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.

A Conservative Commencement Address

College is crap.  So says the godfather of the modern conservative intellectual movement.

Though it wasn’t technically a graduation address, Russell  Kirk’s 1978 address to Hampden-Sydney College has the feel of one.  But it’s an idiosyncratic feel.  Kirk told the assembled students that college had gone to hell in a handbasket.  What could save it?  A renewed dedication to the “higher” part of higher education.

Russell Kirk kick-started the modern conservative intellectual movement with his 1953 blockbuster The Conservative Mind.  In that book, Kirk argued for a long and illustrious intellectual history for modern conservatism, reaching back through America’s finest men of letters and founding fathers to Edmund Burke.

In his 1978 address, Kirk bemoaned the state of American higher education.  Most schools had wallowed in the “educational follies” of recent trends.  The proper purpose of college, Kirk argued, was to train leaders in both profession and morality.  Since the end of World War II and new mass enrollments, colleges had lost their sense of purpose.  Kirk offered a four-part explanation of this decadence.

First, colleges no longer knew what they were for.  Instead of keeping their sights fixed on “knowledge and virtue,” universities tried to be all things to all people.

Second, colleges no longer laid out a menu of intellectual growth for students.  Colleges gave up on prescribing a course of knowledge.  Instead, in the name of freedom, colleges offered a vapid “cafeteria-style curriculum.”

Third, colleges had grown recklessly and heedlessly.  As Kirk put it,

Culturally rootless, anonymous, bewildered, bored, badly prepared for higher studies, other-directed, prey to fad and foible, presently duped by almost any unscrupulous or self-deceived ideologue, a great many of the students at Behemoth University came to feel defrauded and lost; only the more stupid did not suspect that anything was wrong with their condition.

Fourth, the decline of primary and secondary education meant that most college students no longer came prepared. Progressive fads had enervated education to such an extent that most students only knew how to fit in, not to stand out.

The central problem has been the rush to enroll, Kirk concluded.  Too many students go to college, with too little sense of purpose and too little preparation.

The cure, Kirk insisted, is to return to proper education for leaders in all professions.  With a core of truly educated people, American society and culture could rebound.  As he put it,

I am suggesting that college ought not to be a degree-mill: that it ought to be a center for genuinely humane and genuinely scientific studies, attended by young men of healthy intellectual curiosity who actually possess some interest in the development of mind and conscience. I am saying that the higher learning is meant to develop order in the commonwealth, for the republic’s sake. I am arguing that a system of higher education, which has forgotten these ends, is decadent; but that decay may be arrested, and that reform and renewal still are conceivable.

Though critics might cry “elitism,” Kirk concluded, his vision was anything but. The current vision of college as processing-plant cranked out cadres of quarter-educated elites. These dimwits moved society in preposterous directions, madly confident all the while that their elite education had prepared them for leadership.

As we wind up commencement season, I can’t help but wonder how Kirk’s lament would have gone over as a graduation speech.  It lacks some of the traditional encouraging rhetoric of that genre.  Would be-gowned professors and deans be able to sit on the stage and nod sagely as Kirk blasted their life’s work?

 

Shelfies II: Electric Boogaloo

Keep those shelfies pouring in!  Send ILYBYGTH a snapshot of your bookshelf.  What is on there?  Why?

Today we’re sharing our second shelfie.  Last time we posted our front-and-center pile of books.  This time, we’re going just to the left.

What's on YOUR shelf?

What’s on YOUR shelf?

Starting at the top, we have George Nash’s crucial 1976 Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.  Everyone who hopes to understand American conservatism should read this volume.  Nash famously argued that the postwar conservative intellectual movement brought together disparate strains of conservative thinking into a consciously fusionist effort.  Burkean traditionalists allied with libertarians and anti-communists to make a newly powerful movement.  The book itself is terrific, though some later readers have assumed that Nash was speaking more broadly than he was.  See below.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind has been just as potent a book as Nash’s among conservative nerds.  Writing in the 1950s, Kirk attempted to establish a long and unbroken chain of conservative intellectualism from Edmund Burke through the mid-twentieth century.  Along the way, Kirk emphasizes an idiosyncratic group of writers and politicians as leaders of conservatism, and repositions conservatism as a central tradition of American life and letters, rather than as a collection of fringe loudmouths.

I also like David Farber’s The Rise and Fall of American Conservatism.   Last spring, I taught a senior seminar for history majors in the history of American conservatism.  I waffled on whether to make Farber’s book the central narrative.  In the end, I chose to have students read Kirk instead.  Why?  Unlike Kirk, Farber writes from outside the movement.  He defines conservatism more narrowly, and in a way that would not challenge the thinking of the undergrads, I decided.  For Farber, conservatism consists mainly of a political fight against “liberalism.”  Conservatism got its start, Farber argued, with Robert Taft’s fight against the New Deal’s big-government approach to social welfare.  To many of the students I worked with, Reagan-esque anti-government conservatism is the only kind they know.  Farber’s book is a great history of that sort of conservatism.  But I wanted to get smart sophisticated students to make the definition of conservatism their central intellectual challenge.  Farber’s book made it too easy for students to think that Reagan’s style of conservatism was the ONLY definition of conservatism.

