What Gets Conservative Kids Excited?

So…what do conservative college students get excited about? Monarchism, apparently. That’s the word from conservative stalwart Patrick Henry College, at least. And, as I found in the research for my upcoming book about conservative evangelical higher education, today’s monarchist enthusiasts are joining a long tradition at conservative schools. I can’t help but wonder if today’s college presidents will respond the way presidents always have responded.

It might just be hopeful dreaming, but at National Review Jeff Cimmino argues that young students at conservative colleges are jumping on to the traditionalist bandwagon. Mostly, at schools such as Hillsdale, Patrick Henry, as well as at mainstream schools such as Notre Dame, smart young conservatives are discovering the work of Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke, and other traditionalists.

There are also kookier ideas floating around student lounges. Christian McGuire, the student editor of a conservative review at Patrick Henry College, reported loads of enthusiasm for conservative Catholic thinking and Russell Kirk. But that’s not all. According to Cimmino,

When asked whether monarchist sentiments could be found on campus, McGuire responded firmly: “Yes, absolutely.” Though still very much a minority view at Patrick Henry College, some traditionalist-minded students are open to the idea of a king.

A king! Zoiks. It sounds kooky, but as I discovered in my recent research in the archives of other conservative evangelical schools, such student intellectual enthusiasms are nothing new.

Cimmino doesn’t mention it, but monarchism and Burkeanism have not been the most potent intellectual traditions that have excited young evangelical intellectuals. Time and again, students at evangelical schools have discovered—as if it were new—the bracing intellectual rigor of Calvinism.

I include in my book, for example, the story of Calvinist dissent at Wheaton College in the 1930s and 1940s. Back then, high-flying scholar Gordon Clark accepted a job at Wheaton. Clark had an Ivy-League PhD and the kind of elite academic credentials evangelical colleges like Wheaton yearned for.

But Clark’s Calvinism rubbed along awkwardly in the interdenominational world of 1930s American fundamentalism. As soon as he arrived, Clark started a “Creed Club” on campus. His brainy Calvinism excited and attracted plenty of Wheaton students. But Clark’s unyielding intellect made him unpopular with the administration.

Callow Calvinist students began protesting, for example, that Wheaton placed far too much emphasis on missionary work. And they began adopting Clark’s dismissive attitude toward campus revivalism. Like their hero Professor Clark, students began deriding such things as mere “mass psychology.”

What did Wheaton do? In 1943, they showed Clark the door. They loved his resume, but they couldn’t accept the notion that their students were pooh-poohing ideas so near and dear to the heart of American fundamentalism. If such student enthusiasms got too much attention, Wheaton worried it would lose support from the fundamentalist community.

Could that pattern repeat itself?

At Patrick Henry, especially, administrators might get nervous if students veer to the right of their school’s goal of reclaiming America for Christ.

What would Patrick Henry leaders do, for example, if over-enthusiastic student monarchists began pooh-poohing American Constitutionalism? If they bruited about the idea that republicanism itself—Americanism itself—was nothing but a mistake to be corrected?

Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the archives of university presidents, but I can’t help but think that Patrick Henry’s leaders would have to put a stop to such things, worried about what it might do to their school’s reputation as an outpost of more-American-than-thou religious conservatism.

When Is a Conservative Not a Conservative?

Some of the most intriguing personal stories of American conservatism tell of standout leaders who have switched from left to right over the years.  Of liberals, leftists, and radicals who had been “mugged by reality.”  It has been all too easy to make jokes about this tradition.

Q: What do you call a liberal with a daughter?  A: A Social Conservative.

Or, Q: What do you call a liberal with a mortgage? A: A Financial Conservative.

As Winston Churchill supposedly put it, “Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart.  Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

In the pages of National Affairs historian Jonathan Bronitsky has offered a new vision of the long process of ideological conversion among some of the twentieth century’s most prominent side-switchers.

Of course, America has a long history of leaders changing from youthful leftism to mature conservatism.  Back in the nineteenth century, for instance, Tom Watson of Georgia started his career as an advocate of bi-racial populism and ended it as a bitter rabble-rousing racist.  William Jennings Bryan got famous as the voice of the little man and ended his career as the voice of the Bible.

In the twentieth century, too, casual students of conservatism have grown accustomed to the story that a group of New York Lefties switched over to conservatism due to the excesses of “The Sixties.”  Intellectual leaders such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, the story goes, emerged from the intellectual contradictions of Trotskyism to create and embrace an energetic and engaging “neo-conservatism.”

