The Chronicle Review

Conservatism in Academe: An Exchange

Bruce L.R. Smith and Alan Wolfe on Lilla's essay, with Lilla's response

September 11, 2009

In his essay, "Taking the Right Seriously," Mark Lilla argues that academe has treated conservative ideas with derision and that universities do not show interest in promoting true intellectual diversity.

For responses, we turned to Bruce L.R. Smith, a visiting professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, and Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College. Lilla also provides a rebuttal.

Bruce L.R. Smith: I am delighted by Mark Lilla's essay, and can find very little to quarrel with. As in his other work that I have read, Lilla's argument is lucid, penetrating, and important. But let me quibble with a few points.

Lilla states that there is not a single conservative at Columbia University. I can assure him that this is not so. In 2000, I returned to Columbia after a 20-year hiatus as a fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities. Over the next five years I renewed friendships and acquaintanceships with many colleagues (and met new ones), some of whom can fairly be called conservatives. Perhaps I will prove Lilla's point by forbearing to mention them by name, other than myself. I am, of course, a notorious reactionary, even if, alas, some of my conservative friends have read me out of the fraternity in light of my recent book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), written with Jeremy D. Mayer and A. Lee Fritschler, which is apparently not conservative enough for them. Let the record show that I was hired, given tenure, and promoted to full professor in Columbia's political-science department, even though I harbored—shudder!—conservative views. I was sometimes called names, especially during our "time of troubles" in 1968, but I never felt muzzled or uncomfortable because of my views. I didn't even feel particularly lonely.

Let me, however, mention a few well-known Columbia liberals who are "conservative" if by that term we mean someone who conserves the Columbia tradition of outspokenness and intellectual integrity. I will pass over Lilla himself, who I would certainly count as conservative in this sense. Allan Silver, a professor of sociology and a New Deal liberal, is a stalwart defender of the core curriculum, a proponent of returning ROTC to campus, and an uncompromising foe of ethnic, racial, and gender preferences. Alan Brinkley, provost and a professor of history who has written brilliantly about American conservatism, is someone to whom conservative graduate students gravitate. Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist whom I suppose would be considered a liberal, has nevertheless engaged in ferocious debates with his colleagues Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs in defense of globalization, and in my view clearly has the better argument. One can be culturally conservative while being politically liberal. The liberals I mentioned above are the Tories of higher education, defending academe's basic values against the blight of political correctness.

Lilla rightly notes that many students are somewhat more conservative than their professors, but he fails to draw out the full implications of that observation. Students do not arrive at college with minds like blank sheets. They come with the values they formed earlier in life, and for the most part they leave college with those same values. Students tend to avoid classes from professors they regard as tendentious or biased, and are canny enough to know when a teacher is saying something worthwhile and learned, and when not. Those few academics who consider it their duty to convert students to the right (i.e., left) way of thinking practice a poor pedagogy, and are remarkably unsuccessful in this quest.

The problem facing American universities is not just that conservative views are underrepresented, but that virtually all serious political discussion is lacking on campuses. Professors flee from politics because they, like other Americans, dislike conflict and because they consider policy debates to be journalistic, unscholarly, and unlikely to lead to academic rewards. I certainly don't want overt partisanship or a shallow leftism to suffocate the intellectual atmosphere on campuses like a radon gas. What I do want is a serious debate, in and out of the classroom, of the classic questions of political theory and constitutional order. The core curriculum, I think, does the job rather well.

Alan Wolfe: I would not go as far as Mark Lilla. "American academics have until recently shown little curiosity about conservative ideas," he writes, but everything depends on what is meant by "little." My own department has decidedly conservative tendencies. Conservatives such as Eugene D. Genovese and Stephan Thernstrom wrote pathbreaking works of history in recent years. Influential conservative intellectual movements such as "law and economics" came to the courts via America's law schools. Lilla's own intellectual interests overlap with those of Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. There is more intellectual diversity on American campuses, taken as a whole, than Lilla acknowledges.

Still, there is not nearly enough, and on the larger points he tries to make, Lilla is correct. The academic world suffers from too many people trying to hire people too much like themselves. We simply do not give intellectual diversity a high priority in academe, and intellectual life suffers as a result.

Interestingly enough, the effects can be found among the few conservatives in academe as well as among the many more liberals and leftists. When conservatives do congregate on campus, they tend to view themselves as an embattled—and therefore embittered—minority. Although articulate critics of political correctness and identity politics, they make claims on behalf of their own group that are intellectually indistinguishable from those they spend too much time criticizing. Look at all the discrimination directed against us, they howl. We have rights, too. Without ever quite saying so, their arguments on behalf of a politics of recognition for conservatism come a bit too close for their own comfort to the arguments that liberals make for affirmative action.

The resulting conservative sectarianism and sense of victimization hardly make for a pluralistic politics. Conservatives publish in their own journals, hold their own conferences, cite one another's work, and speak in their own jargon. Liberalism would be strengthened by greater engagement with conservatism, but the reverse is also true. Conservatives could use less financing from their own foundations and more engagement with publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I was intrigued by Lilla's discovery of the late Paul Lyons, and not only because Paul's widow, Mary Hardwick, was the most beautiful student in my graduating class at Temple University, more than 40 years ago. Like Paul, with whom I shared a host of e-mail exchanges, I want my students, many of whom are instinctive moral individualists, to think more deeply about their obligations to others, something that conservatives—the more libertarian among them excluded—are usually better aware of then liberals. I only wish Paul were around to see such public praise for his work.

Mark Lilla: Bruce Smith and Alan Wolfe are right that there are important "conservative tendencies" on campuses and in the faculties of major American universities, especially in the professional schools (law and business) and the so-called hard social sciences (economics and its autistic cousin, rational-choice theory). And there are conservative and conservative-friendly historians, too, which is all to the good.

But I had something else in mind, which is the study of conservative political ideas as ideas. And here, I guess, I'm showing my déformation professionnelle as a student of political theory. What's lacking, I feel (and the late Paul Lyons with me), is recognition that conservative ideas are not symptoms of something allegedly "deeper"—ignorance, fear, selfishness, maladjustment—but reflections of a certain way of looking at the human condition. There is a serious intellectual tradition here that deserves study, not for affirmative-action reasons but because it includes ideas that might have something to teach us about political life—or, to speak in a very old-fashioned way, because some of them might be true. (Like Wolfe, conservative sectarianism drives me mad, and I agree that the "politics of recognition" has no place in the university.)

I'm glad Smith got tenure easily, though I gather that was before the trench warfare of the 80s. Things are not so easy now, certainly in the humanities but even in the so-called soft social sciences. People do get informally muzzled until they get tenure, as Lyons notes when speaking of his "stealth" conservative colleague. In itself, that's not such a big deal; intellectual life is not for crybabies. (Note to deans and provosts: Engrave that on your office door.) What really matters is the kind of education our students get.

Smith has co-written a book about ideology on campuses, which I haven't read, but his remarks that "students tend to avoid classes from professors they regard as tendentious or biased" and that "those few academics who consider it their duty to convert students to the right (i.e., left) way of thinking … are remarkably unsuccessful in this quest" seem to me beside the point, even if true. Ideology doesn't work that way, and its effects can't be measured by asking people whether they perceive it. Marxists were right: Ideology normalizes something arbitrary. Because of the left-liberal consensus in our major universities, we've defined diversity down and simply don't notice that a historically important voice in our intellectual and political tradition isn't being heard. That's not good for anyone.