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The fantasy life of conservative intellectuals


Here’s the lede to a 1300-word NYT essay on how it’s up to liberal professors to confess their conservative students that there’s more to conservatism than Donald Trump and owning the libs:

When conservative undergraduates look around for mentors these days, who do they find? Not conservative professors, at least not very often. Our ranks have been slowly vanishing since the 1980s. Instead, those students find organizers from the MAGA-verse who teach them how to own the libs. That’s who is instructing the next generation of Republican leaders, modeling how to act and think like good conservatives. It’s a squalid education, one that deepens their alienation from the university and guarantees that the next generation of elected officials will make Ron DeSantis’s war against higher education look tame.

Liberal professors have the power to help solve this problem. They can show their conservative students how to become thoughtful and knowledgeable partisans — by exposing them to a rich conservative intellectual tradition that stretches back to Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke, David Hume and Adam Smith. They could mentor their conservative students, set up reading groups, help vet speakers and create courses on the conservative intellectual tradition.

This is easier said than done, of course. One challenge is that there are not many incentives to take undergraduate teaching and mentoring seriously, at least not at research universities, which instead dole out promotions based on research and publication. A bigger obstacle, though, is that very few professors know much at all about the conservative intellectual tradition. Many assume there is little of value in it.

The piece goes on to argue that because there are so few professors who hold conservative political beliefs, conservative college students don’t know who David Hume et. al. are, hence the GOP has gone fascist (or something).

Let’s touch on a few of the wild fallacies at the base of this sort of thing:

(1) The overwhelming majority of college students spend essentially no time learning anything about the intellectual history of Western politics over the last 250 years, which is actually a fairly esoteric subject if you don’t teach at a SLAC or a selective university (the author is a professor at Claremont McKenna College, home of our friends at the Claremont Institute, which is of course Donald Trump’s biggest fan club that features people who read books with big words in them).

(2) The reason Donald Trump and his oppositional mini-me DeSantis are the leading contenders for the GOP presidential nomination is because the Republican party has become a radical reactionary party, and the (extremely limited) extent to which American college students are exposed to European intellectual history has exactly zero to do with that, for what should be incredibly obvious reasons.

(3) The idea that professors who do teach courses that touch on European intellectual history don’t teach Burke, Hume, et. al. because they’re so liberal is just . . . I mean what can you even say about this? I teach a course which among other things does a deep dive into the intellectual roots of 20th century European fascism — a subject which has taken on a sudden relevance to the study of contemporary American law and politics — but that’s not because I actually have some sort of sympathy for fascist thought.

(4) The idea that I’m supposed to make sure my conservative students turn into good as opposed to bad conservatives should be as obviously nutty as the idea that I’m supposed to make sure that my Christian students turn into the right as opposed to the wrong kind of Christians, or that my leftist students turn into the right kind of leftists etc. etc.

This essay is yet another classic case of every accusation is a confession, since it imagines that American colleges and universities are largely concerned with the political indoctrination of their students — this is an absolutely crazy notion if you have the slightest idea of what actually goes on at American colleges and universities — and it thus goes on to advocate the right as opposed to the wrong kind of indoctrination.

It’s also a another classic case of the NYT assuming that the typical American college is an Ivy League university or a SLAC, and that the typical American college student is getting a liberal arts education of any kind, which are two other truly wacky notions.

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