day - strikes me as somewhere between bizarre and pathological. Or, worse, trivial - merely the identification of professional sports. I understand it if it's sports; I don't understand it at all if it's politics.
Yet within an academic institution, I find myself treated as "conservative" - either to recoil from in faint horror, with a certain advice to students, well, if you take him, you have to know what you're getting, or with a certain faint institutional pride that we're broad-minded enough to have someone like him, which is to say, there is nothing an academic institution cannot praise itself for if it tries hard enough. I've had conversations - earnest, well-intentioned - that amounted to saying, "We're so glad you're our token conservative."
There are institutions that have admirably managed to avoid either the "affirmative action for conservatives" syndrome or the 'let's just avoid them altogether' approach. Harvard Law School is one of them - Elena Kagan had a deep understanding of what it takes to build a genuinely eclectic intellectual community, and I am certain that Martha Minow - mazeltov! - as the new Dean feels the same way. Harvard is unusual that way, among top schools; it is not a club of the like-minded, and among the top law schools where I have any personal knowledge, it has a vibrant intellectual culture that does not receive that accolades it deserves. But there's a reason why not - that kind of vibrant culture that reaches widely across political and policy views is not as much admired as one might have hoped. HLS doesn't receive the praise for the variegation of its intellectual culture that one might have anticipated because its peers don't necessarily think HLS does well, or more precisely, does itself any good, to promote it.
But across much of the rest of the academy, Berkowitz is right - and right about the intellectual risk posed by the instinctive response of an academic community defined by identity politics - "Oh, we get it, we need to have one of those."
(Thanks Instapundit for the link, and welcome Instapunditeers.)