Why Teach a Class on Conservatism?

(Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a two-part series. The second part appeared on November 22, 2012.)

Whatever its faults, tenure still protects heretics, and in today’s intellectual climate conservatives, the unwanted stepchildren in the Ivory Tower, certainly appreciate that. Newly tenured, I offered an upper-level political science seminar last spring called “Conservatism in America.”  This was a new course for me, but not unprecedented in my department at Appalachian State University. We regularly offer parallel classes on two other “-isms:” Marxism and anarchism.

In the hope my experiences may help others, I present this two-part essay on teaching conservatism. The first half explores why the course can be valuable; the second half will offer suggestions on how to do it effectively.

The course’s primary goal was to answer the question “What is conservatism?” Though the question sounds simple, in practice it proves surprisingly difficult to answer. Take President Obama’s claim that conservatives believe “we are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” When I heard the quote I had to double-check the transcript for myself. How could the president keep a straight face and assert that Southern Baptists think everyone should make their own rules? Aren’t these the same people he attacks for trying to impose their rules on everyone’s bodies? 

Still, it isn’t really fair to single him out. I regularly hear my own colleagues—professors of political science—express their bewilderment about why conservatives believe the things they do. Too many times, they take the easy way out: racism, closed-mindedness, ignorance, or conversely, a fiendishly clever conspiracy.

Hearing all these things leaves me concerned for conservative students on our campuses. Surveys show that roughly 40 percent of Americans identify themselves as “conservatives.” The percentage is probably lower among college students, maybe 20 percent at Appalachian State, but still a significant fraction.

At best, conservative students, who may have arrived at college with only a half-formed impression of their identity as conservatives, likely leave college with little more. Perhaps they have Oakeshott’s “conservative disposition,” perhaps they have faith in free-market solutions or Biblical morality, perhaps (like many of my students) they have a rural Southerner’s instinctive distaste for “big city liberals.”

What they don’t get is a better understanding of themselves, or how their beliefs fit into political debates about society and the larger ideas that animate them. A book by the late Paul Lyons, American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, provides a perfect example of why. The book, hailed by the Chronicle of Higher Education as a book that conservatives should be grateful for, narrates a semester the author, a self-professed progressive, spent teaching a course on American conservatism. To the author’s credit, he makes a valiant effort to understand something that doesn’t come naturally to him.

Like so many others, though, Lyons ends up projecting his own beliefs about what conservatism should be, rather than coming to terms with conservatism’s babel of different voices. Along the way he rules out the “childishness of libertarian selfishness” and the “absurdity of Biblical fundamentalism” in his mission to justify his own definition of conservatism—a thoroughly sanitized Burkeanism (p.88). Contemporary conservatives just don’t get it, he announces.

Similarly, even conservative activists fall prey to this habit of believing their own views are the One True Faith. One only need witness the frequency of the term “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) in the right-wing blogosphere. All of these writers, whether left or right, scholar or activist, send the same message: “If you don’t believe what I think you should believe you’re not a true conservative.”  

The reality is that there is no single definition of conservatism, and students need a guide to the sprawling, brawling mess that is American conservatism. For example, most conservatives claim to like the words “small government,” but no one can agree on what they mean: libertarians wrestle with religious conservatives about social liberties; traditional conservatives fight neo-conservatives about foreign policy; big business conservatives fight agrarian conservatives about regulation; some conservatives even insist that big government isn’t really so bad. Anyone who claims to have a single conservative answer is trying to sell you something.

Conservative students reflect this diversity. Rarely did the conservatives in my class achieve majority support for any proposition we considered; unanimity was out of the question. Instead, they tried to place themselves in the constellation of conservative ideas, learning each one’s strengths and weaknesses.

That said, the course included students from across the spectrum. Many of my students were progressives, including Obama campaign workers, members of the local Occupy movement, and College Democrats. I didn’t convert any of them—that wasn’t my goal. What I did hear, time and time again, was “oh, so that’s why conservatives say that.” Carefully tracing the logic of conservative positions helped those students overcome their stereotypes and engage in fruitful discussion.

Instead of partisan divides, students found themselves in shifting alliances: our Occupier discovering—to his amazement—how much he has in common with Tea Party organizers; progressives and big business conservatives joining forces to oppose Joel Salatin’s agrarian libertarianism; traditional conservatives and anti-war Democrats ganging up on neo-conservative foreign policy. They came into the class thinking in terms of opposing camps; they left knowing that thoughtful individuals can reach different conclusions, but still find common ground.

With each new version of conservatism we covered, I got to watch students, liberal and conservative alike, wrestle with wholly new ideas, coming to understand how reasonable individuals can take perspectives different from their own.

Doing this in the context of academia’s dominant progressivism, however, requires a teacher who can process these arguments at a gut level, not one who can explain them like a museum exhibit. Paul Lyons, whose book I mentioned above, is an experienced observer of politics and, he tells us, did an enormous amount of reading to prepare for the course.

When I read his pronouncement that Burke represents “true” conservatism, I was eager to see how he covered Russell Kirk, the British orator’s leading American interpreter. What a disappointment! No mention of the “permanent things.” His description of the three days they spent on Kirk and Richard Weaver included nothing about the authority of tradition. Deference to the accumulated wisdom of generations lies at the core of Burkean conservatism, but instead his students heard about Burke’s ambivalence towards capitalism and Bill O’Reilly’s “war on Christmas.”

It is telling that a (progressive) professor spent a semester trying to teach his students that Burkean prudence is “true” conservatism (echoing the punditry of David Brooks, David Frum, Sam Tannenhaus, and others), yet he didn’t even present Burke’s thought well enough to realize why it repels many contemporary conservatives. In my class I found that bowing to custom provoked intense resistance from students, even self-identified conservatives.

My research specialty is actually Japanese politics, but living as a conservative in academia has forced me to read widely and think deeply about conservatism, and I suspect most of my fellow travellers would say the same. I hope that all of them would consider a teaching a course like this, for their own sake and that of their students.

In Part 2 of this essay I will continue with some practical suggestions for anyone thinking about how they might proceed with such a course.

(The second part of this essay will be posted on Friday, November 23.)