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December 13, 2010

On Teaching Conservatism

By Jonathan B. Imber

hanks.bmpOne consistent challenge in teaching is remembering how little students really know and how much they think they know. This is not a putdown of students. On the contrary, it is a celebration of optimism in the best sense of the word, the same optimism that was supposed to have inspired Winston Churchill to observe: "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains." Apparently Churchill may have never said this, the original formulation about youth and optimism, and age and realism, being attributed to one of Alexis de Tocqueville's mentors, the historian and political intellectual, Francois Guizot (1787-1874) who concluded that "Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head." French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), is said to have restated Guizot's aphorism: "Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head."

I cannot verify any of these aphorisms attributed to these important figures, but in one way it does not matter because all three speak to a common wisdom about youth and maturity with which most are familiar both in theory and in practice. One of the first lessons of conservatism is to observe how so much of what is familiar to us is not learned in school but rather in growing up in the worlds we live in day to day. Teaching students about the great intellectual tradition of conservatism in a liberal arts college in the northeast has been a personal and pedagogic mission for me for the past decade. If you ask me whether I am "a conservative" or whether I am "conservative" I will insist on at least an hour to explain myself. I ask students whether or not it matters that I profess a conviction about being conservative or being a conservative in order to understand conservatism. By professing to be conservative, does it mean that you automatically assume to know my opinions on everything from abortion to welfare policy, if I even have such opinions? Does it mean my teaching of the subject must inevitably be "biased," a term that has been wielded by both left and right against each other?

Or does it mean that I have a fiduciary responsibility, as a teacher, to present as best I can what those who profess to be conservative understand by that idea? Does it mean that you may learn something less about me than through me about what conservatism professes and how conservatives think? The first day of class I explain that I am a registered Republican (which remains an astonishing confession to more than a few of my colleagues), and I emphasize that my political opinions have been deeply informed by what I read. I tell the students that they have arrived in my classroom not to be turned into conservatives but to understand the relationship between their already developing convictions and what they read. If those convictions are "conservative" or "liberal" my aim is to strengthen both. Whether or not I believe conservatism is superior to liberalism or liberalism to conservatism, the second lesson to remember in my classroom is that disagreement is a good thing, especially when it is founded on principles and facts, neither of which points us always in the same direction in any sure way.

Where I teach, there are all sorts of pontificators among my colleagues, most of whom have quite obviously never studied carefully the principles or facts they denounce or embrace. They have opinions, even though many of them express them as if they were pious convictions guiding not only their own souls but meant to guide others' souls as well. They are ideologues, although they would be hard pressed to see obstinate opinion as antithetical to the mission of teaching students.

Marxism, Anarchism and Fundamentalism

The course I teach, as far as I know, is unique in the listings of course offerings in sociology departments in the United States. A course such as this, with a different title, might be found more abundantly in political science curricula, but my empirical intuition is that even in this Marxism, Anarchism and Fundamentalism case, "conservatism" would be compared with other perspectives. A course at my college in another department is entitled, "Politics of the Right, Left, and Center." Another course is entitled, "Marxism, Anarchism and Fundamentalism." The point is that a seminar on Edmund Burke would probably have less relevance to the interests and training of my esteemed colleagues, and so as a compensatory act, I have taught a small seminar, often including students who major in political science, that at least affords the opportunity, if not as substantial as I would like, for students to sample a greatly neglected tradition in the liberal arts. (The syllabus can be accessed here.

oakeshott.jpgThe sociological approach in particular to conservatism is a work in progress. But I would readily acknowledge that once we have moved our way through Edmund Burke, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, J.S. Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen (together), W.H. Mallock, William Graham Sumner, and thus the early history of conservatism, I impress on students that even more important than that history, at least for a sociologist, is what should be called the disposition or attitude of conservatism. Here the famous address "On Being Conservative" , delivered by Michael Oakeshott at the University of Swansea in 1956, serves as the centerpiece of the course, between history and our present cultural state of mind. In my judgment Oakeshott is the greatest phenomenologist of the conservative disposition to have ever thought his way through the implications of "being conservative." It turns out that students readily see in Oakeshott's discussion of friendship, in particular, many of the qualities of the conservative disposition. Facebook to the contrary, friendship is for Oakeshott the absence of any desire to change or to improve it. There is something strange about the idea of "long lost friends," not that exceptions do not occur, but consider the film Cast Away, in which Tom Hanks, having been "lost, bewildered, or shipwrecked" (in his case all three), the most devastating thing of all upon his return home was the change in affection he was to suffer. The love and affection had not diminished, but they could no longer bind him to his former love, having been surpassed by an even more important commitment that ultimately defines the enduring nature of true friendship. The conservative disposition about marriage is that the friendship that defines it is the greatest affection of all, the one binding certainty that has been described by others as the non-contractual aspects of contract. The systemic confusions that modern defenders of divorce cultivate to argue their case about so many types of grievance arise in league with the belief that contracts only mean what they say. The conservative defense of marriage opposed by those who belittle "family values" is considered more creedal and doctrinaire than an argument for a particular disposition that marriage must nurture in order to last. Oakeshott proposes in his reflections a way to enact a conservative disposition quite apart from creed and doctrine. Of course, some of my students may come from family circumstances where divorce and worse have been part of their experience. Reading Oakeshott alerts them to possible ways of understanding personal strengths and weaknesses that had been taught to them already by experience and reinforced by education, only to be reevaluated and reconsidered by the acts of reading and thinking. They leave Oakeshott aware that they are, in fact, "conservative" in many ways and quite delighted to be, regardless of how they vote.