Jerome Himmelstein’s To the Right is a sociological look at the boundaries of American conservatism.  It is worth reading.  IMHO, though, it takes Nash’s definition too glibly as its starting point.  Himmelstein assumes too comfortably that “conservatism” is nothing more nor less than the definition William F. Buckley and his comrades gave it in the 1940s and 1950s.  Too simple.

Starting with the blue-bound dissertations on the left, I recommend two: Kenneth K. Bailey’s Anti-Evolution Crusade of the Nineteen-Twenties (PhD dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1954); and Ferenc M. Szasz, “Three Fundamentalist Leaders: The Roles of William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and William Jennings Bryan in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy ,” (PhD dissertation, University of Rochester, 1969).  Historians of religion will likely know Szasz’s name; he went on to a glorious academic career.  His dissertation study of these three leaders is still worth reading.  Bailey’s dissertation suffers from a simplistic understanding of the nature of fundamentalism, but his collection of newspaper accounts is still unbeaten.  I relied on both of these dissertation while writing my dissertation book.  For everyone interested in 1920s fundamentalism and anti-evolution, they are worth hunting down.

Laurence Moore’s Religious Outsiders is also required reading.  Though these days no historian of religion would say that Moore’s “outsiders” don’t get academic attention, at the time Moore’s book came out it pushed the field in healthy new directions.

I don’t know why James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage doesn’t get more attention.  It is one of my favorite academic histories.  Gilbert takes a look in this book at a central question for all of us interested in education and culture.  Why was there such an explosion of anxiety in the mid-twentieth century about crime and criminality among young people?

Of course, I have the old dog-eared copy of Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture relegated to a side position now that I’ve finally purchased the 2006 revised edition.

Educational historians out there will recognize Jackie Blount’s Destined to Rule the Schools.  Among educational historians, one of the most studied and fruitful lines of questioning has been the complicated relationship between femininity and schooling.  On the one hand, the systematization of public schooling often put men principals and superintendents in charge of female classroom teachers.  Women were seen as “naturally” more fit for caring for young people; men were seen as more fit for running the show.  But as Blount explores, many women were able to use stereotypes of femininity to build a professional network as school administrators as well.

Next up, two of Barry Hankins’ titles, American Evangelicals and Francis Schaeffer.  For people with an interest in the history of American evangelicalism, I can’t recommend the first title strongly enough.  Hankins is a terrific writer and a keen historian.  In this book he combines readability with academic thoroughness, which is hard to do.  And, as readers are aware, there are few intellectual figures as central as Schaeffer to the mind of evangelical America.  As you can see, I ended up with an extra copy somehow.  If anyone would like it, just let me know; I’ll be happy to put it in the mail for you if you send your land address.

It’s almost impossible to see hidden in there, but I also like Stephen Pyne’s Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction.  There are a lot of “so-you-want-to-write-a-dissertation” books out there, and I’m sure every nerd has his or her favorite.  I like Pyne’s book for its combination of nitty-gritty advice and head-in-the-clouds ambition.  It’s not easy to remember how difficult it can be for beginners to write academic history.  I always recommend Pyne’s book for graduate students with whom I work.  They never have any free time for extra reading, but I think Pyne’s guide is worth their time.

Last but not least, I’ve got Barry Franklin’s From ‘Backwardness’ to ‘At-Risk.’ I got this book to use with my doctoral history-of-ed class.  In the end, it got bumped from the syllabus.  But the book is still very much worth reading for those interested in educational history.  As the title suggests, it looks at the history of what we now call “special education.”  In addition to telling this story, though, Franklin offers insights into the way educational policy has been framed and the ways students have been defined.

OK, nuf sed!  Send in your shelfies so we can all get a sense of what you’ve got on your shelf and why.

 

 

Boston Bombings: Blame the Democratic University

Who or what is to blame for the horrific Boston Marathon killings?  Conservative commentator Peter S. Rieth blames America’s doddering higher-education system.

In a post at The Imaginative Conservative, Rieth blames both a warped immigration culture and a degraded university culture for the bombings.  America’s universities, Rieth argues, have decayed into party camps, hosting dunderheaded drinkers with little sense of intellectualism.

The surviving accused Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was a student at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.

Such “gargantuan democratic institutions” as the university must bear some of the blame for a culture of violence, Rieth believes. When America’s university system was “forcibly and systematically democratized over the past few decades,” the original purpose was squeezed out.  In its place has grown a culture so degraded that murderers find a happy home.  As Rieth writes,

In this democratic university, the real students and the real professors would be but a faction, and a minority faction at that. The intelligentsia would be forced into the corner of their own institutions to make room for the “college means party,  study means cliff notes” crowd. The democratic university would be open and find room for everyone,  including – apparently – the psychopathic and dangerous. To those who may think I am over reaching, please consider this question: why do we live in an America where these heinous acts are perpetuated by young people who are students? . . . The university system in America; that assembly line of mediocrity, has failed to such an extent that we now have students killing people.

Amid the flurry of commentary over the Boston murders, this is the first I’ve seen that has blamed the educational system.  To be fair, as a Kirkean traditionalist, Rieth may not represent a large segment of American conservative opinion.  But Rieth’s vehement hostility to higher education seems fairly common among conservative pundits.

Will some conservatives join Rieth in blaming college for atrocity?

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.”