Not for Crybabies

Ashley Thorne

The National Association of Scholars and others have long declared that the American university is deficient in something called “intellectual diversity.” Whereas academe obsesses over superficial forms of diversity (racial, ethnic, gender), we believe the university should offer a diversity of ideas. Some have borrowed the language of economics to call this the “marketplace of ideas.” We envision it as a battlefield of ideas, where competing concepts can duel it out—and may the best one win.

By “intellectual diversity,” we don’t mean that there should be even numbers of Republicans and Democrats serving on the faculty. Nor do we mean that colleges should apply some sort of affirmative action to conservatives. Balance would be nice, but imposing it would impinge on the integrity of higher education in the same way that Title IX regulations and racial preferences in hiring and admission do.

But instead of a battlefield—or for a tamer metaphor, a football league—where different ideas can compete, higher education is like an empty field with only one team and no opponents. Not much of a sport there. One missing team is the study of conservative political thought. The neglected subject is rarely taught, and when it is, it is often treated as a type of disease rather than an important political tradition.

Today Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, has a penetrating article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Taking the Right Seriously” (subscription required).  Professor Lilla introduces UC Berkeley’s new Center for the Comparative Study of Right-wing Movements, which aims to study “particular right-wing movements” that have been “pent-up for decades.” Professor Lilla notes that although Berkeley’s center leans heavily toward the disease-diagnosis attitude, at least it is an effort to study conservatism.

The unfortunate fact is that American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas, even though those ideas have utterly transformed American (and British) politics over the past 30 years. A look at the online catalogs of our major universities confirms this: plenty of courses on identity politics and postcolonialism, nary a one on conservative political thought. Professors are expected to understand the subtle differences among gay, lesbian, and transgender studies, but I would wager that few can distinguish between the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute, three think tanks that have a greater impact on Washington politics than the entire Ivy League.

Of course, as Professor Lilla points out, this is due to the academy’s emphasis on the wrong kinds of diversity:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn't matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries' books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.

Can teachers be counted on to introduce students to books from a variety of political traditions? The National Association of Scholars is planning a project to find out. We have begun a project to examine how political theory is conveyed in the American undergraduate curriculum. Stay tuned for more details in coming days.

Professor Lilla contrasts the methods of David Horowitz, whom he calls “annoying” but “embarrassingly accurate” with those of the late Professor Paul Lyons, who taught a course on American conservative thought at Richard Stockton College. Lyons, who himself espoused liberal politics, was “disturbed by how few colleges offer courses on conservatism [...] and by reports from his conservative students that ‘most of their liberal professors blow their comments off.’” His course, with a wide selection of readings by Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and Peter Viereck, got students debating the great political controversies of our time:

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...And the more the students argued, the more they came to respect one another.

Professor Lilla points to Lyons’ approach to teaching conservative thought as the pattern to follow to “get professors and students to discuss ideas and read books that until now have been relegated to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.” We agree; Lyons’ classroom embodies just the kind of grappling with big issues that college students should be practiced in.

The Chronicle article is worth reading in its entirety—as are the key works by Burke, Rand, Buckley, and Hayek. An update on our book project is coming soon.

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