What progressives need to know

George Ehrhardt, one of the few avowed conservative political scientists at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, has published an article that attempts to explain to the political left what the political right’s views are on higher education.

The article appears in New Political Science, a journal that describes itself as committed to “progressive social change.” One of the endorsements on its website calls it a “leading journal of the global democratic Left.”  

Ehrhardt’s article, “Academic Conservatives and the Future of Higher Education,” (see the pre-print PDF below) is worth reading for three reasons: First, it’s amusing, since the author adopts the language of the left for some of his writing. Second, it does a good job of parsing the libertarian and conservative views of higher education, and, third, it suggests that libertarians and conservatives are inconsistent in their view of higher education, a claim that should be challenged.

So let’s begin with his leftist rhetorical flourishes.

Erhardt starts off observing that many readers blame the political right for transforming education into a “neoliberal system where colleges and universities have been reshaped to serve the interests of state and corporate elites,” leading to the “commodification of academic labor [i.e., adjuncts] and replacement of the liberal arts with occupational training.” Such attitudes, however, “privilege some voices and marginalize others,” he says.

Ehrhardt doesn’t pause to say that changes like the “commodification” of labor and the switch to occupational training did not come from the right side of the political spectrum but are results of the incentives in liberal-dominated academic institutions. His task, instead, is to present the “marginalized” views in a way that will make his progressive readers more sympathetic to conservatives. But before defending traditional conservatives, Ehrhardt really pours it on. Conservatives are “the detritus of the ancien regime.” (Whew! Remnant, maybe, but detritus?)

Now to the content. Ehrhardt sets his apologia in the context of the changes wrought in the university since the 1960s. Over time, he says, academics accepted two planks of the protestors’ platform. One is the idea that students can choose their own education rather than follow the dictates of their elders (professors make an exception for the major field, where they believe students still need guidance). That explains the rejection of a traditional “core curriculum.”

The other idea adopted by the academy is the debunking of a literary or historical canon (“Great Books”) and the idea that “some knowledges and texts are more important than others.”

Today these are considered progressive ideas and are espoused by most campus faculty.

In contrast, conservatives don’t accept the tenets of the 1960s revolution (and they admit they have “lost” the university). They still believe in the abandoned ideas that 1) professorial expertise has a place and 2) that some written works are more important than others—thus, they favor retaining a core curriculum and a canon.

Conservatives also claim that there is an “academic orthodoxy” today—but a different one than in the past, and one they reject. Ehrhardt quotes the University of Pennsylvania history professor Alan Kors, who says that faculty want to make students believe that “capitalism and individualism have created cultures that are cruel, inefficient, racist, sexist and homophobic, with oppressive caste systems, mental and behavioral.”

Progressives often respond to such statements, says Ehrhardt, with “accusations of racism, sexism, or an assumed bitterness about how academia is ‘being taken over by people who aren’t like me.’” He argues, however, that conservatives not only may be right about their claims but they have more commitment to common values than his readers suppose.

He cites a study of Texas flagship universities by the National Association of Scholars (NAS). The organization took a list of 100 important documents put together by the National Archives (a government agency, not a conservative think tank) and found that 89 percent of the faculty who taught introductory U.S. history “did not assign a single document from the list.” Furthermore, 71 percent of the readings focused on race, class, or gender.

The problem is that students can’t “think critically” about something they know nothing about. “The NAS argues that enabling students to think critically requires they learn content first, not just criticize it,” says Ehrhardt. And he gives an example in his own classes of students who “know that McCarthyism is bad, but can tell me little about why it existed, or even about the larger Cold War context at all.”

He quotes historian Victor D. Hanson, who writes that reducing reality to the memes of race, class, and sex not only ”crowds out” other subjects but can achieve the opposite of what is intended. Hanson explains that it can “comfort” students by encouraging them to think, “’Ho, hum, another dead white male who was sexist and had slaves … Good thing I’m not like that.’” Better to understand Homer’s Achilles “for a discussion of the all-too human emotions of pride, anger, and glory….”

So, conservatives aren’t opposed to teaching about class, sex, and race, Ehrhardt says, but “they resist the monopolizing of the curriculum”—just as students opposed “monopolization” in the 1960s.

Libertarians—Ehrhardt’s label for a somewhat varied class of thinkers who champion freedom—also criticize the university, but differently. They are, says Ehrhardt, “children of the revolution.” To a large extent they agree with the progressives in abandoning core curriculum and eliminating the canon. They don’t want their choices dictated, either.

But they go further than the progressives: If students can choose their courses, then why not choose their course providers—even if that means going outside academia? What about education on one’s own or selecting from an increasing array of non-traditional educational resources?

With these attitudes, many libertarians “give the impression that they oppose higher education in general (particularly for the less well-off).” Actually, says Ehrhardt, they argue that the “college for all” mantra hurts students by “locking [them] in a system that fails to deliver a quality education, forces students into punishing debt, and, most crucially, marginalizes students whose strengths lie elsewhere.”

Libertarians also detect some self-interest and even hypocrisy in today’s academic elites. Pushing everyone into college, even those who would rather be elsewhere, “privileges” well-off children, who are most likely to benefit from the current system. “For the elite who grow up in good schools, with parents who teach them to sit still and read books,” writes Ehrhardt, “the system works perfectly.” In contrast, it reduces the acceptable options for those who are less privileged, libertarians say.

Oh, and it also protects faculty jobs.

Finally, while Ehrhardt does distinguish fairly well between conservative and libertarian positions, I don’t agree that the two are inconsistent. I for one hold both conservative and libertarian ideas.

I believe in a canon—without believing that everybody has to read that canon. (I discuss the Hayekian approach to core curriculum here.) But everyone who goes to college should at least be exposed to it. That’s one of the things that college should be about.

I espouse freedom for people (including young people and their parents) to find the postsecondary school or experience that is best for them. But if college is chosen, then once the seeker becomes a student, he or she is no longer a “consumer.” A student should be subject to the guidance of knowledgeable elders.

Thus, I think the two approaches are compatible. But thank you, George, for sharing these ideas with a progressive audience. And now, thanks to this (my) essay, some conservatives have been reminded of the challenges we face.