Considering Multicultural Conservatism

But you see the problem. Am I a missionary of one kind or another? Is teaching "Marxism, Anarchism, and Fundamentalism" a testament to education, while "The Sociology of Conservatism" a form of indoctrination? The playing field is never flat and arrogance and self-serving rhetoric never in short supply. The challenge of contemporary conservatism is to my mind the same as contemporary liberalism: both suffer from an ideological form of over-compensation that pits one against the other not only on the floor of the House of Representatives but in many domains outside and beyond politics. I am not speaking about partisanship. Thank goodness for partisanship. I refer instead to collegiality. The painful truth is that collegiality is overrated today, called upon to mask the severity of differences of opinion about the true purposes of education, and higher education in particular.

madison.jpgPart of the problem arises in the view often expressed by liberals that conservatism is one thing only. But they have not read Robert Nisbet's important essay distinguishing libertarianism from moral conservatism. They have not learned the history of movements within conservatism that distinguish among paleo-conservatives, neo-conservatives, crunchy-conservatives, among others. For liberal ideologues, to imagine diversity in conservatism is to imagine nothing of the kind. The late Paul Lyons, author of American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, received attention posthumously for his admirable effort to teach his students about conservatism, despite his objections to what he imagined had become the values of mainstream conservatism to which he strongly took exception. He carried from his liberal faith the sort of utopian hopes for conservatism that enabled him to believe it could get things right, straighten out, return to first principles, as it were. His mistake was to assume conservatism is first and foremost an ideology, something the liberal ideologue insists it must be. Lyons imagined the possibility of not only a real tradition of conservative thought but also a responsibility to speak to it in its own terms rather than the terms of those who oppose it. His effort was unusual given his convictions. That he should receive so much praise is something of a giveaway about just how unusual such efforts are, confirming something lamentable about the present state of our institutions of higher education.

Even a cursory reading (which my course for want of time cannot cover) of the great works on the idea of the university, by such diverse figures as John Cardinal Newman, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Karl Jaspers, John Sparrow, and J.M. Cameron, would lead to the conclusion that the mission of the university is a long-contested idea. The evolution of the arguments along this line reveals how long ago it was that faculty believed in canons (a deeply conservative idea) and how much improved they believe their mission has become by having greater freedom to teach what they want. At the same time, the impact of identity politics on the balkanization of disciplines and fields has made it much more difficult to teach students about the wide range of ideas in the world at the very moment that so much chatter exists about globalization.

The difficulty is not caused by ignorance but rather by the disposition that discounts and distorts the past, and calls conformity "conservative" while demanding such conformity in the realm of thought and argument. Collegiality cannot compensate for the deficit caused by what rightly should be called the liberal disposition, far more creedal and doctrinaire in its implications than the conservative disposition could ever be. I occasionally remind my colleagues in sociology about an incident that occurred at an annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1990s. In the book exhibit room, several women from a local right-to-life chapter set up a booth to distribute their pamphlets. They had purchased the space beforehand, apparently with the blessings of the powers-that-be. For some part of the time, several sociologists and their graduate students conducted a sit-in at the foot of the exhibit, making their point by making it impossible for anyone to visit the booth. I remarked that the right-to-life movement was in the vernacular of sociology, a social movement. The right-to-lifers were activists. Isn't that a cherished part of the sociological mission, I asked, to encourage activism?

Some Unconventional Ideas About Conservatism

burke.jpgThe liberal disposition encourages "approved" activism. In my course, I ask students to explore unconventional ideas about conservatism. They read a book, perhaps the only survey thus far of its kind, about what its brave author, Angela Dillard, calls multicultural conservatism. Who are these black and gay and Hispanic and women conservatives? What do they profess? Dillard is not without strong presumptions that something is peculiar about such people and their convictions, but she is fair-minded enough to give them their due, at least mostly. Against the consciousness that would dismiss these apostates out of hand, my students see something of the curse and blessing of identity politics. I do not see a world very soon called "post-racial," if only because the "black" in black conservatism draws from a debate among African Americans as much as it does between them and the rest of the world. Those determined to get us to the post-racial world forget that the world before it cannot be so easily forgotten, nor should it be. The question is how that world narrative will be authored in decades, indeed, centuries to come. Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele may be tokens to liberal whites today, but they are, I believe, the authors of that future narrative more than their liberal counterparts who are mired in a conformity that now dominates much of higher education.

Giving multicultural conservatives their due enables students to ask that if convictions, beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions are color-blind then why do some contend that our teachers must look like us to be able to teach us? Must I be a believing Christian to teach the theology of Karl Barth? Is not the central mission of the university a commitment to the transcendence of time and place and person, creating a world in which the last thing I want to know is what you believe but rather what you think. Whenever we read a great text, our aim is not to believe it but to think as the great writer of that text thought, to become the only thinking and living Burke or Tocqueville. They are dead and gone and could, I reckon, care less whether or not we agree with them. The exercise is more sublime than that. And so is teaching conservatism.
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Jonathan B. Imber has taught at Wellesley College for the past twenty-nine years. He is Editor-in-Chief of Society.



Comments (2)

I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. I don't know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you are not already ;) Cheers!

Anna Scofield:

Thank you for your post. It was interesting and compelling. I discovered my way here through Google and I am going to come back more. :)

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