Do Conservative Intellectuals Have More Fun?

by Peter Augustine Lawler

So conservative public intellectuals — such as our good friend Yuval Levin — are thrilled that an article in the New York Times (not written by Ross Douthat) actually said that liberals have something to learn from conservatives. Liberals, in their programs for students, are all about progressive activism. Conservatives are all about Great Books — usually the greatest hits of our tradition of political philosophy. That might mean, as Damon Linker puts it, that conservatives are actually winning on the intellectual front. Liberals have to counter by getting their students to spend their quality time reading real books together.

Now all this must be confusing to those liberals who think, with the late Richard Rorty, that conservatives are “know nothings.” And it is doubly confusing, perhaps, in light of the fact that the Republican president-elect claims to have written more than one book, but also never seems to have read one all the way through.

Well, it might be triply confusing: It’s a well-known fact that virtually all the professors and students on our elite campuses are liberals or progressives and reliably vote Democratic. That situation is so bad that conservative professors are now whining for affirmative action based on “viewpoint diversity.” To which the elite (meaning mainstream) professors respond: That’s not the kind of diversity we’re talking about. You conservatives, unlike women, gays, and so forth, can change just by getting smarter and less bigoted; you can work hard to be more like us. Conservatism is curable; conversion based on the virtue that is knowledge is possible.

From the view of the genuinely conservative professor (who may or may not vote Republican), progressive professors themselves are in thrall of certain prejudices that keep them from being as open to the truth as they think they are.

Conservatives, following Socrates, treat justice as a question — a question that must be asked anew by each and every person on the road as a seeker and searcher. Education is always returning to the beginning. The only true progress is toward wisdom and virtue over the course of a particular human life, of the being born to know, love, and die and for more than a merely biological existence.

Progressives treat the truth about justice as something that’s been given to us by History. We know that we’ve surpassed even the greatest thinkers of the past (who were, despite their greatness, racists, sexists, homophobes, and all that) in our knowledge of what to do. So the progressive bumper sticker is: Don’t look back! Or another: The arc of justice points in one direction. Or a third (to be a bit unfair): Morality progresses as surely was technology does.

Here it’s important to distinguish a conservative from a reactionary. Conservatives don’t think things were better in the past in every respect. They don’t study ancient and medieval dentistry. Not only that, they’re not blind to the wonderful benefits of today’s technology, just as they see that the modern, democratic understanding of political institutions and justice is real progress in expanding the realm of the consent of the governed.

Conservatives don’t think we should treat our students, though, as cogs in a Historical process that has right or wrong sides. Or as cogs in the indefinite techno-progress of science, a process to which they can make only a tiny contribution. The true conservative, it seems to me, rejects the distinction between left and right as basically a progressive prejudice.  That means, as Linker says, that a true conservative, when it comes to education, indistinguishable from a liberal–as those who joyfully share the perennial truth about the personal freedom and dignity of each of us.  It’s possible to be a liberal without being a progressive, and it could be that progressives can’t free the truth about the person from the Historical process.

Conservatives see it’s also true that every form of progress for individuals has had relational costs. Things are always getting better and worse. Progress in some areas of human knowledge produces a kind a forgetfulness in others. Every “culture” needs to be chastened by a “counterculture.” And the place to look for the parts of wisdom that have slipped away from us is in books that claim to possess timeless wisdom, that, everyone with brains used to know, are far from merely relics of a discredited past. So conservative nostalgia is rigorously selective.

Our conservative professors are our “counterculture.” They’re having loads of fun at an ironic distance from the puffed-up claims of our progressives. And their summer camps are hugely conversational parties that are the foundation of lifelong learning that’s about a lot more than finding your niche in the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. And it’s that kind of insight into the true privileges each of us have been given that’s the best foundation for living a responsible life as a parent, friend, worker, citizen, and creature.

Now I’ve participated in several versions of these countercultural experiences. My favorites have been the ones run by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Why? They’re about more than political philosophy — which can become too serious as a program for saving America single-handedly. The ISI effort is more expansively cultural, with a place for literature and theology, too. It may even be a bit more quirky in the good sense. Nobody really believes that even conservatives are stuck with always having reliably serious and astute practical judgment.

What to learn more?  There’s always my American Heresies and Higher Education.

The Corner

The one and only.