The Bérubéan Moment

The general argument and specific claims of Michael Berube’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? are as comfortable for me as a well-worn chair. I’ve been reading them at his blog for some time, adopting and using many of his arguments in my own thinking about academic institutions. Trying to sum up my views in an upcoming essay, I was almost dismayed to find how closely I had followed a Bérubéan line. While writing the essay, I’d deliberately delayed reading What’s Liberal, but it didn’t help much. I was left with a few mumbles of my own at the end about the relation of academic freedom to open-access publishing. No doubt this concord would be seen among some conservative critics as evidence of “groupthink”, while ironically also underscoring the extent to which I tend to get appended to lists of odiously moderate sell-outs who have abandoned the left that Bérubé’s name often figures on more prominently.

What is left to say about the book that hasn’t been said already at the Valve or elsewhere?

The first issue that occurs to me concerns the mystery of what a conservative (or at any event, non-liberal) humanities might look like, and of the failure of most of the critics of academia who complain of groupthink, political bias and so on to describe in any kind of affirmative or realized terms the kinds of intellectual projects that they specifically see as excluded in the contemporary academy.

Bérubé appropriately complains of a collapse in categories in many conservative jeremiads, that the “political” is reduced in its dimensionality to Republican and Democratic party registrations, or to a checklist of superficial public-sphere talking points.

In fact, and Bérubé is quite good on this point, the conservative indictment of academia now directly reproduces, almost parodistically, the crudest arguments in favor of affirmative action and diversity with regard to other kinds of identity. This is not necessarily a surprise: for years critics of identity politics, such as Micaela di Leonardo, have noted the extent to which identity-based claims in the American public sphere have been linked to factions and interests on both right and left since the early 1970s. The complaint that critics both inside and outside of academia make, from Mark Bauerlein to David Horowitz, is that academics in the humanities lack an appropriate sociological resemblance to the larger American population, that their views of various hot-button issues should somehow align with the larger poll indicators.

Bérubé does a good job of explaining the intellectual constitution of the humanities at present, and of critiquing the affirmative-action logic of some conservative critics. To me, the next gauntlet to throw down to the critics, at least those who come from within academia, is to sketch out a program of “conservative” scholarly and pedagogical practice in the humanities. What I largely hear from Bauerlein, O’Connor, Johnson, and many others is a complaint. What I do not hear, for the most part, is what their alternative scholarly praxis might look like, or even whom their models might be. Is Helen Vendler, for example, a good practicioner of the kind of literary criticism that Bauerlein and O’Connor see as unfairly excluded from English Departments? If so, how uncommon in some generalized sense is the kind of criticism that she practices? Is it really as despised and exiled from disciplinary norms as they imply? Is Helen Vendler treated badly by her colleagues, or shunned? Why does she just go about her business and keep producing criticism if the opposition is so steadfast. Equally, is military or diplomatic history really as endangered a form as Johnson habitually complains that it is? Mark Grimsley at Cliopatria has done a very good job of suggesting how complicated that argument actually is.

Every time I push back on the assumptions about the actual character of a given discipline, I tend to be unsatisfied with the responses. More importantly, I rarely get any affirmative sense of the kind of scholarly practice that the critics themselves would like to be defined by. In some sense, I’m perpetually dismayed by the professionalism of the critics who come from within academia, in two senses of the term.

The first is that I think we’re all obligated to demonstrate the standards we demand in others in ourselves. Bérubé’s book is a great model of this: he doesn’t merely write about debates over academia, but tries to give an affirmative sense of his own scholarly, intellectual and classroom practices. Is Bauerlein’s scholarly writing a model of the literary criticism he wishes to see more of? Does he really think Negrophobia, for example, is hugely unrepresentative of work in literary criticism? It certainly isn’t a work which stands against the ascension of historicism within English Departments.

