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The smog of academic consensus

A 'conservative studies' professor is exactly what calcified universities need.

May 29, 2008|Crispin Sartwell | Crispin Sartwell, author of "Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory," teaches philosophy at Dickinson College.

That the University of Colorado is raising $9 million to endow a professor of conservative studies is rather delicious in its ironies. It smacks of affirmative action and casts conservatism in the syntax of departments decried by conservatives for decades: women's studies, gay studies, African American studies, Chicano studies and so on.

Furthermore, the idea of affirmative action for conservatives seems gratuitous. These other groups may be oppressed, but conservatives run whole wars, black site prisons, sprawling multinational corporations. In fact, if these other groups are oppressed, it's conservatives who are the oppressors, which may render faculty meetings a bit tense.

But as an academic who is neither a liberal nor a conservative (anarchism has its privileges), let me tell you why I think a "professor of conservative thought and policy" in Colorado, or anywhere else, is not such a bad idea. Within the academy, conservatives really are an oppressed minority. At the University of Colorado, for instance, one professor found that, of 800 or so on the faculty, only 32 are registered Republicans. This strikes me as high, and I assume they all teach business or phys ed.

I teach political philosophy. And like most professors I know, I bend over backward to sympathetically teach texts I hate; I try to show my students why people have found Plato and Karl Marx -- both of whom I regard as totalitarians -- compelling. But when I get to the end of "The Communist Manifesto," I'm usually asking things like this: "Marx says that all means of communication should be centralized in the hands of the state. Anyone see any problems with that?"

I don't deceive myself into thinking that I teach these texts as well as, or in the same way as, a professor who found them plausible. And that's fine. What I'm trying to point out is that even as I try to be neutral (well, even if I did try to be neutral), my personal opinions affect every aspect of what I do, and I think that is generally true.

But it can be horrendously true in academia, where everything is affected by the real opinions of real professors, from the configuration of departments to the courses on offer to the texts taught. And because there's a consensus, there is precious little self-examination; a slant that we all share becomes invisible.

Academic consensus is a particularly irritating variety of groupthink. First of all, the fact that everyone agrees and everyone has a doctorate leads to the occasionally explicit idea that all intelligent people think the same thing -- that no one could disagree with, say, Obama-ism, without being an idiot. This attitude is continually expressed, for example, in attacks on presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not for their political positions but for their grades and IQs.

That the American professoriate is near-unanimous for Barack Obama is a problem on many levels, but certainly pedagogically. Ideological uniformity does a disservice to students and makes a mockery of the pious commitment of these professors simply to convey knowledge. Also, the claims of the professoriate to intellectual independence and academic freedom, supposedly nurtured by tenure, are thrown into question by the unanimity. Professors are as herd-like in their opinions as other groups that demographers like to identify -- "working-class white men," for example. Indeed, surely more so.

That's partly just a result of the charming human tendency to nod along with whomever is sitting next to you. But it's also the predictable result of the fact that a professor has been educated, often for a decade or more, by the very institutions that harbor this unanimity. Every new generation of professors has been steeped in an atmosphere in which the authorities all agree and in which they associate agreement with intelligence -- and with degrees, jobs, tenure and so on. If you've been taught that conservatives are evil idiots, then conservatism itself justifies a decision not to hire or tenure one. Every new leftist minted by graduate programs is an act of self-praise, a confirmation of the intelligence of the professors.

That this smog of consensus is incompatible with the supposedly high-minded educational mission of colleges and universities is obvious. Yet higher education is at least as dedicated to the reproduction of Obama-ism as it is to conveying information. But academics are massively self-deceived about this, which makes it all the more disgusting and effective.

So as my liberal old professor Richard Rorty said, referring to Allan Bloom, conservative Platonist: "Let a thousand Blooms flower." And if they take root in endowed chairs of conservative thought and policy, that's at least pretty funny.

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