What’s conservative about liberal education? On any serious consideration, the answer is: a lot. Students do pick up marketable skills when they take classes in literature, history, or philosophy. But the real purpose of studying languages, books, and arguments is to initiate them as members of a community of free men and women, the present and future of which are heavily influenced by its dual origins in Athens and Jerusalem. In a recent essay for Minding the Campus, Peter Augustine Lawler described this task as “cultural transmission”–a term than could almost be derived from postmodern theory. It would be more conservative to use the still intelligible Latinate term tradition, which literally means “handing over.”
Liberal education, then, has a distinctly conservative function. But that does not give it any necessary connection to conservative views on other matters, let alone approval for the Republican Party. Rather than confusing a cultural function with a partisan program, defenders of liberal education should pursue alliances with educational “conservatives” of the center and left.
Conservatives and Liberal Education
Because liberal education involves the handing over an inheritance from the past, political conservatives have been among its most outspoken advocates in modern America. Beginning in the 1950s, conservatives like William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet mounted a defense of tradition against the political activism and intellectual fads that were already gaining influence on campus. They justified this defense partly on the grounds that Americans who were ignorant of their heritage would be unable to resist socialism. Through this argument, academic disputes acquired a distinctly political significance.
The association between liberal education and political conservatism was strengthened during the culture wars of 1980s and 1990s. While many liberals and progressives embraced the expansion of the canon to include more minorities and women, conservatives took their stand with the Dead White Men. The argument was not just about reading assignments. For academic conservatives like Harvey Mansfield, the defense of tradition in the classroom went along with opposition to affirmative action in admissions.
More recently, conservative critics of higher education have focused on the paucity of Republicans on college faculties. With partisan loyalties so unbalanced, they ask whether liberal education has been transformed into a form of indoctrination. In his new book, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care?, the sociologist Neil Gross finds little evidence of explicit bias against Republicans in graduate school admissions or faculty hiring. But he argues that the perception that faculty is liberal–particularly in the liberal arts–may deter young conservatives from pursuing academic careers.
From Defense to Dismissal
The result of these developments in conservatives’ relationship to liberal arts education is a kind of paradox:
On the one hand, conservatives see themselves, with some justification, as the historical guardians of liberal education. Often, this means study of dead languages, old books, and traditional scholarly specialties such as military history. On the other hand, conservatives are deeply alienated from the actual practice of liberal education. Even in the 1950s, they understood themselves as an endangered remnant on campus. Now, they seem to be shut out almost entirely.
The oscillation between ownership and alienation generates the shrill tone that characterizes conservative discussions of liberal education. The recent report on Bowdoin College by the National Association of Scholars is a good example. The report’s intention is laudable: to show how far Bowdoin has drifted from its traditional goals. But it reads like a jeremiad against every change in higher education since the 1960s and does not give adequate credit to the professors and students there who devote themselves to teaching and learning many of the same subjects and sources as their predecessors.
At times, conservatives’ criticisms of liberal education as actually practiced are so bitter that they make it sound as if the whole enterprise is beyond redemption. This dismissive implication encourages populists and libertarians who regard liberal education as a waste of time and money. Consider Rush Limbaugh’s dismissal of a hypothetical classics major as “Miss Brain-dead” without hopes of gainful employment. Nor have Republican politicians shown any affection for liberal education. Among the candidates in the GOP primaries last year, both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney proposed policies that would hasten the transformation of public universities into vocational schools.
Conservative defenders of liberal education, then, seem to be caught in a blind alley. Their political affiliations distance them from potential allies outside the conservative movement. But their putative allies within the movement have little interest in their goals.
Making Friends and Influencing People
Any defense of liberal education that condemns current practice in light of a decades-old ideal is doomed to fail. The homogeneity that once characterized the American academy cannot, and in many respects should not, be restored. Affirmative action may be on the way out, at least in public universities. But ethnic diversity and cultural pluralism are here to stay.
Liberal education also won’t get much support from the conservative movement or Republican Party. This is partly because the association was contingent in the first place: the invocation of Aristotle as a bulwark against socialism was never especially convincing. More importantly, however, the populist and libertarians strands of contemporary conservatism are usually indifferent, and in some cases actually hostile to liberal education’s traditional functions. The enthusiasts for MOOCs and vocational training are not friends to liberal education.
What should conservative defenders of liberal education do? In my view, they ought to look for fellow “conservatives” outside their usual circles. There are more educational conservatives on the faculty than studies of political affiliation suggest.
Although they usually vote for Democrats and hold liberal views on many issues, a surprising number of professors take great pride in their status as conservators of a cultural inheritance. What they dislike is the suggestion that asking students to read Dante means they oppose, say, universal healthcare. Since there is no connection between these things, prudent conservatives would do well to avoid suggesting one.
Another strategy for broadening the base of support for liberal education is to point out the deeply ambiguous character of the classics (broadly conceived). It’s not just that writers like Tolstoy evade contemporary political categories. They also pose questions that challenge any moral, political, or aesthetic commitments. In this respect, liberal education can be subversive of prejudice as well as conservative of a cultural heritage. If you doubt that, try teaching Plato’s Symposium.
Finally, defenders of liberal education should be prepared to defend the study of Western traditions as a basis for understanding other cultures rather than an alternative to it. We cannot learn everything at once or equally well. It is wise, therefore, to begin with what is familiar and near before progressing to what is strange and distant. At the same time, students from non-Western backgrounds have much to contribute to discussions of the European past. Modern American students can struggle with 19th century novels partly because they can’t imagine how class and family could exercise such a powerful influence over individuals’ behavior. But students from India, for example, may understand from personal experience.
Opponents of such efforts may identify them as a Trojan horse for conservative politics. The best rebuttal to such accusations is to describe them, in perfect sincerity, as false. Liberal education is not a cover for any agenda, nor is it the property of any party or sect. It is, to borrow from Matthew Arnold, an introduction to the best that has been thought and said in a particular place and span of time.
The miraculous thing is that these treasures belong to us all, no matter who we vote for.