The second is that I think people who want to be accounted as professionals have to have a presumptive respect for other professionals. I think that’s an extremely deep historical practice within modern Western professionalism as a whole, and has a lot to do with the accomplishments of the professions (as well as, admittedly, some of their biggest ethical headaches). Complaints should either be specific and empirical, responsive to things actually said and done, or they should be extremely general, self-inclusive (and accordingly humble) in their complaints. When Gerald Graff complains about the scattered nature of most liberal arts curricula, I buy it, because he describes a general set of problems which he himself struggles with and to which he sees, as a professional, no easy or immediate solution. When Bérubé talks about the classroom, he tells you exactly what he does in his classroom, and about how difficult it can be to negotiate important professional challenges. Contrarily, when ACTA tallies up the Ward Churchills, you don’t get any sense that the report-writers know what it is to teach, to write syllabi, to produce scholarship, or to engage in professional debates. Professionalism is ultimately a commitment to write from the inside-out about the world of one’s work: even the harshest indictment of another professional comes with a sympathetic appraisal of the institutional environment and everyday challenges within which failure or malfeasance take place. Bérubé models that constraint. I think it’s an appropriate model for even the most strident academic critics of academia to take up.

I am like Bérubé: I crave the presence of conservatives (of many varieties) within the professional and scholarly worlds I inhabit. I think that presence would be good for scholarship, and good for the intellectual development of students. But like Bérubé, I want to know more about what conservativism in the humanities actually looks like. Is a conservative literary critic just one who writes standard-issue historicist or high-theoretical criticism but who is against abortion, votes Republican, and believes in the war against Iraq? If so, let’s get real here: the complaint is not about liberal bias in academia, it is against liberals period, a mode of political war masquerading as a high-minded concern for institutions. If it’s really about institutions, it’s time to get back to talking about what our institutions should be, with an insider’s appreciation for the genuine difficulties facing any program of reform. If a critic is for “core curricula”, for example, stop treating that term as a fetish and start getting real about the strengths and weaknesses that come with its actual implementation.

I have concentrated so far on the critics of the academy who come from within its ranks, because I think Bérubé’s book is something of a litmus test for those critics. A table has been set: anyone who is serious about institutional reform, and about a professional conversation about the content of professionalism, has to roll up their sleeves and set down to the table with a good will. Bauerlein, in his response to the book at the Valve, can’t seem to make up his mind which way to leap. Most of his response is of the person who is willing to sit down at that table, but then there’s the complaint that Bérubé “caricatures” conservatives. Fine. Then tell me what academic conservatism within the disciplines looks like, about where and how it is or could be practiced, about whom Bauerlein has in mind as a non-caricature, and what a non-caricature looks like if it is not a hagiography. What is the substance of conservative disciplinary or professional practice in the humanities? That discussion shouldn’t have to wait until ten fathoms deep in the comments thread.

There is a deeper issue that I think is important which Bérubé touches on far more lightly, largely in Chapter Three of his book. O’Connor, Bauerlein and other academic critics often protest when they are mentioned in the same breath as David Horowitz. Like Bérubé, I think that protest would be more powerful if the academic critics could take a breather every once in a while from their pursuit of liberals to make clear their opposition towards certain kinds of populist anti-academic jeremiads. Bérubé takes the time out to make clear which kinds of “liberal” practice, both inside and outside of academia, that he is opposed to, after all. Would it be so hard for Bauerlein to similarly roll his eyes in a public fashion at the intellectual antics of Candace de Russy, for example?

However, popular resentment of academia and of expertise generally is a very real thing, and I think it is in many respects both understandable and legitimate. Bérubé mentions the favorable terms of academic employment by way of suggesting that at least some resentment stems from envy, which is fair enough. There is a bigger and deeper history to consider, and I think it is the next major place that the defenders of academia need to go to.

One of the things that Paul Berman said in Terror and Liberalism that I think still holds considerable water, Iraq War notwithstanding, is that the defense of liberalism, particularly procedural liberalism, has to date been largely an emotionally chilly and refined affair, a set of values articulated by elites and defended by them. Berman’s remedy to this state of affairs was to argue for going to war. Mine is to turn to the work of translation, with a big helping of historically-sensitive humility on the side.

I think procedural liberalism and everyday ethical decency are closely related things. I think procedural liberalism and rugged individualism are closely related things. Everyone knows how to behave like a procedural liberal, in some fashion or another. There is a kind of procedural commitment within academia that is contained within its professional culture. But there is also a common-sense form of the same that could more effectively unite or connect academics with the wider publics that they in fact serve, or ought to serve.

