Humanities: Liberal and Conservative

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Check out Damon Linker’s piece at The Week: “The real reason there are so few conservatives on campus.” First, it is worth mentioning that Linker thinks the claims about the small numbers of conservatives on university campuses are overblown.  There are plenty of conservatives in professional schools, business schools, and even in the social sciences.

When people talk about the lack of conservatives on campus they are normally talking about the humanities: English, literature, philosophy, history, cultural studies, etc…

I teach at Christian college and I can think of less than a handful of humanities faculty who would identity as “conservative.”  (Though somewhat unrelated, I can only think of a handful of humanities faculty who would call themselves “evangelical.” If you read this blog, you know that I remain one of them.  When you put the self-identified “conservatives” together with the self-identified “evangelicals,” the number shrinks to maybe two or three faculty members at the most.  But I digress).

Linker believes that there are so few conservatives in the humanities because universities, especially larger research universities, tend to value progress.  Research agendas are usually about discovering something new about the world.  Conservatives do not always think about the humanities in this way.

I will let Linker explain.  Here is a taste:

Professors are trained as graduate students to become scholars — and scholarship in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge. The meaning of progress in the hard sciences is fairly obvious. But what does it mean to make progress in our knowledge of, say, English literature? One possibility is to find obscure, previously neglected authors and make a case for their importance. (This could be described as making progress in knowledge by way of expanding the canon.)

Another possibility is to bring new questions to bear on old, classic texts. But where will those new questions come from if not the concerns of the present? This is how professors end up publishing reams of studies (and teaching gobs of courses) on such topics as “Class in Shakespeare,” “Race in Shakespeare,” “Gender in Shakespeare,” “Transgender in Shakespeare,” “Intersectionality in Shakespeare,” and so forth. To tease out those themes in texts that have been read, studied, and debated for centuries certainly constitutes progress in knowledge, since those who publish the research have said something genuinely new about something old and familiar.

One reason why conservative scholars tend not to conduct this kind of research is that they’re not especially interested in questions of class, race, gender, and related issues. But that’s not because they’d prefer to achieve progress in knowledge by bringing a different, more politically conservative set of questions to bear on classic texts. (“Supply-Side Economics in Shakespeare”? “Hawkish Foreign Policy in Shakespeare”?) Rather, conservatives are usually drawn to the study of the humanities with a very different goal in mind — nothing less than pursuit of the timeless human wisdom they believe can be found in the great books of the past. What kind of research and teaching does this motivation produce? Studies of, and classes in, such topics as “Love in Shakespeare,” “Friendship in Shakespeare,” “Justice in Shakespeare,” “Death in Shakespeare,” and “God in Shakespeare.”

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.

By definition, that’s not “progress in knowledge,” since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of “progress” is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.

Read the entire piece here. I think Linker is on to something.

2 thoughts on “Humanities: Liberal and Conservative

  1. This is an interesting take. I don’t buy it, though. As an historian, I think there are plenty of new things to say about the past that do not map onto liberal politics well. And, like the previous commenter, I do not think that exploring past masters equals being a political conservative. I don’t think that political conservatives are less inclined to do new scholarship than political liberals.

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  2. I’m not so sure about this. I think he may be defining “academic conservatives” (and thus constructing a truism) when he describes the attitude of those inclined to find great themes in great works, rather than finding an exact correlation between academic and political conservatives. I’ve encountered many academic conservatives whose politics — if they make anything of them at all– are best described as independent or anarchic.

    I fear that some of the complaint against “liberals” by American conservative crusaders is against liberal learning and the liberal arts. This actually includes a fear of precisely those “conservative” approaches to the humanities described by Linker. When was the last time Fox News explored what Socrates thought about justice, or Hobbes about the State? And are political conservatives renowned for defending the teaching of subjects like art history?!

    In this sense, the regnant party within modern American Conservatism is both anti-liberal and anti-conservative, since it is against liberal learning. It does not really matter whether education encourages revisionist post-modernism queer readings or a study of the teaching of Plato and Augustine: either way, narrow-mindedness, parochialism and cheap platitudes are shattered. The problem is the regnant party within contemporary American conservativism trade in cheap patriotism, economic-growth-as-god, a narrow nationalism, the politics of fear and, well, as we all know, the logical incoherence of a Donald Trump who demands unquestioning loyalty to himself and (if he if believes what he says) to the blood and soil of the nation.

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