Monday, June 15, 2009

Conservatism and the University Curriculum

If they can find time for feminist theory, they can find time for Edmund Burke

The political science departments at elite private universities such as Harvard and Yale, at leading small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Williams, and at distinguished large public universities like the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley, offer undergraduates a variety of courses on a range of topics. But one topic the undergraduates at these institutions -- and at the vast majority of other universities and colleges -- are unlikely to find covered is conservatism.

There is no legitimate intellectual justification for this omission. The exclusion of conservative ideas from the curriculum contravenes the requirements of a liberal education and an objective study of political science.

Political science departments are generally divided into the subfields of American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Conservative ideas are relevant in all four, but the obvious areas within the political science discipline to teach about the great tradition of conservative ideas and thinkers are American politics and political theory. That rarely happens today.

To be sure, a political science department may feature a course on American political thought that includes a few papers from "The Federalist" and some chapters from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

But most students will hear next to nothing about the conservative tradition in American politics that stretches from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to William F. Buckley Jr. to Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan. This tradition emphasizes moral and intellectual excellence, worries that democratic practices and egalitarian norms will threaten individual liberty, attends to the claims of religion and the role it can play in educating citizens for liberty, and provides both a vigorous defense of free-market capitalism and a powerful critique of capitalism's relentless overturning of established ways. It also recognized early that communism represented an implacable enemy of freedom. And for 30 years it has been animated by a fascinating quarrel between traditionalists, libertarians and neoconservatives.

While ignoring conservatism, the political theory subfield regularly offers specialized courses in liberal theory and democratic theory; African-American political thought and feminist political theory; the social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school; and numerous versions of postmodern political theory.

Students may encounter in various political theory courses an essay by the British historian and philosopher Michael Oakeshott, or a chapter from a book by the German-born American political philosopher Leo Strauss. But they will learn very little about the constellation of ideas and thinkers linked in many cases by a common concern with the dangers to liberty that stem from the excesses to which liberty and equality give rise.

That constellation begins to come into focus at the end of the 18th century with Edmund Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France." It draws on the conservative side of the liberal tradition, particularly Adam Smith and David Hume and includes Tocqueville's great writings on democracy and aristocracy and John Stuart Mill's classical liberalism. It gets new life in the years following World War II from Friedrich Hayek's seminal writings on liberty and limited government and Russell Kirk's reconstruction of traditionalist conservatism. And it is elevated by Michael Oakeshott's eloquent reflections on the pervasive tendency in modern politics to substitute abstract reason for experience and historical knowledge, and by Leo Strauss's deft explorations of the dependence of liberty on moral and intellectual virtue.

Without an introduction to the conservative tradition in America and the conservative dimensions of modern political philosophy, political science students are condemned to a substantially incomplete and seriously unbalanced knowledge of their subject. Courses on this tradition should be mandatory for students of politics; today they are not even an option at most American universities.

When progressives, who dominate the academy, confront arguments about the need for the curriculum to give greater attention to conservative ideas, they often hear them as a demand for affirmative action. Usually they mishear. Certainly affirmative action for conservatives is a terrible idea.

Political science departments should not seek out professors with conservative political opinions. Nor should they lower scholarly standards. That approach would embrace the very assumption that has corrupted liberal education: that to study and teach particular political ideas one's identity is more important than the breadth and depth of one's knowledge and the rigor of one's thinking

One need not be a Puritan to study and teach colonial American religious thought, an ancient Israelite to study and teach biblical thought, or a conservative or Republican to study and teach conservative ideas. Affirmative action in university hiring for political conservatives should be firmly rejected, certainly by conservatives and defenders of liberal education.

To be sure, if political science departments were compelled to hire competent scholars to offer courses on conservative ideas and conservative thinkers, the result would be more faculty positions filled by political conservatives, since they and not progressives tend to take an interest in studying conservative thought. But there is no reason why scholars with progressive political opinions and who belong to the Democratic Party can not, out of a desire to understand American political history and modern political philosophy, study and teach conservatism in accordance with high intellectual standards. It would be good if they did.

It would also be good if every political science department offered a complementary course on the history of progressivism in America. This would discourage professors from conflating American political thought as a whole with progressivism, which they do in a variety of ways, starting with the questions they tend to ask and those they refuse to entertain.