To discover those equivalencies requires translation between academics and publics, and translation is an art of vulnerability. The translator does not control a text; he mediates a transaction. Yes, there are people out there who are in the worst faith imaginable signed on to a Horowitzian crusade against academia with whom there can be no meaningful exchange. But beyond that, there are many people with legitimate complaints against the professioriate, both small and large. Explaining to those people what it is that we do, how it is that we do it, and why it sometimes comes out with less-than-optimal results, is important.

On the small end of the scale, there are people who have had bad experiences as students. There are graduates and current students who resent the often-arbitrary hurdles that have to be jumped at some universities and colleges in order to receive a professional certification that merely confirms competencies that a student already possessed before. There are students, graduates and drop-outs who have had the misfortune to encounter an authoritarian teacher whom no one seems able or willing to constrain. Academics often roll their eyes at talk of students as consumers, but I think it’s a useful way to call the question of whether we are in fact serving our customers well or not. If not, in any substantial way, small wonder that resentment at our institutions pervades the civic life of many American communities. That is the price of becoming a ubiquitous precondition of middle-class life instead of the indolent privilege of a small elite before 1945.

I think there is another history to consider, one that Bérubé references in his final chapter. In the academic humanities, the confluence of Gramscian, Foucauldian and Frankfurt-School ideas about institutions produced a somewhat heedless willingness to see institutional life as politics, to pursue a kind of long march through civic institutions in general. This is what gave rise to a politics of language acts, of institutional procedures, of the use of civil society as a blunt instrument for transformation. Many Americans, conservative and otherwise, genuinely felt intruded upon by such transformative projects in the 1970s. Bérubé is right to say that it’s a sign of genuine progress that the censoring of Kirk and Uhura kissing now seems risible, and right to acknowledge the backlash from the overenthusiastic pursuit of social transformation through civic institutions which ought to have remained firmly inhibited by procedural and professional constraints, including academia.

But the problem is bound up in the strengths of academia, as Bérubé suggests, and not just for the humanities. Beyond the problems of “cultural liberalism” (which neatly mirror the recently-underscored problems of “cultural conservatism”), there is a problem of expertise itself. Part of what we have to work out in our translations to a wider public is that yes, sometimes we actually know things that they don’t know, that academic training works. But in so doing, we have to be vastly clearer and more restrained in describing where and how that expertise is generative or productive, and far more aware of the ways in which popular skepticism about expertise is warranted.

It’s not just a question of whether the professors in English or History are producing stuff that makes no sense, it’s a question of the powers and capacities that academics attempt to assume through expertise. And here in many ways, it’s not the humanities that is really the issue. Popular skepticism in many ways arises more from the way that social scientists and natural scientists both in and out of the academy have become absolutely integral to a whole host of political and civic processes, with very little accountability. If Kremlinologists are utterly wrong about the subject of their expertise, and help to malform policy for a generation, little matter: they reconstitute as experts on nationalism or ethnicity or organized crime. If environmental scientists urge major policy interventions that later turn out to aggravate a problem, no matter. If economists demand policy authority for their models, and turn out to understand nothing of how the real world works, then turn the dial around and start again.

There is one sense in which the popular resentment that Horowitz and others outside the academy build upon and direct substantially at the humanities is a kind of collateral spill-over from the general collusion of expertise and bureaucratic authority in the postwar era. Not that conservatives have succeeded in approaching governance any differently: Iraq is as much an eggheads’ war as Vietnam was. But this is where American academics, humanists or otherwise, have to adopt the most delicate and fragile interweaving of humility and pride possible in rethinking their relationship to a wider American public. We are both people who know and people who do not know too much. Our institutions are the generative engine of American progress since 1945 and institutions which are sometimes perilously close to breaking their part of the social contract.

But I can’t imagine a better way to begin to build that strange new structure of conversation between academics and publics than Bérubé’s book, and nothing would give me more satisfaction than to see all variety of conservatives and contrarians put their back to it and join the barnraising.

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46 Responses to The Bérubéan Moment

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    I think, Tim, that the argument is not that Helen Vendler suffers from discrimination, but that a graduate student today with Helen Vendler’s critical skills and critical style would have no chance of getting through a doctoral program unless she gave up her own preferences and made herself into another kind of critic. Or, if a miracle occurred and such a person got a PhD without taking on intellectual protective coloration, she would never get a job.

