Obama’s Win Is An Indictment of Higher Education

This morning in the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes summed
one condition of the Republican Party:

“What’s their problem? In Senate races, it’s bad candidates:
old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), Tea Party
types who can’t talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads
(Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans
(Michigan). Losers all.

“And those are just the Senate contests decided
yesterday.  In 2010, it was similar.  Republicans threw away two of
their best chances to gain seats, choosing pathetically incapable candidates in
Nevada and Delaware.” 

Indeed, conservative and libertarian teachers, writers, and
intellectuals have to wonder why the candidates they have to choose from are
precisely that, “pathetically incapable” mouthpieces who can’t talk about
controversial issues such as abortion sensibly. 

Here’s one reason why: those politicians didn’t study any
conservative thinkers in college.  When they talk, they say nothing that
suggests they have read much serious discourse on the right side of the
spectrum from Burke to Charles Murray.  Leftists have their nostrums down
pat (against racism, sexism, imperialism, economic inequality . . .), and
however dated and predictable those utterances are, liberal politicians stick
to the point and press it again and again.  Again, one reason is that they
received ample helpings of liberalism in freshman English, history, any
“studies course,” sociology, etc., reading some Marx, Foucault, Dewey, Malcolm
X, a bit of feminism here and multiculturalism there.  In school, those
future conservative politicians likely rejected those texts, but they didn’t
plunge into the other side’s corpus

It shows in the absence of depth in so many Republican
candidates.  When you hear them speak, nothing in the tradition comes
through–no Franklin on work ethic, Madison-Hamilton-Jay on power, Emerson on
self-reliance, Hawthorne on Federal employment, Thoreau on Big Government,
Booker T. Washington on individual responsibility, Willa Cather on the pioneer
spirit, and Hayek on social engineering.  This is a fatal deficiency, and
it neglects one of the strengths of conservatism (superiority in the battle of
ideas).  Worse, when conservatives don’t have the tradition in their
background, when they lose elections, they tend to look forward by examining
their relationship to the electorate instead of their relationship to first
principles and values.  Conservative candidates don’t need more political
calculation that competes with liberalism, but rather more intellectual heft
that presents a better alternative to liberalism.

It won’t happen in college, so maybe organizations such as
the Manhattan Institute should run two-week seminars for office-seekers. 
Not policy-making or campaign strategy sessions, but short courses in
conservative words and ideas.  Have them read Franklin‘s Autobiography, Washington’s
Up from Slavery, and Cather’s O Pioneers!  Let them know,
too, that while we all await the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, one way Reagan
thrived in politics is by withdrawing for a time and reading Hayek and Friedman
carefully, soberly, far from the madding crowd.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

    View all posts

13 thoughts on “Obama’s Win Is An Indictment of Higher Education

  1. I agree with the author concerning the lack of conservative tradition and ideals among Republican candidates.
    Hillsdale College has opened the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C. (http://kirbycenter.hillsdale.edu/) In part, I believe this is an educational tool for those in Washington and to the public in general. Also, they offer free online courses on the Constitution and Western Heritage.
    If conservative candidates are not grounded in conservative first principles, they cannot begin to articulate them.

  2. It would be nice if we could field some candidates that didn’t speak conservative like it was a second language learned a couple of weeks ago.

  3. Republicans always shoot themselves in the foot, politically speaking, whenever they choose to delve into social issues. They contradict their own message (of limited government) when they turn around and suggest that the federal government should have some role in this area.
    It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, in my opinion.

