In a pleasing reversal of roles, the Wall Street Journal asked several college presidents to write admissions essays. Russell K. Osgood, the president of my undergraduate college, Grinnell, was tasked to write on a “character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work… that has had an influence on you.”
Rather unexpectedly, President Osgood chose Edmund Burke. Now, it’s been eighteen years since I graduated from Grinnell, but I don’t recall that the name of Burke ever darkened my door when I was there. I did, certainly, have some very fine instructors: thanks, Profs. Smith, Moyer, Bateman, and Strauber.
But President Osgood’s essay did not give me much joy. He views Burke as a conservative, and that makes me twitch. In his time, Burke was a Whig. Nor, contra President Osgood, did Burke support the American Revolution. He opposed the British government’s policies that sparked the Revolution, but he urged the colonists not to separate from Britain, and called on the government to return to its policy of ‘benign neglect.’
Burke also defended Britain’s rule in India, arguing that the real enemy was the spurious “geographical morality” that justified corrupt rule in India while claiming to oppose it in Britain. He was, in other words, a believer in the superiority – at their best – of British values and institutions. He was a conservative only in the sense that he supported the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and wanted to preserve its virtues from dangerous innovators like Lord North. For Burke, to go back was to go forward: to be conservative was to be liberal.
That is a measured view. And that is where President Osgood ends his essay: with the claim that he is a Burkean in practice as well as thought. Well, I am not qualified to speak fully to that. But when Grinnell had Angela Davis – the former two-time Communist candidate for vice president – as its commencement speaker in 2007, that did not strike me as Burkean, in thought or practice.
Commencement speakers are selected by a faculty/student committee. President Osgood had the power to overturn its selection of Davis – who is now (doesn’t this sum up the academy?) Professor Emeritus of the History of Consciousness at the University of California – but he declined to do so, even though I know he had no sympathy for it.
This from a president who claims that “it is incumbent on those who land in positions of power and influence, whether in 18th century Britain or today, to act on their moral intuitions in what they do.”
If President Osgood feels strongly about the value of Burkean thought, he should lead a class on the subject. I have my disagreements with his interpretation, but it would be better to have Burke read at Grinnell than ignored. And then there is the matter of practice. The next time the commencement committee selects a Stalinist, the president should act on his “moral intuitions,” reject their choice, and explain, publicly, why this is the right thing to do.