Nicholas Kristoff is once again raising the issue of whether academia discriminates against conservatives. Since I go on basically the same rant every time this topic comes up, I thought I’d better place the rant in a central location and save myself some time.
I find this conversation frustrating every time it happens, for several reasons, the main one being that “conservative” is almost as hopeless of a descriptor as “liberal.” It can mean not only different things, but diametrically opposed things.
Which “conservatism” is being repressed from academia? Certainly not the flavor of conservatism that uncritically celebrates markets or finds ways to blame the effects of inequality on personal failings. That’s dominant in academia—in business schools, econ, etc. Most of all, it’s dominant among the people who sign our checks. It’s less well-represented in humanities departments simply because the value of the humanities is more or less unintelligible from within the terms of that worldview. It’d be like trying to join the clergy when you don’t believe in God (though that’s happened too!).
The various traditionalist conservatisms have a lot more to offer the humanities. I profit from reading Samuel Johnson, Hugh Kenner, John Ruskin (though he was a hypocrite and pedophile), Wendell Berry, on all sorts of issues, even when fundamentally disagreeing with them. But the more you believe that education, or exposure to other ways of life, or cosmopolitan places and values is in and of itself a ruinous kind of deracination, the more your fundamental commitments are going to be in tension with any kind of job at a secular university, or even at a religious university insofar as that university does anything besides indoctrinate. If people are better off just listening to grandpa and pastor, it’s hard to say what use universities are.
So, basically, how much I want conservatives to be better represented in academia depends on which of the million meanings of that word is relevant in a particular case. Yes, it makes me mad that my thoughtful and compassionate Burkean friend feels (accurately or not) that he’ll never be able to get a job in the professoriate. On the other hand, no, I don’t want more climate change deniers in academia. That position is horseshit and people only seriously argue it when you pay them to. No, I don’t want more slavery apologists in history departments. No, I don’t want people who lie about the extent and cruelty of the British Empire teaching history. This is as much as to say “I don’t want more liars to get paid for lying.”
Or, there’s this: William F. Buckley is considered the founder of “modern” conservatism. His career basically started with a call for a) the Ivies to be purged of left and liberal faculty and b) universities to explicitly devote themselves to teaching whatever the billionaires funding them want taught. (Basically, as I understand it, he wanted universities to operate more or less as think tanks do—Heritage’s donors want certain conclusions reached; so do those of the Center for American Progress; those conclusions are duly reached. Sounds like an awful way to live, but whatever.) No, I don’t want as my colleague a person whose understanding of intellectual life is basically prostitution.
Or, there’s this: In humanities departments, a “conservative position” has often been indistinguishable from “a position that dismisses intellectual curiosity wholesale when applied to the Wrong Subject.” The wrong subject, yes, usually has dark skin and/or a vagina (whether born-with or newly-built). Ishmael Reed has called the refusal to even look at black literature by its right name: anti-intellectualism. That’s all it is. So is the refusal to admit that it might be worthwhile to know something about how black children came into the world during the nineteenth century. A conservative journalist lost her job at Chronicle of Higher Education for that refusal. I’m damn glad she did. If you think curiosity about humans is stupid, you really have no place in the humanities.
There are probably other varieties of conservatism I’m overlooking. Then there are beliefs that get labeled “conservative” for weird and eccentric reasons. I’ve been accused of conservatism, hilariously enough, because I’m not a relativist; because I think old books are worth reading too; because I use the word “beautiful” unironically; because I hold to a high Christology; because I think human rights are real; because I think the anti-humanism that prevails in pop-scientific writing is stupid and incoherent and will have evil outcomes; because I hate a lot of the Age of Theory writers and I hate the dumbed-down, soundbite versions of them that constrain the allowable conversations within English departments even more. Also, I just a couple of paragraphs used “prostitution” pejoratively, which puts me at odds with a whole wing of the modern left. (Note: I think sex work should be legal and union-protected, and its stigma redistributed to its consumers. Which, given the mainstreaming of porn, is much of the society, at one time or another. There are a lot of things I wish we humans didn’t do that I don’t want anyone put in jail or publicly mocked for.)
My point is, when we talk about the question “are conservatives oppressed in academia?”, we could mean anything from “Should we hire more slavery apologists in history departments” to “Should we hire more philosophers who argue seriously for the existence of the soul” to “Should Alan Jacobs be able to get a job wherever the hell he wants” to “Should aesthetics matter in English departments.” (If anyone’s wondering, my answers to those questions are No; Yes; Yes, That Guy is Brilliant and I’ve Heard He’s Dynamite in the Classroom; and Yes, There Should Be Room For Aesthetic Considerations In the Study of Literature, But Maybe Actually Check Whether Women and POC and Third World Writers AreDoing Beautiful Work Before You Laugh Them Off the Syllabus.)
No good can come of acting like those are all the same question.