In the cases of Irving Kristol and his historian spouse Gertrude Himmelfarb, Bronitsky argues that the love affair with Edmund Burke’s thoughtful conservatism went back much further.  As Bronitsky puts it,

Scholars routinely break down the intellectual conservatism that emerged in post-war America into three groups. First, there were “traditional” conservatives like Russell Kirk, John Crowe Ransom, and T. S. Eliot. They invoked Edmund Burke and his anti-radical appeal to tradition. Second, there were “New Conservatives” — as they were called in the post-war years — like William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Weaver, and Peter Viereck. They looked to Burke as well as to Adam Smith with his moral justification for market economics. And third, there were libertarians like Robert Nozick, Albert Jay Nock, and Murray Rothbard. They admired Smith in addition to Friedrich Hayek with his contention that communism and fascism were merely opposite sides of the same totalitarian coin. Though the first generation of neoconservatives interacted with these three groups, they operated at a distance — or at least most intellectual historians have repeatedly insisted they did — preferring change over custom, reason over revelation, dogma over philosophy, and, thus, celebrating thinkers far removed from classical liberals like Smith, Hayek, and, particularly, Burke.

Bronitsky argues that this standard story does not work for Himmelfarb and Kristol the elder.  In their cases, the love affair with Burke and the tenets of conservatism went back decades, to the 1940s.

For those of us who struggle to make sense of the complicated kaleidoscope of American conservatism, this intellectual creation story matters.  What did it mean for Kristol and Himmelfarb to dance with the conservative devil as far back as the 1940s?  More intriguing, what did “conservatism” promise intellectually that “liberalism” had failed to produce?  How did “conservatism” solve the intellectual problems that Trotskyism could not?

 

 

From the Archives: August Heckscher and Conservative Multiculturalism

Could American conservatives embrace their own, distinctly conservative vision of “multicultural” education?

Thanks to Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative, we find a resurrected 1953 argument that forces us to wonder.  This essay, by historian and parks administrator August Heckscher II, insists that true conservatism must never be an “ideology,” but rather

a way of thinking and acting in the midst of a social order which is too overlaid with history and too steeped in values, too complex and diverse, to lend itself to simple reforms. It is a way of thought which not only recognizes different classes, orders, and interests in the social order but actually values these differences and is not afraid to cultivate them.

Heckscher himself could not claim conservative credentials.  He worked in the Kennedy administration and gushed at the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson.  As one conservative commentator complained about Heckscher on the American Conservative, Heckscher was merely “another liberal Democrat explaining to Conservatives politely, but firmly, the need for them to shut up and get out of the way until certain debatable ‘reforms’ are irrevocably in place.”

Yet other conservative thinkers, notably the editors at The Imaginative Conservative and The American Conservative, consider Heckscher’s 1953 polemic worth revisiting fifty years later. Today’s Burkean, traditionalist conservatives were likely attracted by Heckscher’s Burkean, traditionalist definition of true conservatism.

It seems too strange to be a coincidence that Heckscher’s essay came out in the same year as Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind.  Kirk transformed American conservative intellectual life by promoting this sort of Burkean traditionalism.

Heckscher, like Kirk, insisted that American conservatism must be, and has always truly been, more than simply rock-throwing at government expansion.  True conservatism, Heckscher wrote, would embrace programs such as social security, if those programs were “conceived as a means of strengthening local ties, strengthening the family, and strengthening the true spirit of inde­pendence in the citizens.”

At ILYBYGTH, our attention was drawn to Heckscher’s comments about the nature of truly conservative education.  Heckscher offered a 1950s preview that sounds strangely familiar.  Since the time of Herkscher’s essay, we have become accustomed to “multicultural” ideology in education.  But we generally have not thought of this as a particularly conservative idea.  Here is Heckscher’s vision:

Education in conservatism can come, I suggest, in part from a schooling that makes men aware of the values in a community, and tolerant of their differences. It can come in part, also, from the common everyday discipline of living in an environment where multitudinous groups think in their own ways and set a varying hierarchy of values upon the goods of life. In such a community the doctrinaire approach is impossible. Rationalism cuts athwart the basic understandings which hold all together; and the search for a unique solution would drive men to distraction were it not aban­doned for a spirit of practical accommodation and acceptable com­promise. The diversity with which the citizen learns to live sanely comes by degrees to seem a virtue; and the climax of the wise man’s education is when he turns about and begins consciously to preserve and nourish the institutions in which diversity has been bred. That is the moment, too, in which he becomes a conservative.

Recognizing the value of diversity, in other words, is the sine qua non of truly conservative education.  Since the time of Heckscher’s 1953 essay, “multiculturalism” has earned a negative reputation among many conservative intellectuals.  Many conservatives might line up more happily with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s blistering 1990s critique of multiculturalism than with Heckscher’s 1953 endorsement.

But in the context of Heckscher’s Burkean vision, this definition of proper education needs another look.  In the twenty-first century, when we hear a call for “diversity” and a non “doctrinaire” inclusion of “multitudinous groups,” our minds jump first to the sort of “multiculturalism” heralded by scholars such as James Banks.  Banks and other education scholars argued that good education must emphasize the contributions of many different cultural groups.  At its heart, this sort of multiculturalism suggests a radical egalitarianism.  Cultures are different, but all deserve equal respect.  This approach, Banks promised, would not only be good for students of minority ethnic groups, but for all students.  A multicultural curriculum, in this vision, would help overcome America’s history of white Christian hegemony.