    I think that argument is unquestionably correct. But then the Bauerleins et al. go on to argue that this is a terrible and unjust thing, and I’m not so sure about that. Do they really want to say that graduate programs should credential people whose work is completely disconnected from recent work in the discipline?

    But let’s imagine that this young Helen Vendler did not ignore recent trends in the discipline, but rather engaged them intelligently but critically and argued for a return to the practices of close reading and even aesthetic appreciation preferred by an earlier generation of critics. What would happen then? My experience suggests that there are indeed graduate English programs where such a project would simply and straightforwardly be denied — it wouldn’t make it past the proposal stage. But in many others such a student could indeed write the dissertation she wants to write, though perhaps not without some struggle.

    So: graduate programs in English tend to be conservative; professors tend to replicate themselves; significant deviations from common practice tend to be treated with wary suspicion; real and vital innovation often looks, to established scholars, like incompetence. And this is supposed to be new? Au contraire. Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

  2. Walt says:


    Could you expand on what you mean by “procedural liberalism?”

    If it’s a value that political or social conservatives don’t share, then you seem to be saying that conservatives have an inherent incompatibility with academics. Is that what you mean?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Walt, I think like Berube, I would argue that conservatives do share a commitment to procedural liberalism, quite a few that I’ve known, at any rate. But some of the prominent conservative activists who are presently critical of academics? I’m not so sure. There is certainly nothing about procedural liberalism that contradicts conservatism as I understand it; arguably, it is in fact something more identified with older modes of conservatism. Procedural liberalism is an emphasis on laws, conventions, rules, due process, due diligence. At its worst, it’s basically Captain Vere in Billy Budd or even Javert in Les Miserables: a person for whom rules supervent all possible moral or ethical obligations. But Berube’s argument on its behalf (which I share) is that a healthy dose of procedural liberalism contains within it a fairly serious set of ethical commitments–say, that everyone is equal before the law (or other procedure), or that checks and balances within institutions tend to insure fairer outcomes in decision-making.

    Alan gets at a key thing I’ve been arguing for a while: the institutional conservatism of academia, which is not the same as political conservatism. Programs tend to replicate themselves, whether it’s Austrian-school economics or historicist literary criticism. But then this makes the truly interesting question: where does innovation in academia come from? Things *do* change, after all. The old-line political historians mistreated the social historians; the social historians mistreated the cultural historians. But here we go, cultural historians now abound, and are looking for someone to mistreat, no doubt. How does that happen? This is one reason I think the Bauerleins among the critics are ridiculously pessimistic about the prospects for any given orthodoxy or viewpoint. If enough people put it into practice, it’ll happen. What I want instead is to figure out a way to open the spigot wider to encourage innovation and joyful passion in general. But that means trying to *live* that kind of vision, and I really don’t see a lot of the conservative critics of academy doing that. It’s not just the lack of joy, it’s the lack of any affirmative practice whatsoever, any description of the ways they actually want to be academics.

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    I think innovation in the American academy often comes from those rare — very rare — people who are able to conform themselves to the standard practices of their discipline until they reach a point of security that allows them to start bending or breaking the rules. It’s interesting to me how many academics I have met over the years who thought they could do this, but were wrong. “Once I finish my dissertation then I will tear off this mask and reveal myself in all my idiosyncracy and dynamism.” But then it’s “when I get a tenure-track job”; and then “when I get tenure”; and then “when I make full professor.” And eventually they discover — or perhaps their friends discover it, they often remain unaware of the change — that the mask has become the face. It’s an unusual person who can follow the standard disciplnary practices for any length of time while retaining a functional independence from them.

  5. withywindle says:

    Not having read Berube …

    1) Why on earth should there be a conservative “project” in the humanities? We conservatives in academia don’t want some Borgian political consensus driving all our research; we want as scholars to follow our own lines, perhaps informed by our political leanings, but subject to professional standards, and judged on their professional quality rather than on their politics; we want as teachers to be able to express our political views to our students and colleagues without being hounded out of the profession (and without in turn attempting to indoctrinate our students); we want as students to be able to express political opinions without fearing that we will be downgraded for them. We even want to be able to blog on Easily Distracted without resorting to anonymity, from genuine fear as to the professional repercussions. We want a Millian negative freedom, to be free from the dictatorship of left-liberal academic society.