Incorporating courses on conservatism in the curriculum may, as students graduate, disperse, and pursue their lives, yield the political benefit of an increase in mutual understanding between left and right. In this way, reforming the curriculum could diminish the polarization that afflicts our political and intellectual classes. But that benefit is admittedly distant and speculative.

In the near term, giving conservative ideas their due will have the concrete and immediate benefit of advancing liberal education's proper and commendable goal, which is the formation of free and well-furnished minds.


British home education rules 'an abuse of civil liberties'

Parents could be banned from educating children at home in a move branded a "very bad day for civil liberties"

For the first time, local councils will have the power to enter family homes and question young children, under new plans. They will also be able to order under-16s to school if there are fears about their safety or quality of education.

Families' groups said they were "absolutely devastated" by the move, claiming it undermined their freedom to educate children beyond state control. Annette Taberner, from the group Education Otherwise, said: "To suggest parents can continue to home educate but then give powers to local authorities to enter our homes and interview our children without an adult being present is just extraordinary. This is nothing short of an attempt to regulate the private lives of people. It is a very bad day for civil liberties in this country."

A review ordered by the Government estimated that as many as 80,000 children could be educated at home. Previous estimates put the figure between 20,000 and 50,000.

Graham Badman, former director of education at Kent County Council, who carried out the study, recommended forcing all parents to register sons and daughters with local authorities every year.

The review - accepted in full by the Government - said officials from local authorities should have the right to access their home with just two weeks' notice and speak to children to ensure they were "safe and well". They can revoke the right to home schooling if they have serious concerns over their welfare, it said.

Parents must also submit a statement outlining what children will be taught over the following 12 months. Councils can impose a "school attendance order" if they believe the education received is not up to scratch, with parents facing legal action if they refuse.

Mr Badman said a further review would be carried out to judge the structure of an acceptable home education. Releasing the report in central London on Thursday, he suggesting children aged eight should be "competent in handling numbers, have "rudimentary" computing skills and be able to read. Lessons for those aged 11 to 16 should be based around "broad systems of knowledge", he said. "By raising the bar in terms of entry to home education, you effectively raise the standard of education on offer," he said.

It is not yet known when the reforms will be introduced. New legislation will be needed to enforce rules on registration and local authority access to homes.

The review was launched amid fears some children educated at home could be at risk of abuse. Mrs Taberner, a mother of two from Sheffield, said the "horrendous" suggestion had been "trotted out by the Government" to justify the crackdown.

Mr Badman's report said there was "no evidence" to suggest home education was linked to forced marriage, servitude or child trafficking. But he claimed the overall number of children "known to children's social care in some local authorities is disproportionately high relative to the size of [the] home education population."


Incomprehensible British university professors

UNIVERSITY students have come forward to claim that the poor standard of English spoken by their lecturers means they have run up debts of more than £20,000 without the prospect of a good degree. The economics students at Kingston University, southwest London, say some of the academics’ accents are so heavy and many of their words so incomprehensible that it is not worth attending their lectures.

Two students contacted The Sunday Times last week after reading a report in the paper describing how another undergraduate at Kingston, Joanna al-Zahawi, 22, had resorted to employing a private tutor. One factor was her despair at her lecturers’ poor English. Both students declined to be named. One of them, awaiting his degree results, said he had lost hope of obtaining a good-quality degree because he had been so poorly taught.

“In this economy, what graduate employer is going to want someone with a 2:2 from Kingston?” he said. “I have run up £22,000 of debts and I have no hope of getting a graduate level job.” Another said: “One of the lecturers had real problems saying basic words – like ‘zero’, which he pronounced ‘chino’. That is confusing when someone is talking about economics.”

Students around the country are becoming more vocal in expressing their discontent about poor value for money. Degree courses now cost undergraduates more than £3,000 a year. Protests are under way at universities including Bristol and Manchester as well as Edinburgh – where English students, although not Scottish ones, pay fees.

At Bolton University, students have posted anonymous cards in lecturers’ pigeonholes giving them marks out of 10. At Manchester Metropolitan, undergraduates send a text message to their student union when academics are late for classes and lectures or cancel them. The University and College Union, which represents academics, describes these actions as “hate mail” and “bullying”.

Kingston University said: “The academic job market is international. It would be unusual for a university department to be staffed only by people with English as their first language. In the case of Kingston’s economics department, just under half of lecturers are not native to the UK.”


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