Conservative Academics Reflect on the Relationship of Politics to Scholarship

Butler Library on the campus of Columbia University in New York City (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Is a self-consciously conservative approach to the humanities and social sciences desirable? Prominent right-leaning scholars are skeptical.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE E arlier this year, author Avi Woolf argued that right-leaning academics ought to start crafting a conservative vision for research in the humanities and social sciences. In his view, conservative academics should not limit themselves to advocating for Great Books programs. Studying the classic texts of the Western tradition is a valuable exercise, he allowed, but it is also insufficient, for such books “do not advance specifically conservative ideas.” Thus, he maintained, conservative academics should think about how to provide an explicitly conservative “direction [to] future scholarship.”

I found Woolf’s argument intriguing, and I wanted to hear what conservative professors thought about it. As it turned out, most of them appeared to be highly skeptical of the notion that scholarship should be guided by an ideological vision.

“The telos of the academic vocation is truth,” says Robert P. George, a professor of law and political theory at Princeton University. “Our job as scholars is to get at the truth. It’s not to advance any partisan or ideological agenda — whether it’s feminism, or conservatism, or communism, or anything else.” What’s more:

A lot of bad social science is done because people have a political agenda. And that’s bad. And it’s corrupt. It’s a sin against the sacred trust in which we scholars claim we operate — a trust that we have pledged ourselves to maintain. So I get really upset when what we have is agenda-driven social science, often colored by confirmation bias and other corruptions.

Joshua Dunn, a political scientist at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, agrees. “My default setting is that you should be a scholar first, and your politics should be second,” he says. “The positive normative vision for conservative scholars should be a commitment to the truth.” Most conservative academics, he adds, would probably feel uncomfortable establishing an explicit ideological goal for their research to advance anyway.

For some conservative professors, the conflation of scholarship with political advocacy is precisely what’s wrong with many academic fields of study today. In their estimation, all scholars should try as much as possible to separate empirical descriptions of the social world from normative opinions. “In certain fields — history and anthropology in particular — scholars do not seek to separate these two. And that’s why we have a problem,” says Sam Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College:

The study of anthropology is not the study to right the wrongs of the past. It’s not a form of social-justice activism. . . . That’s not what anthropology is about. Anthropology is about understanding groups, it’s about understanding norms, it’s about understanding human relationships in particular societies. It’s not about putting value-laden judgments before you start or making some declaration that there’s some form of colonization that has to be righted, as so much of that literature talks about.

Abrams emphasizes that he does not object to political advocacy as such. “I have no problem if you want to be an activist, but keep it separate from the scholarship,” he says. “The end of academic work in and of itself is the pursuit of truth. Simple as that.”

The approach to scholarship favored by George, Dunn, and Abrams relegates political considerations to secondary importance. For them, truth comes above all else. As Abrams points out, however, there does exist an alternative approach. It can be observed in fields (and subfields) such as feminist history and critical race studies, where political considerations are at least as important as the pursuit of truth. Some scholars who employ this methodology collapse the distinction between, say, the history of women and a feminist interpretation of history. A historian concerned with the former aims to depict the past as accurately as possible; a historian concerned with the latter largely writes to effect political change in the contemporary world.

Within certain academic disciplines, then, research is designed in such a way as to advance the cause of social justice. By and large, the conservative academics I interviewed argued that it would be wrong for conservatives to combat this kind of politicized left-wing scholarship with politicized right-wing scholarship. “I think it is a mistake for right-leaning academics — just as it’s a mistake for left-leaning academics — to begin from some sense of political purpose or responsibility, and then work toward some conclusion that one believes promotes the cause, whatever it happens to be,” says Samuel Goldman, a political theorist at George Washington University. “And I think that conservatives are at the risk of contradiction, not to say hypocrisy, when they argue that, ‘Well, it’s bad that scholarship has been conflated with an ideological or political agenda, but the only problem is that it’s the wrong agenda, so we’re going to do the same thing from the other side.’”

Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at UCLA, also argues that all self-consciously ideological social science is problematic, regardless of the ideology it seeks to promote. I ask him, for instance, whether he would like to see an avowedly pro-capitalist way of telling history, or an avowedly conservative school of sociology. “I wouldn’t want that,” he says, “because in doing so you’re basically closing off parts of the truth.” Any honest inquiry into the humanities or social sciences will lead you to find “plenty of cases where it turns out that ‘this thing happened, which is very inconvenient from my point view.’”

For Rossman, ideological thinking can make scholars ignore inconvenient facts and thereby produce inaccurate scholarship. “I wouldn’t want to see a conservative sociology,” he said, “in the same way that I would like to see less of a self-consciously left-wing sociology.”

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is more open to the possibility of a self-consciously conservative approach to the humanities and social sciences. He argues that since all academics have ideological biases, it isn’t necessarily a problem when those biases guide their research, so long as they’re intellectually honest in presenting their findings. “I have a worldview,” he says, “and it obviously shapes the things that I think about and research and write about. But I also think my worldview is ultimately rooted in a commitment to the truth.”

I press him on this point: Suppose that you conduct empirical research and come up with results that run counter to your worldview. Hasn’t there then arisen a tension between your commitment to truth and your commitment to your ideology?

“When I’m doing research and I come up with results that are surprising to me and that don’t seem to be a reflection of my worldview,” Wilcox says, “I still go and publish those results. And often, as I think through those results, I will be able to reconcile them with my worldview.” He gives the example of his work on the family. While he has long argued that fathers are very important to the welfare of children, he once conducted a study that found that in some countries, children raised by single mothers performed just as well academically as children raised in intact families. He was surprised by the findings, but he still reported the facts as they were.

Wilcox says he was eventually able to reconcile those findings with his worldview: In some societies, he now argues, fathers are generally not involved in their children’s education, which is why children raised there by single mothers do not perform worse. Thus he holds that there is “ultimately no tension” between his commitment to truth and his worldview. Moreover, he says, a self-consciously conservative history or sociology — a sort of counterpart to feminist history or Marxist sociology — would indeed be “viable,” so long as it remained rooted in a commitment to truth. Things only become dangerous, he concludes, if “a scholar with a particular commitment doesn’t address logical challenges to their perspective, or doesn’t acknowledge empirical realities that might challenge it.”

Wilcox’s tentative openness to Woolf’s argument is the exception. But while the other conservative academics interviewed for this story generally warn against the dangers of using scholarship to advance political agendas, they all agree that political concerns can sometimes influence the sorts of research questions that one is interested in. It is perfectly fine for this to happen, they say, so long as political opinions don’t distort the way evidence is presented.

Samuel Goldman, for instance, has research interests at the intersection between politics and theology. “My scholarly projects are clearly connected with some assumptions or beliefs that are functionally conservative in the modern academy, not least of them that religion is important, that it should be taken seriously, and that it’s not merely a source of prejudice, or mystification, or ignorance, or bigotry,” he says.

“Politics informs the research questions I ask,” says Robert Ingram, a professor of history at Ohio University. “It definitely informs the questions I ask. But it doesn’t — and can’t — inform the answers I give.”

Ingram is a Catholic convert, and his faith plays an important role in his thinking. He is deeply interested in what the proper relationship between church and state should be, and his research mainly focuses on British history in the 17th and 18th centuries — a time and place of fierce disagreement about the role of religion in public life. So there is a clear link between his politics and his academic research. But he emphasizes that he and the historians he most respects are always careful to write history in such a way as to get it “as close to the truth as we think we can get it.”

Or, as Gabriel Rossman puts it, “I’m basically an empiricist, I’m basically a quantitative scholar, and I basically see politics as a mostly separate identity that occasionally informs scholarship.”

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