    2) That said, I think what conservatives outside of academia basically want is a nationalist American intelligentsia. This doesn’t have to reduce to a party-line basis—just a sense that academics love this country, and appreciate it and champion it. In other words, we want a normal intelligentsia—such as Turkey has, or China has, or Germany had in the nineteenth century, or America had fifty years ago. Not uncritical, but loving. For comparison: the Russian intelligentsia may have opposed the tsars (or the Communist party), but they loved Pushkin and Russian culture with a passion, and they have never stopped loving the Russian people. Even the Popular-Front style appreciation of the American people of a Woody Guthrie seems faint nowadays in academia. Liberal nationalism would be just ducky.

    3) The comparison of conservative complaints to affirmative action is just silly. No serious conservative has ever called for a jobs quota for conservatives. They *have* noted that the statistical arguments used by liberals to argue that racist hiring policies exist, and need to be remedied by affirmative action, would equally well prove that politically discriminatory hiring practices exist in academia, that could with equal justice claim the remedy of affirmative action. They have also noticed that the word “diversity” is now an obvious euphemism for skin color, genitalia, and preferred venue of singles bar; that it makes an ugly conflation between such inessentials and the character of one’s mind, and that, in the ideologically monolithic campus of today, it somehow fails to prize diversity of opinion. We are trying to point out the various internal contradictions, and euphemistic blind spots, in your policy and vocabulary; the point is to induce you to abandon your policy and vocabulary, not to seek to imitate it ourselves.

    4) You should consider the overwhelming liberal political affiliation of academia a problem. It may not be susceptible to a simple solution, but it is a problem—and, yes, one that can be stated in simple, sociological terms. I will give you a comparison: at West Point, I have heard army officers consider the recent slide in political affiliation by officers (and, to a lesser extent, enlisted men) toward the Republican Party. They know the reasons why—the institutional affinities between army culture, conservatism, and the Republican Party, the tendency of any institution to reproduce itself—but they are not complacent. They think it is bad for their profession to be so significantly divorced from the average of American society. They don’t have easy solutions, but they know it is a problem to be addressed—a bug in their profession, not a feature. Academics could learn something from the self-reflection of the military profession.

    5) If my ambitions are fulfilled, you will see a conservative intellectual project emerge one of these days. I’ll drop a note if publication threatens.

    6) The best of current scholarly practice has no obvious ideological bias, and is perfectly presentable as a model for conservative scholars. I’ve mentioned Ronald Witt before; he is a scholar of Renaissance rhetoric, and his work (so far as I can tell) has no direct relevance to any modern political debate. I fancy his politics are liberal, but it just doesn’t matter for his scholarship. Witt is an exemplary model for a scholar of any political persuasion. I’ve just been looking at Harvey Mansfield on Machiavelli—I know he’s a conservative, but I just don’t see that it has that much to do with his analysis of the subtleties of Machiavellian thought. (Although I do notice that he pays attention to Machiavelli’s conception of manliness—his current work clearly derives from decades-old professional study.) Russell Kirk did a critical edition of Justus Lipsius back around 1940—ideology just doesn’t seem to play a role. For a slightly different model: Thomas Farrell, *The Norms of Rhetorical Culture*, is a brilliant work of philosophy and analysis—whose exempla self-avowedly derive from his liberal politics. He quotes Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo at length, in part to encourage liberals to embrace his rhetorical views. I’d like to quote George Bush’s Second Inaugural when I get to that part of my book on rhetoric—with, I think, as much justification as Farrell. My politics, as his, I trust will not get in the way of professional competence. Let me not name people or movements whose work does not come up to these high standards. My point is that the best practice of liberal academics is a perfectly valid model for conservative academics. We simply regret that it is not universal practice.

    7) Yeah, it really is a problem with military and diplomatic history, and Grimsley is just off-base. I’ve heard all sorts of military and diplomatic historians say the exact same thing—no professional respect, difficult to get hired, most elite universities aren’t interested (and I’m sorry, but OSU ain’t Harvard), disinterest and hostility from professors and grad students—the *only* person who says otherwise is Grimsley. I have some interest in teaching military history myself, and it’s always a delicate question as to whether to include that interest in my resume. It’s an old story, but let us mention a graduate department of history of some note—now in the top twenty, although perhaps in the top thirty at the time of this story—which, when offered the chance to hire John Keegan (*the* name in modern military history), declined—generally, said my informant, from disinterest in military history, per se. And one does hear, again and again, of professors of military history with oversubscribed classes, massive and enthusiastic student interest—whose departments fail to replace them when they retire.

