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Liberal Arts

How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking


Notwithstanding the outcome of the recent election, in one respect, the last few decades mark a breakthrough era for conservative intellectuals. Their visibility has soared. Thirty years ago, the only place to find conservatives on television was Firing Line, William F. Buckley's urbane talk show. Today they appear on Meet the Press and 60 Minutes. Conservatives reign on talk radio, and the political-blog universe tends to the right, too, especially to the libertarian view. As for book publishing, conservative tomes used to be a marginal genre published by Regnery Publishing and a few others. Now conservative authors make the best-seller lists, and small conservative presses like Encounter Books thrive while major houses like Penguin have started conservative imprints. By 2003 Brian C. Anderson, an editor of City Journal, could declare, "The Left's near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information — which long allowed liberal opinion makers to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they disagreed with, as if they were beneath argument — is skidding to a startlingly swift halt."

The gains in public life are real. But it's a mistake to take the media status of conservatives too far. For in another respect, little has changed. When we assess intellectuals, we enter a rarified habitat of books and ideas, and the prime setting for appreciating those is the college campus. There, conservative intellectuals remain stymied. Their relationship to the universities in which they found their calling and to the curriculum and scholarship they studied — that remains tenuous.

Such a situation has consequences, for liberals and conservatives. As three recent books — one by a leading liberal professor, one by a well-known conservative columnist, and the other by a visible conservative polemicist — demonstrate, while the denial of academic legitimacy to the conservative tradition begins in the classroom, it reverberates far beyond the campus.

Consider a curricular example. Decades ago a thinker who'd witnessed oppression firsthand embarked upon a multibook investigation into the operations of society and power. Mingling philosophical analysis and historical observation, he produced an interpretation of modern life that traced its origins to the Enlightenment and came down to a fundamental opposition: the diverse energies of individuals versus the regulatory acts of the state and its rationalizing experts. Those latter were social scientists, a caste of 18th- and 19th-century theorists whose extension of scientific method to social relations, the thinker concluded, produced some of the great catastrophes of modern times.

Here's the rub: I don't mean Michel Foucault. The description fits him, but it also fits someone less hallowed in academe today: Friedrich A. von Hayek, the economist and social philosopher. Before and after World War II, Hayek battled the cardinal policy sin of the time, central planning and the socialist regimes that embraced it. He remains a key figure in conservative thought, an authority on free enterprise, individual liberty, and centralized power.

And yet, while Foucault and Hayek deal with similar topics, and while Hayek's defense of free markets (for which he won the Nobel prize in economics in 1974) influenced global politics far more than Foucault's analyses of social institutions like psychiatry and prisons, the two thinkers enjoy contrary standing in the liberal-arts curriculum. Hayek's work in economics has a fair presence in that field, and his social writings reach libertarians in the business school, but in the humanities and most of the social sciences he doesn't even exist. When I was in graduate school in the 1980s, a week didn't pass without Foucault igniting discussion, but I can't remember hearing Hayek's name. In those heady days of politically framed cultural criticism, academic intellectuals formed a vanguard of cosmopolitan insight and ideological unmasking (so they said), but their range of reference fell short. Yes, since then a few scattered conservative centers have sprung up on campuses around the nation, but as of today they make barely a dent on the liberal-arts curriculum.

Public intellectuals are less parochial, and even some of those on the left do acknowledge Hayek's eminence — but too often with just a dismissive tack. In One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (Doubleday, 2000), for instance, Thomas Frank, the editor of The Baffler, briefly summarizes Hayek's legacy with a run of high-handed jibes. He mentions Hayek's seminal The Road to Serfdom, but only to disparage it for equating "British-style socialism with the Nazi obscenity." Deriding Hayek for seeing businessmen as victims of class snobbery who do battle with the prejudices of elites and eggheads, Frank is prompted to the sarcastic reply: "Maybe those liberal college professors are keeping you from riches, after all."

Most important, Frank disdains Hayek as "corporate true believer" who panders to the anti-intellectualism of entrepreneurs, a shill for the "business class." Conservatives would object, of course, but while conservative public intellectuals at think tanks and writing in national periodicals recognize Hayek as a touchstone, recently we see a disquieting tendency among those involved in the heat of partisanship to ignore their own intellectual tradition.

The absence of conservative minds from the liberal-arts curriculum and the off-campus ignorance of them — or worse, treatment of them as hired hands — are standard features of intellectual life, and they are not unrelated. When it comes to ideas and values, campuses remain the foremost site of study, and the curriculum has a certifying effect. It bears the duty of imparting ideas and writings essential to the formation of thoughtful, informed individuals. The campus provides a space in which that can happen, an occasion for learning — not for advocating or using knowledge, but for acquiring and reflecting upon it. The ideas included are deemed suitable for academic study, which is to say they possess enough autonomy to be handled as part of an intellectual tradition.

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