Fake Conservatism and the American University

Griping about how “tenured radicals” destroyed academia’s commitment to the humanist tradition is quite a tradition among pundits who consider themselves Conservative Intellectuals. As the general narrative goes, US colleges and universities were awesome until the 1960s, when left-wingers took the wheel and ruined everything, such that now our children are forced to study post-colonial queer Marxist avant-garde TV culture instead of the Great Books. The New Criterion is one of the coaling stations for this point of view. Now, to their credit, TNC publishes work by William Logan, one of the last good poetry critics in America. But to their discredit, they also publish appallingly stupid bullshit like this:

Academia is still a protected oasis—you can gauge just how protected by checking the astonishing price tag—but its signature purpose is no longer to pursue the scholarly life, to preserve and transmit to the next generation the riches of our cultural inheritance. On the contrary, colleges and universities have increasingly been subjugated to a leftist ideological agenda bent on dismantling that tradition. Anyone who speaks of “the riches of our cultural inheritance” would be shouted down as a reactionary whose views were not worth listening to. . . . They find willing accomplices in college administrators whose chief ambition is not to uphold standards of accomplishment and conduct but to appear ostentatiously enlightened.

Really? For the past thirty years American schools have replaced full-time professorships with an army of graduate-student TAs and adjuncts, even as the number of richly compensated corporate managers (er, Administrators) balloons, even as those administrators suddenly push for outsourced online courses, even as more lucre goes to amenities like gyms and football stadiums, even as the humanities have experienced the worst of the unnecessary and devastating cuts in public funding for higher education (even though, pace current mythology, the humanities fund the STEM fields), TNC claims this? This? Has their entire editorial staff undergone some terrible brain trauma? That’s their argument? That deviously powerful liberal intellectuals have rendered themselves broke and powerless so as to become . . . even more powerful?

Wonder what those traitors think about how things stand? Speaking as a college lecturer, I can assure you that it is easy to slide through four years of school without reading a long novel or learning anything about Plato or Gettysburg. So they are probably pretty happy, right? Consider one prof’s take on the situation:

“Here’s what matters: These and other treatments of grand trends insist that higher education is one of the last revered Western institutions to be ‘de-churched’; that is, it is one of the last to have its ideological justification recast in terms of corporatization and commodification and to become subject to serious state surveillance,” she writes. “Universities are no longer to lead the minds of students to grasp truth; to grapple with intellectual possibilities; to appreciate the best in art, music, and other forms of culture; and to work toward both enlightened politics and public service. Rather they are now to prepare students for jobs. They are not to educate, but to train.”

“Western institutions”? “The best in art”? Guiding young minds? Why, that sounds, uh, conservative. Unless you’re huffing glue, or not bothering to actually read what your supposed opponents are saying, TNC‘s pronouncements are tough to accept. Oops.

Granted, there are plenty of shrill leftist ideologues in academia, people who have proudly told me things like “I don’t teach white authors” (as if one couldn’t do Malcolm X and Henry Adams in the same course). But those people are not deans, regents, consultants, or chancellors. They aren’t running the show. Theirs is not, in fact, the dominant view of most of the American academics I’ve met. On the contrary, the majority of humanist scholars believe passionately in the idea of a Tradition of great texts and ideas. They might argue about who belongs to that tradition, but they are at heart Burkean conservatives, because they are committed to the crazy notion that thoughtful grown-ups should know something about literature, philosophy, history, and the arts (and math and science, for that matter).

Indeed, it is difficult to be an academic scholar without having a fundamentally conservative temperament. You might undertake a queer-feminist reading of Shakespeare or apply Edward Said’s theories to Impressionism, but you’re still writing about Shakespeare or Impressionism. Someone needs to remind TNC‘s hacks how much fucking training in the Western Tradition it takes to earn a PhD in the humanities, whatever one does with that education afterward.

The creepy corporatist mentality that has damaged American higher education so badly isn’t conservative in the true sense. Rather, it is a mode of Ayn Randian free-market fetishism that also contains a pronounced contempt for intellectual life, a contempt which emanates from the present-day Republican Party and its bleating lackeys. (As Andrew Sullivan has been arguing for years, the contemporary GOP is dominated by right-wing radicals, not actual conservatives, because actual conservatives don’t proudly reject science, deny gay citizens the right to marry their loved ones, attack long-standing institutions like Social Security, revile a private citizen’s right to make decisions about her own body, harbor imperialist fantasies, or try to stifle the will of the people.)

A blog post probably isn’t the best place to work this out, but in general I’m with Sullivan: ultimately, conservativism in the tradition of Burke is a framework for looking at the world, not a discrete collection of ideological convictions. It is a tool, not a dogma. Conservatism is about accepting the inevitability of change while managing and negotiating it within the context of a society’s cultural and political institutions. One can have progressive sympathies–like Barack Obama–and still be a philosophical conservative who constantly talks about things like fatherhood, marriage, and Enlightenment democracy (like Barack Obama).

Unfortunately, the word “conservative” is probably ruined in the United States, because most people with functional cerebral cortexes and a glancing familiarity with current events hear it and think of cheap-hearted thugs like George W. Bush and Ann Coulter. Maybe someday it will be reclaimed the way “liberal” is being reclaimed by young activists, but I doubt it. At the very least I’ll be moribund by the time it happens.

The dumbest thing about the supposedly pro-market worldview of the people who run our colleges and universities is that it licenses policies that hurt the free market. Just as the lack of a decent national health-care system stifles innovation because it discourages people from starting their own companies (ask a small-business owner how fun it is to purchase insurance on the open market), so too does gutting the budgets of universities, especially public ones, devastate the economy. It is difficult to invent, to innovate, to create, to re-imagine when you can’t get a decent education without taking out ruinous loans (if your broke-ass, standardized-test-riddled high school even prepared you for college in the first place).

And the band plays on. Stupid professors.

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One thought on “Fake Conservatism and the American University

  1. Pingback: The General Reader

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