    8) You say that conservatives ought to have presumptive respect for their liberal peers. Let us say we do; let us also say that each of us has experienced repeated violations of professional practice by our colleagues; let us also say that we read books that our common sense tells us fail to meet professional norms, almost always when accompanied by some expression of left-liberal ideology—and, indeed, that our critique of the profession in general proceeds from our experiences from the first day we entered college. I think that the profession has forfeited the presumption of respect long since. I confess, when you talk about the presumptive respect professors owe each other, I hear the tone of French officers reaffirming the conviction of Dreyfuss for the honor of the army. In the critics of this honorable profession, I hear Zola.

    9) Just this evening, at a dinner after a colloquium, of professors and graduate students, voting came up. I was asked directly if I had voted for a particular Democratic senator; I said no. Someone else then said, laughingly, “Of course there aren’t any Republicans at this table.” “Yes, there are,” I said. And there was an awkward pause. The two graduate students opposite me did not happen to speak with me again—although it could simply have been the accidents of conversational dynamics. The elderly professor to my side and I had a pleasant conversation—I could not but think that he remembered it was possible to have civil conversation with a Republican, while the younger generation did not. And this is constant, always hovering in the background—the presumption that all academics are liberal, the casual denigration of Republicans and conservatives, the fear of social ostracism or professional blackballing. How can we trust the professionalism of our liberal peers—to review our books fairly, to hire us and to grant us tenure—when we are not even sure they will talk to us if we reveal our political persuasion? How many of us will dare to enter the profession in the first place? Persist after the first few years of such dinners?

    Conservative programs for academia are all well and fine. I rather think there are a variety of fields of study, and critical theories, that contain (explicitly and otherwise) embedded left-liberal political presumptions, and that it would be well and fine to prune these from the professional core. I rather like the idea of a core curriculum, great books, and a serious appreciation of Western Civilization. Some history courses mentioning the good things that have come out of Europe and America wouldn’t hurt. But these just don’t matter. How can we even get there when we’re afraid to state our beliefs? I once told a friendly fellow graduate student that I was a Republican; he said “Don’t tell anyone else if you want to get a job.”

    11) So what is “the substance of conservative disciplinary or professional practice in the humanities?” In its essence, the best of current scholarly practice, which should not be considered to have a political affiliation. (And which I associate more with older scholars, who were educated before the humanities became so ideologically uniform.) But it just doesn’t matter. Conservative theorizing about professional and disciplinary doesn’t matter worth a damn while we are afraid to speak our minds, for fear of losing our jobs, never getting published, never having a civil conversation with our colleagues. Never mind the scholarship: first treat conservatives like human beings. And don’t expect conservatives to presume that liberals are possessed of professional virtues, with “Of course there aren’t any Republicans at this table” echoing in our ears.

  6. dmerkow says:

    Let me throw out there the most divisive social/cultural issue in American society – abortion. One would be hard-pressed in a humanities, social science, and probably hard science field to find anyone seriously pro-life. You might find some Casey-esque pro-lifers or perhaps a few personally pro-life types, but I cannot imagine finding many who would be willing to translate the pro-life position and its very extensive (some radical, some conservative) theory into an analysis of a piece of literature or any part of history. For instance, has academia produced any sort of narrative of the late twentieth century America that doesn’t see the rise of the pro-life movement through anything but gritted teeth. No matter how fair the historian may try to be, the discussion always lacks the passion that one sees in descriptions of the feminist movements or the post-Civil Rights black radicalism.

    So what would a ‘conservative’ humanities look like . . . one where it is acceptable to presume rationality from the pro-life movement. Probably the other big ‘conservative’ history disagreement at least in American history continues to revolve around the question of Communism. A ‘conservative’ history generally starts with a rough rhetorical equivalency between Communism and Nazism/Fascism, which the predominant ‘liberal’ histories usually do not.

