Are Conservative Academics Stuck in a Blind Alley?

Peter Wood

Peter Wood's article was originally published on Minding the Campus, in response to an article by Samuel Goldman also on Minding the Campus, in which he criticized NAS's recent Bowdoin report.

Samuel Goldman seeks to distinguish the small and marginal subset "conservative defenders of liberal education" from other kinds of conservatives. He places these poor folks "in a blind alley." They are, he says, at odds both with "potential allies outside the conservative movement" and with the conservative movement itself, which finds its center of gravity in something other than the preservation of civilization. He then offers friendly advice as to how we conservative defenders of liberal education can find an exit from that alley. Make friends, he says, with people who are not political conservatives but who "take pride in their status as conservators of a cultural inheritance."

I take it by "conservative defenders of liberal education" he means folks like the members of the National Association of Scholars. Good advice, but as it happens, we are already there and have been for the last 25 years. A sizable portion of the NAS membership is made up of people who are registered Democrats. Some of our board members, some of our prominent donors, and some of the scholars who write for our journal Academic Questions emphatically identify themselves as "liberal," and by that they do not mean libertarian. And NAS tirelessly explains to those in the media who insist we are a "conservative" organization that, no, we are an organization that focuses squarely on improving American higher education by advocating for the continuing relevance of reasoned inquiry, the pursuit of truth, and the centrality of Western civilization. We never defined those as "conservative" principles. And in fact they are not. They appeal to some conservatives, which is great. But they also appeal to some liberals, which is also great. 

In short, Mr. Goldman's proposed exit from the blind alley happens to be our front door. Only he doesn't see it that way. Instead he has cast NAS as one of the bogeymen and has mischaracterized our recent report, What Does Bowdoin Teach? as Exhibit A in what conservatives are doing wrong. The report's intentions are "laudable" but "it reads like a jeremiad against every change in higher education since the 1960s and does not give adequate credit to the professors and students there who devote themselves to teaching and learning many of the same subjects and sources as their predecessors."

It is hard to believe that anyone who has delved into the report has discerned there a "jeremiad." The original Jeremiah said that "The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron"--and that was on one of his sunnier days. The voice of the NAS report is typified by this: "At the level of course offerings in the 2011-2012 academic year, the Bowdoin curriculum looks very much like a standard liberal arts college curriculum." We don't call out Bowdoin's "sins" and what we write is with a pen of erasable ink and a readiness to correct any errors that readers may spot.

Far from being the same old, same old conservative diatribe, What Does Bowdoin Teach? is something new under the sun: a deeply contextual, dispassionate, and reasonably comprehensive examination of the whole of one college's effort to educate its students, in the classroom, in the dorms, and in every other campus context.

The upshot of this is that we have attracted quite a few readers from outside the precincts of self-proclaimed conservatives. I just returned from a speaking invitation at Williams College, where the report hit a resonant chord. I've also heard (positively) from readers at other colleges that number among Bowdoin's peer institutions, including Amherst, Middlebury, and Mt. Holyoke. One of the senior professors at Bowdoin published a letter in the Bowdoin student newspaper in which she says much of the report is "spot on."

Mr. Goldman, on the other hand, seems to be making a sub-specialization of taking issue with the report. This is his third go, and on each occasion he has cast the report as a "conservative" critique, though the report itself isn't presented as that. It addresses Bowdoin's lack of conservative faculty members and poor representation of conservative views, but there is a difference in writing about a point of view and espousing that view. None of Mr. Goldman's forget-me-nots, incidentally, provides any evidence that he has actually read the report. Maybe he is saving that for part four.

Mr. Goldman appears not to be very good in spotting those who are, more or less, already on his side. But let me hasten to add, it is a complicated side to be on. The NAS promotes the study of enduring works of philosophy, literature, science, and history; but not because we fetishize the "Great Books" or think that time-tested works all say the same thing. Rather, we favor the hard work of understanding how and why major thinkers disagreed and how from their disagreements emerged a tough-minded tradition of critical inquiry. Liberal education, taken seriously, has a lot of work to do, especially with 18- to 22-year-olds who in many cases arrive at college with a poorer command of the essentials than was typical of students in years past.

The trouble we diagnose in What Does Bowdoin Teach? is that the term and even the concept of "liberal education" has been hollowed out. A curriculum that has few requirements and no coherent structure is not "liberal education," especially if it is overlaid by dogmas that are held exempt from critical scrutiny such as the need to promote carbon neutrality, gay marriage, and racial preferences. To take notice of this discrepancy is not to commit a jeremiad. It is to start with the simple facts. Those who want to "defend the study of Western traditions," regardless of their extra-mural political views, need to take those facts on board. Only then can we start the conversation of how to make liberal education work today. For sure, it won't work by attempting to recreate the liberal arts college of fifty years ago. We haven't called for that--though it is possible that a few of the things liberal arts colleges used to do well need to be rediscovered.

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