Times: Stanley Fish Opposes Conservative Studies

What could a chair in conservative studies teach? How to not think? Greed is good? War profiteering 101? Gas, Oil and Petroleum for Fun and Profit? The Utopian Age of the '50s? Great Speeches of George W. Bush?
More Colorado Follies

I’ve just returned from New Zealand and find that in my absence the University of Colorado – the same one that earlier this year appointed as its president a Republican fund-raiser with a B.A. in mining and no academic experience – has gifted me again, this time with the announcement of plans to raise money for a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.

Why? The answer is apparently given in the first sentence of a story that appeared in the May 13th edition of the Rocky Mountain News: “The University of Colorado is considering a $9 million program to bring high-profile conservatives to teach on the left-leaning Boulder campus.”

Embedded in this sentence is the following chain of reasoning: The University of Colorado, Boulder, is left-leaning and therefore it is appropriate to spend university funds (technically state funds) in an effort to redress a political imbalance.

Wrong on all counts. First, what does “left-leaning” mean? Does the university issue policy statements on controversial matters? Does its administration come out for gay marriage or for gun control or for reproductive rights? Does the university endorse liberal candidates, or criticize Supreme Court decisions, or contribute to Move On.org? If the answer to any of these questions were “yes,” “left-leaning” would be an accurate designation. It would also be a reason to deny the university its tax exempt status and demand that it register as a lobbyist. But of course the university does none of these things. How then does it lean left?

The answer appears a little further down in the story when it is reported that emeritus professor Ed Rozek surveyed the Boulder faculty and found that out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

So what? Why should that be more significant than finding that only 23 faculty members were left-handed or had red hair or were born in Colorado or rooted for the Yankees? Such statistics would also be evidence of an imbalance, but no one would think to spend $9 million to redress it. But it could be said that I was missing the point. While there is no correlation between being left-handed or having red hair or rooting for the Yankees and classroom performance, surely there is a correlation between political affiliation and classroom performance.

Actually, no, there isn’t. Even in courses where the materials are politically and ideologically charged, the questions that arise are academic, not political. A classroom discussion of Herbert Marcuse and Leo Strauss, for example, does not (or at least should not) have the goal of determining whether the socialist or the conservative philosopher is right about how the body politic should be organized. Rather, the (academic) goal would be to describe the positions of the two theorists, compare them, note their place in the history of political thought, trace the influences that produced them and chart their own influence on subsequent thinkers in the tradition. And a discussion of this kind could be led and guided by an instructor of any political persuasion whatsoever, and it would make no difference given that the point of the exercise was not to decide a political question but to analyze it.

The university’s spokesman, Bronson Hilliard, has said that “a good campus is always trying to find ways to add diversity of thought and scholarship.” But even if “diversity of thought” were an academic priority (and in my opinion it is not), it would have nothing to do with political diversity. The fact that you are a Democrat or a Republican or Libertarian or a Socialist or someone with no interest in politics (there are many such people) is not a predictor either of what you will teach or of how you will teach it.

If the reason for funding a chair in conservative thought and policy is to correct a political imbalance, it is not a reason any university should take seriously until there is more than anecdotal evidence that ballot-box performance tracks classroom performance. And even if it were to turn out that ballot-box performance did in fact track classroom performance, the proper remedy would be not to even out the partisan numbers, but to remind faculty members of whatever political stripe of the distinction (on which the whole rationale for higher educations rests) between political questions and academic questions.

This does not mean, however, that there is no academic case to be made for courses in conservative thought, for conservative thought, like any other form of thought, is a perfectly appropriate candidate for academic interrogation. One of the important stories of the last 45 years has been the rise and triumph of conservatism, which seemed dead in the water when Barry Goldwater was trounced by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but had grown in strength by 1968 and became the very center of American political life with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

How did that happen? Who were the principal players? What conditions were in place that allowed them to succeed? Is conservatism now on the wane? These and other questions could be explored at length in a perfectly respectable college course, and again, the political affiliation of the instructor would be irrelevant.

G.P. Peterson, the chancellor of the Boulder campus, who has been prattling on about “intellectual diversity” (always and only a stalking horse for political diversity), did have a moment when he seemed to be an academic administrator rather than a political operative. He acknowledged that the professor of conservative thought didn’t have to be an actual conservative, and pointed out that many teachers of French “aren’t necessarily French.” (Of course the analogy doesn’t work: you don’t get to choose your country of origin; you do get to choose your political beliefs.)

Taking him at his word, I hereby apply for the job. If what is wanted is someone to teach conservative political thought starting with Plato and Aristotle and hitting the highlights including Hooker, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Burke, Schmitt, Wyndham Lewis, Oakeshott, Strauss, Kirk, Bork et al , I can do that. And if the job is to teach the tradition of conservative aesthetic thought, again beginning with Plato and Aristotle and including Dante, Puttenham, Swift, Pope, Bergson, Matthew Arnold, Irving Babbitt, Eliot, Pound and Allan Bloom, I can do that, too. The only sticking point might be the salary. The suggested figure, which is supposed to include money for an assistant, is $200,000. That, I’m afraid, is pretty low-end. But then again, Boulder is a nice place.


Anonymous said...

"out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

So what? Why should that be more significant than finding that only 23 faculty members were left-handed or had red hair or were born in Colorado or rooted for the Yankees? "

Why not expand your list?
Like, if only 23 were women?
Or only 23 were straight?
Or only 23 were black?

John D. Enright said...

How 'bout this Rabbi:
1. How Not to Kill Innocent Babies 101;
2. How Not to Tax People to Death 101;
3. How Not to Foster Intrinsically Disordered Sexual Relationships 101 (Prerequisites: Moral Philosophy 101; Biology for Idiots 201);
4. How to Avoid Nanny State Post-Modernism As Engendered by Commie-Pinko-Leftist Democrats 101 (Prerequisite: Internal Collapse of Marx's Socialist Paradise 204).

Should I continue, or do you get my drift?