    I know those are topical rather than theoretical examples, but I think an honest dialogue that placed post-60s liberalism with the substantial philosophical and historical foundations of the pro-life movement would be a good starting point for a ‘conservative’ humanities. Basically more Mary Ann Glendon’s in the world.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s an interesting way to look at it. There’s something close to this that is not a conservative practice, necessarily. There’s some quite good ethnographies of postwar conservative American evangelicalism, for example. Or, say, Rick Perlstein’s book on the rise of Goldwaterian conservatism, which despite the author’s liberalism, is ultimately quite sympathetic to the social roots of postwar conservatism as he comes to see it. I think it would be completely fair to expect *any* anthropologist or historian to “presume rationality from the pro-life movement”, and I think there are probably some who have, given the existence Where it might become conservative is in philosophy, where someone could produce a philosophical account of the pro-life argument that was sympathetic.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle, many interesting thoughts. I’ll have to come back to your comments after I teach this morning, but one quick thought. I am 100% sympathetic to one of the major points you raise, which is that academics who have conservative political views feel a need to have their views protected from reprisal but may have no desire whatsoever to practice a “conservative scholarship”, except inasmuch as any of us are guided by our values and ethics in the way we view history or society or culture.

    I don’t know if I’ve told this story before at the blog, but I recall sitting in a committee meeting in November 2001 where a colleague recounted her recent visit to the South, and her abject horror at the sight of many American flags on lawns. The interesting thing to me was that she took it for granted that everyone in the room shared her sense of horror–there wasn’t any possibility in her mind, as far as I could see, that someone might feel differently. That, I agree, is a real issue, and it goes beyond merely claiming a space for conservatives.

    But I don’t think that’s what Bauerlein, at the least, is arguing about, or it’s not the only thing he’s arguing about. He goes further to claim that there are forms of conservative inquiry which are suppressed by current orthodoxies in literary studies. To which I say: so what exactly are we talking about here? What would that look like? He perpetually calls for it, but never imagines it or describes it.

  9. withywindle says:

    Just looking at Bauerlein’s article:

    “In doing so, it [Berube’s book] never really engages conservative educational thought, whose operative concepts (tradition, core curriculum, common culture, high art, etc.) are mostly about content. In truth, open-minded conservative teachers would agree to all of Bérubé’s procedural norms.”

    He then goes on to note a question about the Constitution which is of “Have you stopped beating your wife yet, Senator?” variety–and states (I think fairly) that various dominant theories start with this sort of question, and don’t even open the door to conservative points of view. So I suppose one wants: 1) scholars to write and teach without (so many) embedded left-liberal assumptions; and/or 2) equal space for embedded conservative assumptions. And, yeah, the very idea of a traditional canon is terribly important.

    Ultimately, the conservative point I would promote is that historians are priests manque; we catechize the people about the history of the state, nation, civilization, (perhaps church) in lieu of catechizing holy Scripture. Some fundamental loyalty and affection to the above should inform our work as scholars and teachers–we should take Ranke’s fidelity to fact *and* his affection to Prussia as our models. Professional autonomy, as I have said before, is delegated by the state only so long as it serves the state. The profession’s minds have somehow to give evidence of the affection of their hearts toward the nation, its virtues, and its traditions.

    On a slightly different subject, Victor Davis Hanson’s *The Western Way of War* is a theoretical work of enormous (and by no means uncontested!) power within the field, whose assumptions are probably now taken as conservative in implication. Perhaps the point is that one wants more Hansons in different fields?

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok, so some further thoughts on Withywindle’s comments.

    If you want to say that what conservatives want is a *patriotic* intelligentsia, e.g., people who believe in the best-practice values and ideals of the United States, I think there is a pretty substantial number of intellectuals (including academics) who fit the bill, even if they are left-leaning. If what you want specifically are what you call “normal” nationalist intellectuals, then I guess I’d ask: why? Why on earth would you want that? “Normal” nationalist intellectual activity in that respect is one of the things that I think most dramatically deforms nations in the modern era. I think this is one of the great *exceptional* things about the United States, is that it is one of the few countries on earth that is NOT disfigured by a kind of “volk”-oriented nationalism.

    I think you’re wrong about the affirmative-action logics of some conservative criticism of academia’s sociological disposition: I think that the complaint often very closely resembles that logic.

