Commentary Magazine

A Conservative Solution to Modern Know-Nothingism

Pythagoreans Celebrate the Sunrise, 1869, Fyodor Bronnikov

Thousands of column inches have been devoted to the closing of the conservative mind lately, and for good reason. A movement that once admired the likes of William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Irving Kristol has morphed into the brain-frying cult of Donald J. Trump, which is lamentable even if you think the 45th president is doing some good things on the policy front. And as the latest CPAC booing-fest demonstrated, many conservatives have concluded that the best response to the left’s race-gender-sex mania is a right-wing version of the same.

People of all political stripes, then, should cheer recent efforts to revive the Western intellectual tradition on American college campuses. One such project is underway in Arizona, where the GOP-led state legislature has mandated the creation of discrete programs dedicated to understanding that tradition.

At Arizona State University, the program is called the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership—it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue—while the University of Arizona boasts a new Department of Political Economy and Moral Science. At a time when there is genuine concern about the blood-and-soil direction of U.S. conservatism, and many liberals are wising up to the excesses of “identity liberalism,” these programs emphasize that freedom in the West is rooted in a set of religious and philosophical ideas, rather than in race or ethnic identity.

The ASU program, for example, “looks beyond time and borders to explore the fundamental questions of life, freedom, and governance,” per its website. The University of Arizona, meanwhile, takes a “distinctly empirical approach” to “how people have to live in order to make sure that their world is better off with them than without them.” The mission statements and courses on offer make it clear that these are not right-wing indoctrination camps. As the New York Times noted in a predictably hostile write-up (more on that shortly), students read ancient-Greek authorities, seminal works of classical liberalism like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and central texts of the American Founding, among other things.

Aristotle, Smith, Madison—these are not (exclusively) “conservative” sources in the contemporary ideological sense of the term. They are, rather, part of the common intellectual patrimony of liberal civilization. It is thanks to these thinkers—not to mention the profound influence of biblical religion—that our society gives pride of place to the quest for truth, to the inherent dignity of the person, to blind justice and ordered self-government. Don’t get me wrong: We conservatives are happy to claim these thinkers as our own. But do liberals really wish to relinquish their claim to the great patrimony?

Judging by the tone and thrust of the Times story, the answer is yes. “Many liberal arts professors view these efforts as reviving an antiquated and Eurocentric version of history,” wrote the paper’s reporter, Stephanie Saul, “one that they have tried to balance with viewpoints of women and racial minorities.” And more: “The new program has not been well received by some professors elsewhere at Arizona State, who view it as . . . too heavily focused on white male thinkers from the United States and Europe.”

Note that the professors quoted and paraphrased by the Times don’t take issue with the substance of ideas taught and debated by the Arizona programs, but rather with the racial composition of the authors and when they happened to have written their masterpieces. Old and white equals bad; newish and diverse equals good. The professors, in other words, aren’t worked up about what the Western tradition stands for. They’re apparently frustrated by the fact there is such a thing as a Western tradition at all. If they had their way, students wouldn’t read Aristotle and judge his claims by the light of reason. Better, the professors think, for the kids to read race-and-gender theory critiques that lay bare the bigotry allegedly hidden in Aristotelian thought.

That is precisely what happens in most humanities programs across the country. It is why we have ended up with a public square dominated by identitarians of left and right—and why the Arizona programs are essential. Less Joy Reid and Tomi Lahren and more Athens and Jerusalem? Sign me up.

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