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Academic Ghettoization of Conservatism?

I am all for universities hiring more conservative professors and Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history of the “Age of Reagan,” should be considered a worthy candidate by any hiring committee. Yet I am dubious about the job he has just taken as a one-year visiting professor in “conservative thought and policy” at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The appointment is the result of well-intentioned work by conservative UC alumni who are understandably upset that conservative perspectives are under-represented on campus. But is the solution really to create a new academic ghetto–akin to African-American, Latino studies or, more recently, “white” studies–and place conservatives in it? And what the heck is “conservative thought and policy” anyway and who exactly is qualified to teach this subject?

There are undeniably fine conservative scholars in many fields ranging from history to politics to law to economics, but “conservative thought and policy” is hardly a recognized academic specialty. It is hard to even know what it should consist of since there is no officially defined conservative canon. The “conservative” label in modern America covers a wide range of viewpoints ranging from libertarian to social conservative, from isolationist to internationalist. In fact most, but not all, American conservatives would be labeled “liberals” in the European context.

Once upon a time, William F. Buckley and National Review tried to create a common understanding based on reverence for the likes of Edmund Burke, Friedrich von Hayek, Russell Kirk, and other notable thinkers. Some neoconservatives prefer instead to refer to Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom. Whatever one thinks of these seminal thinkers, their work is far removed from the kind of nuts-and-bolts scholarship produced by conservative scholars in many fields–all of these political thinkers are for the most part irrelevant to someone studying military history, Russian literature, archaeology, Middle East studies, or numerous other disciplines far removed from political theory.

Universities should be seeking ideological as well as racial and ethnic diversity in their hiring, and they should make a point of hiring conservatives with impressive scholarly credentials. Perhaps conservatives, like other under-represented minorities, should even become the beneficiaries of affirmative action in hiring. But conservatives should not be herded into separate professorships of “conservative thought” any more than there should be (at least not formally) professorships of “socialist thought” or “liberal thought.”

The best academic inquiry should break through rigid ideological classifications, not conform to it. Simply because so many professors do in fact teach only from politically correct texts does not mean that conservatives should replicate this mistake on the right.



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