Read in the context of his full essay, Herkscher’s call for multicultural education looks much different.  The various voices Herkscher wants to hear are those of different “classes, orders, and interests.”  Herkscher’s conservative multiculturalism does not seek to overcome or diminish those differences between classes and orders, but rather to cherish and promote those differences.

A conservative, Heckscher seems to be saying, learns that every class, every social group, has its intrinsic value as part of a well-ordered society.  Every member of each class must learn to think of himself or herself not primarily as an individual acting in isolation, but as an individual representative of his or her social class.  Harmony comes from valuing the diverse contributions of each group, not by trying to make each group equal.

This is a profoundly different sort of multiculturalism than the explicitly racial vision promoted by later generations of multicultural educators.  The ultimate vision of a harmonious and hierarchical society differs radically from the later multiculturalists’ ultimate vision of an egalitarian utopia. Today’s “multicultural” ideologues might recoil in horror at the notion that education should teach people to see society as a hierarchical structure in which every person must find his or her proper place.

Evidence from Heckscher’s career, too, supports the notion that Heckscher’s multicultural vision differed markedly from multiculturalism’s later incarnation.  As New York City Parks Commissioner between 1967 and 1972, Heckscher applied his vision of social justice in tricky circumstances.  According to his 1997 obituary, Heckscher removed a Black Panthers flag when it had been raised instead of the Stars and Stripes.  Other officials, including the police commissioner, had refused to confront the Panthers, fearing violence.  But Heckscher simply walked alone to the flagpole, took down the flag, and presented it to the African American crowd.  He told them not to put it up again.

Conservatives today might embrace Heckscher’s personal bravery and refusal to truckle to race-based bullying.  But they might also consider the educational ramifications of Heckscher’s 1953 essay.  What would a Burkean multiculturalism look like?  Could students learn to value different groups and classes, not as a way to overcome hierarchy, but as a way to preserve it?

Traditionalism and Education

This morning’s column by David Brooks in the New York Times is sure to provoke some head-scratching.

Brooks points out the conventional division of contemporary conservatism into two constituent entities. He calls them “economic conservatism” and “traditional conservatism.” Economic conservatives are the free-market champions. They are the sort who cheered when Reagan described the nine most terrifying words in the English language as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Traditionalists, on the other hand, value localism, organic social structures, and community. They derive their ideas from the likes of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.

Those who follow the intellectual history of modern conservatism will scratch their heads that Brooks did not include other important types of conservatism, such as the Jerry-Falwell-style Moral Majoritarianism, the kind of conservatism that wants to regulate personal behavior and use government power to improve America’s morals. And where are the “tribal” conservatives, folks such as Rush Limbaugh who cling to “conservatism” largely as a form of in-group identity?

On the other side, people less familiar with the landscape of modern American conservatism might be surprised at Brooks’ evocation of an entirely different style of conservatism. Those unfamiliar with this traditionalist tradition might be shocked to hear of conservatives who oppose a pure laissez-faire approach to economics. Conservatives, as Brooks puts it, who want government to use a “subtle hand” to encourage family and neighborhood cohesion.

As Brooks notes, influential bloggers such as Rod Dreher at the American Conservative keep traditionalist conservatism alive and kicking. Brooks might also have included Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in this survey.

Those of us most interested in the relationship between conservatism and education can explore Deneen’s exposition of traditionalist hero Robert Nisbet.  In 1953, Nisbet had lamented the increasingly universalist nature of higher education.  Deneen argues that such trends have only accelerated.  As Deneen noted a few years back,

“The modern university system has arisen with the consent of those on the Right and Left alike, particularly in its guise as the modern research university aimed toward the end of ‘creating knowledge’ and providing educations that allow our students to ‘succeed’ and to ‘solve problems.’ Both have actively assented to a national, and increasingly international educational system that becomes annually more homogenous and standardized (This is just as true of supposedly ‘conservative’ administrations, one of which gave us ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Margaret Spellings).”

The traditionalist solution, Deneen argues, is to restore some measure of true diversity to university life in America.  Instead of a spread of cookie-cutter colleges arrayed to produce skilled mechanics of a corporate juggernaut, institutions of higher education could instead strive to emphasize the particularities of their own local communities.  Elsewhere, Deneen has suggested that this particularity must embody not only a constrained localism, but also a truer conception of universality. 

As David Brooks suggests, much of the subtlety of this sort of traditionalism has been read out of today’s conservative discussions of education.  For those of us trying to understand conservative thinking about education, however, it is a useful reminder of the complexities of what Brooks calls “half of [the Republican Party’s] intellectual ammunition.”