Teaching Conservatism, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the second article on teaching about conservatism. Part I was posted earlier this week.)

In Part I of this essay, I put down some thoughts about how rewarding it can be to teach a course on American Conservatism. In this part, I offer some practical suggestions.

Wear Masks

Teaching politically sensitive issues poses a dilemma for teachers. On the one hand, treading lightly lets students’ prejudices and half-formed ideas go unexamined. On the other hand, challenging students on partisan issues pushes many into a self-defensive schizophrenia—telling the teacher what he wants to hear while privately walling off their views from anything the teacher says.

Having done that myself as a student, I’m never surprised when I hear my students talk about doing it in other classes. And yet, a thorough class on conservatism should leave no hot button unpushed, which makes this particularly problematic.

Wearing masks (figuratively, though personally I’ve found our Theatre Department quite helpful with costumes) can solve this dilemma.   

As I teach, my professed beliefs change, taking on the face of whatever strand of conservatism we’re covering that class. When we talk about libertarianism, I make a passionate case for the free market; when we talk about social conservatism, I plead with them to see how their “live and let live” attitude slowly but surely wrecks society for all of us.

This role-playing does three things. First, it makes the arguments real for students at a gut level, rather than as third-party abstractions. Second, it makes the interplay of challenging students natural, like a conversation instead of a lecture. Finally, it lifts the cloud of fear that many students feel when arguing with the person who grades their work; since everyone knows that I’m not really “myself,” they feel free to raise whatever objections they can think of.

Plus, it’s fun.

Make Use of Intra-conservative Debates

Playing an advocate for different strands of conservatism does, however, require the instructor to find alternative ways of presenting critical views. This is tougher for some perspectives than others, but which ones depends on the instructor’s own views. Progressive writers offer an obvious source of critiques, but their ignorance of conservative thought (as I discussed in part 1) often makes using their critiques impractical.

Instead, I recommend using conservative critiques of other perspectives.  For example, the combination of Hayek’s “Why I am not a Conservative” and Kirk’s “Why I am not a Libertarian” offers rich fodder for teasing out the weaknesses (and strengths) of both authors’ approaches.  

One might ask students to think about whether Reagan’s “Morning in America” presidency fits with Oakeshott’s suspicious view of change. The era of agrarian conservatism is long past, but it still offers a powerful rebuke of modern conservatism. The list goes on.

As the course progresses and students understand the different strands in more depth, they begin to see these critiques on their own, enhancing class discussion.

Use Primary Sources

There are enough authentic conservative voices in print to fill a semester’s worth of rich discussion. Ironically, conservatives’ exile from academia keeps them readable, without the dense prose and theoretical jargon of contemporary “studies.”

Connect “Conservative Thought” to the “Conservative Movement”

In my pre-semester survey of other instructors’ on-line syllabi, I found many who explicitly focused on “American Conservative Thought,” but I think this is a mistake.

For whatever reason, conservative intellectuals often share progressives’ disdain for rank-and-file conservatives. To pick an extreme example, consider the John Birch Society.  

William Buckley famously referred to the society’s leader as “removed from reality and common sense” and refused to endorse Goldwater until he had distanced himself from the group. And yet, in spite of being mocked by conservative elites, it was the society rather than Buckley’s magazine that laid the foundation for the grassroots network that culminated in Reagan’s election.  

The neo-conservatives are another example: if one only thinks of them as a small group of intellectuals that fell out of favor in 2006, it is easy to miss how neo-conservative the foreign policies of both major parties are in 2012.

There is a pedagogical reason to study the movement, too. In my experience in this class and others, students respond to social movements differently than they do elite institutions or intellectuals.  Movements are comprised of people like them, living out ideas in their daily existence. To the average student who will never be a politician or writer, thinking of conservatism as a movement ties it to his or her own life and makes it real.

Take Advantage of Outside Resources

The progressive domination of academia has a silver lining—there are a growing number of outside sources eager to provide online information about conservatism for instructors.   

They offer an array of resources: sample syllabi, topic guides, hyperlinked reading lists, videos to use in class, and more.  I found many of these to be helpful as I prepared for class. My annotated bibliography is available here, and from that page you can easily go to pages with the course syllabus and related materials.

Guest speakers are another valuable resource.  Scarce as they are in academia, conservatives fill our communities and I’ve found that many of them enjoy sharing their beliefs with students.  

In my small community, I’m fortunate to personally know leading conservative politicians who’ve spoken in class, but there are plenty of good speakers to be found anywhere. If class visits are not possible, Skype is an option. Earlier this year, my students had a lively discussion about libertarian views on higher education with the Pope Center’s research director, George Leef, via Skype.

Concluding Thoughts about Departmental Politics

Unfortunately, anyone considering teaching a course on conservatism has to consider his or her department’s reaction. Full-time adjuncts, for example, might want to think twice about offering a class like this in case a senior faculty member takes exception to the course content and weighs in against their contract renewal.

Even those (like me) in positions of safety have to consider whether we could get official approval to teach the course at all, much less to add it to the curriculum.  This obviously depends on the instructor’s individual situation, but I would like to offer some words of encouragement.

Don’t automatically assume the worst. As it turned out, my department chair resembles Paul Lyons: progressive, but with a particular vision of conservatism he wanted me to teach my students (to my surprise, he even offered me his first edition Conscience of a Conservative to use in class).   

Even in an unsupportive environment, open-topic classes (some schools require a “senior seminar” of the instructor’s choice, our school requires an open-ended junior-level writing course) offer opportunities to avoid the need for approval. If battles do loom on the horizon, take advantage of other course offerings. Many political science departments (like mine) have courses on Marxism, for example.  Take a look at that professor’s syllabus and include similar stylistic elements: if anyone complains, point to the syllabi and explain that you’re following well-established precedent.

Looking at the aftermath of the 2012 election, Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein argues that sympathetic politicians often fail to clearly defend (or even articulate) conservative principles because they never learn them in the first place. I think that omission does a great disservice to this country’s political dialogue, and more courses like this can only lead to a richer understanding of politics for everyone.