Shh, I Found Some Conservatives

Last month, for the fourth year, I attended the annual meeting of the Association of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC). Think of it as a conference about Great Books (the biggest subset of “core texts”) and think of “core courses” as those few remaining classes in which instructors are allowed to introduce classics—and expect their students to read the works themselves, not just short snippets.

This was the biggest ACTC conference ever—a wonderful conference—with more than 420 people crowded into the Omni Hotel in New Haven, Connecticut, most of them college faculty members. They were there to do one of two things: to share ways in which they involve their students in the classics or to probe the meaning of great works, such as the issue of liberty vs. equality in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” or the issue of redistribution in Aristophanes’ Plutos.

I relish every moment of these conferences, but each year, I ask myself, “Where are the conservatives? Where are the classical liberals?”  

At these meetings I rarely find members of other groups that I know revere the classics and support core courses—organizations such as the Philadelphia Society, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), and the National Association of Scholars (NAS). Nor have I ever seen the leaders of these organizations at a meeting. Only Liberty Fund, a classical liberal organization that publishes out-of-print classics, is consistently represented, primarily to inform attendees about its books and online offerings. Its leadership, too, is missing.

And typically when I return home each year and mention ACTC to faculty friends or colleagues at these organizations, I get blank stares (or the email equivalent). They observe that the conference sounds like something worth paying attention to, but hardly any of them do.

This year was a little different. I came across a few scholars who share my focus and viewpoint (they too want to retain the corpus of Western thought and its contribution to liberty). And a board member of the National Association of Scholars was there.

In fact, I happened upon a session on “the issue of progress” where at least two members had attended a recent Philadelphia Society meeting that had Progressivism as the conference theme. The session, with about 15 people, was a lively, intense two-and-a-half hours, with plenty of criticism (and not much defense) of Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey. One of the professors ended the session saying, “I wish my seminars at school were like this.” Those participants didn’t trumpet their ideology, and perhaps they don’t consider themselves classical liberals. But they appreciate the issues of liberty and limited government, just as I do.

Now, it is true that conservatives qua conservatives (people deliberately labeling themselves as such) might not be welcomed by ACTC with open arms. Some conservative groups have “an agenda,” an ACTC board member told me. Indeed, in 2002 when the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about ACTC—the last time that it did so—the reporter, Carlin Romano, emphasized the organization’s deliberate intent to be mainstream.

The association, he wrote, “at its inception, chose to avoid words or phrases in its title, such as ‘Great Books’ or ‘Western,’ that might signal a rigid position in the culture wars.” And Stephen Balch, founder of the National Association of Scholars, who has attended an ACTC meeting in the past, confirmed that. He told me that ACTC started out “open to various concepts of what a ‘core’ might be. ” While Balch respects the organization, he suggests that the big-tent approach to classics is somewhat at odds with the views of those who champion a Western-civilization core, which includes many NAS members.

J. Scott Lee, the energetic executive director of ACTC, explained the organization’s position to me this way: 

Ultimately, conservative or liberal labels don’t matter within the context of ACTC, because its orientation is as a professional, liberal arts educational association providing a forum for faculty and administrators to discuss the content of ‘world classics’ within curricula of commonly taken courses in undergraduate liberal arts degrees.  

I know a few of the board members’ political views and they range across the political spectrum, but what matters is not their political views, but the shared commitment to helping institutions offer core text curricula to students in the U.S., Canada, and around the world. That’s the agenda, no larger nor smaller.

I can attest that ACTC is suspicious of formal coalitions with conservative groups or any group that has what might be viewed as a right-wing ideology. (It wasn’t as delicate with the leftist Great Books Foundation, heirs of the University of Chicago’s Great Books movement. The foundation’s magazine Common Review, now online, favors discussions of modern intellectuals such as Jonathan Franzen, Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, and David Foster Wallace.)  And the speakers from the podium have a tendency to disparage the world of commerce.

But, heck, we’re talking about the academy here. Do we expect conservative views to be admired? Of course not! And why should ACTC endanger its future by affiliating too closely with those of us who disdain the left-wing tilt of the academy? ACTC is doing a terrific job of bringing together the remnant of faculty members who love to teach the classics, whatever their views about President Obama or American exceptionalism.

Perhaps the fact that key conservative groups are underrepresented at ACTC meetings, then, is good for ACTC.  But it isn’t good for the conservative and classical liberal organizations or their members. ACTC’s goals are our goals, and those goals are threatened by the dismissal of classics and serious reading. As one attendee said, “The people at that meeting are fighting for their jobs.” 

Aren’t we stronger when we hang together? In my view, the organizations that support a Western core should know about, welcome, encourage, and, to the extent possible, cooperate with ACTC. Scott Lee’s organization is working in the vineyard that we too are tending, and they are doing a good job of it, maybe even better than we are.  (To assess their efforts, please have a look at one or two of my previous articles on ACTC.)

I for one will continue to speak out for the organization and will attend when I can. The classics are a legacy for all of humankind, and they should be protected and shared, whatever the ideological predilections of their readers.