  4. The Republican Party needs to stop thinking that the next Republican president will change America, they won’t. What will change America is Republicans winning School Board elections, Republicans who become teachers, by the tens of thousands. What has happened to this country is there are “more takers than makers”(Ann Coulter). Indoctrination of American youth by the left from grade school to grad, has insolated the socialist agenda from any negative debate. When I was a child I wanted to be a cowboy – think of what ideology was in my mind. Now kids want to be litle socialists, not by name ofcourse but by deeds.
    We have left the care and education to those whom would scrub clean a childs mind of any morality of more conservative teachings and replace them with the remnants of Mao’s grand plan. Think of the people Obama put in charge of his educational policy.
    The other front Republicans must battle with the cultural left of the entertainment industry and for more immediate effect, like 2016 the most important. Republicans have to go on Bill Maher, Daily Show, Morning Joe and everywhere else and battle. They must attack the MSM at every instance and by attack I mean do let them define what a conservative or republican is. For too long we have played the good sport and look now where that hs gotten us. Chicago style is popular. They bring a knife – you bring a gun. This is not JFK’s or Carters Democrats, they can be no cohabitation with lunatics, and this is fight to the death. We better learn than today rather than tomorrow.

  5. The office-seekers emerging from this conservative historical/cultural boot camp will need to find more than a few voters up on this stuff, or their glorious yet nuanced speeches will be wasted. Voters of the future need truthful education now!

  6. Nice article.
    Essentially conservatives need to be not just free-market on the economy but free market on social issues as well.
    If the market(people) are to determine the value of products they should be free to choose the value of their personal decisions. Small government means not just small beauracracy but generally leaving people alone.

  7. Agree with all that, and add this: policy incoherence.
    You can’t simultaneously be FOR states’ rights and limited federal government and FOR federal laws regarding abortion and marriage (to name just two hot button issues). When faced with questions on such issues, the candidates should explain how they are properly beyond the purview of the central government, and change the subject to a relevant issue.

  8. Sometimes I think that Republican candidates wear ignorance as a badge of honor. But that may be because I came by my conservatism in a Liberal milieu that forced me learn how to argue with them. There really don’t seem to be many credible thinkers in conservative circles who come from exclusively conservative environs where they’ve had limited exposure to the left.

  9. Let me preface this by saying that I am actually a college professor and while there are certainly liberal educators this idea of liberal indoctrination is is really a myth. Look at how many George W. Bush cabinet members are now head of departments at universities through the US.
    But it seems like the real problem that the Prof. has hit on is not the mistake of liberal indoctrination but the lack of any intellectual depth from conservative candidates or mouthpieces. So they reject a liberal view point but they refuse to read a book to help them clarify their conservative view point. This is the problem with the overwhelming conservative mentality instead of intellectual curiosity it’s short attention span sound bytes.

  10. Part of the price for playing divisive politics is that your message will only reach the choir, no matter how ‘superior’ you may feel the ideas are within that message.

  11. I think the demographics argument makes the precise mistake of turning to political calculation instead of tradition-mining. Remember that the Early Republic was a vastly diverse nation, and yet the Founders were able to forge a government without breaking it down into “Here’s how we appeal to Catholics,” “Here’s how we appeal to German immigrants,” . . . How much might conservatism prosper by citing Madison on factions (and giving it a modern spin by arguing that liberals have created factions out of group identities, which is a terrible thing).

  12. While I agree that the modern class of republicans are woefully uninformed, perhaps there’s simply a larger zeitgeist at play here? The rhetoric of the right simply hasn’t evolved to accept, account for or capitalize on the realities of the nation’s changing demographics and social acceptances. Reagan succeeded by letting the social norms of the country bubble up and leading through nation-focused policy. That is, he wasn’t trying to be the nation’s moral and social issues authority, just the president. The current class of republicans and tea partiers tried to marry extreme social conservatism with extreme policy, irrespective of the concerns of the electorate. In three efforts, they alienates women, Latinos and Blacks, yet someone still thought they would have a shot at the presidency. Perhaps they should study Sun Tzu for strategy in addition to more salient conservative thinkers as well?

  13. Professor Bauerlein has hit the nail on the head.
    If you want to be a successful politician who opposes the many statist nostrums and cliches, you have to be very good at explaining to people why those ideas are harmful. During the late, dismal campaign, I saw over and over the inability of GOP candidates to offer cogent reasons for voters to prefer them over Democrats who promise the moon. Perhaps they would be able to offer such explanations if they had a grounding in classical liberalism and the fundamentals of economics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *