A liberal education
It doesn’t mean ‘teach liberal politics’.
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
What’s going on here?
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.
They’re throwing in a token chapter here & there on something like The Federalist papers or de Tocqueville…
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
On the other hand, liberalism is well covered. Blanketed, if you will.
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.
These august institutions are thus declaring that there’s only one
worldview that matters, and they’re giving their students an incomplete
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.
What they’re getting is revisionist history.
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
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