    On the question of whether academia’s sociological disposition is a problem, if it is, why is this not a problem then with all institutions? E.g., if we want institutions to mirror society not just in identarian but also political terms, why isn’t the political slant of all disciplines (say, economics) and professional schools equally an issue to the slant of the humanities? Why isn’t the slant of prison guards or mlitary officers a problem? The slant of corporate boards? The slant of National Park rangers? There are a great many institutions and professions which do not mirror the national population (and surely political conviction is a hard thing to mirror because it is also a rapidly changing target, as evidenced by this week): why is academia more potently an issue in that regard?

    On best practices, surely the point you make is not limited in that sense to liberals. Don’t we all regret that any group or constituency does not uniformly follow best practice? Do you think you could say that liberal intellectuals differentially tend to NOT follow best practice to a greater degree than conservative intellectuals? I can’t see how to make that case in any substantial way if you look at pundits or intellectuals in the public sphere.

    I agree that military and diplomatic history at least have some problem with getting respect within the discipline. But I think there is at least one complication, and that is that even those subfields can reasonably be expected to evolve in their practice, to innovate, as all fields do. Sometimes those who defend military and diplomatic history want to defend a sort of intellectual immobility, to argue that these fields should not have to incorporate new knowledge, new methodologies, new questions. Or equally that a military historian should not have to know much about social or cultural history, or come into debates within those fields. Keeping a field alive within a discipline is a two-way street.

    On the presumption of respect and professionalism. Seriously, this is a kind of “that guy was mean to me, so I can be mean to him” logic straight out of elementary school. You cannot have it both ways. Either the profession is worth saving as a profession, or it needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch because it is hopeless. If you’re saying the latter, then don’t sweat the small details. Moreover, anybody saying the latter needs to get out of Dodge, and I say that with equal fervor to anyone who preaches a power/knowledge argument that the university is nothing more than a tool for the reproduction of domination, etcetera. My question in both cases is, “Why are you still hanging around, then? Get out and start trying to burn the fucker down”. If the profession is in any sense worth reforming rather than destroying, then it’s still important to engage in professionalized behavior EVEN if one is constantly sinned against. I take a certain amount of shit from colleagues for a number of my alleged sins; it doesn’t lead me to consistently hand out the same variety of shit in return.

    The other major point you raise, as I said, is completely fair. Saying you’re conservative or Republican or arguing for certain kinds of curricular ideas often IS treated like you just farted in the elevator. That’s wrong, it’s unprofessional, it’s a deep and messy issue at the core of academic culture, and it needs fixing. Berube, as I read him, agrees with that.

  11. Walt says:


    You and your commenters are generating excellent ideas as usual, but I’m still working on my sideshow.

    You don’t really think that “an emphasis on laws, conventions, rules, due process, due diligence” or equality before the law or checks and balances are uniquely liberal ideas, do you? It seems to me that all serious conservatives and liberals care about these things. Conservatives think they’re conservative principles and are alarmed by threats to them from the left.

    Granted that you have many grievances with “prominent conservative activists who are presently critical of academics,” where are they failing on these principles? I suppose, demonizing their most obvious targets without granting them a presumption of decency. You don’t think that’s unique to the right wing, do you?

    Little zingers like “procedural liberalism = ethics = essence of academe” detract from your other serious comments, and are the sort of mistakes you wouldn’t make if you were at all used to working with conservatives. And there lies one of the threats from the liberal monoculture in the humanities.

  12. withywindle says:

    1) You are I think making too much of the distinction between “nationalist” and “patriotic”; assume I mean the latter word. But in either case, I do think patriotic sentiment has inspired much of the best of history—how can one separate the establishment of the modern historical discipline in the nineteenth century from the patriotic impulse? The exploration of the archives, and publication thereof, which still provides the primary-source basis for research? How could we have the history of Colombia, Malawi, Thailand without the patriotic impulse of its historians? American history without the initial impulse of American patriotism? These are not deformations, but essential inspirations. America indeed is blessed by a broad and welcoming patriotic spirit—but it is exceptional in its type of patriotism, not in its lack of patriotism. I want the American intelligentsia to embrace patriotism in their professional practice not only as normal, but as positively good; to reject it entirely, and to take that rejection as positive goal, I take to be a disfigurement of their spirit and professional practice that in itself justifies all critiques leveled at the profession.
    2) Sociological variance from the norm is indeed a potential problem for all professions—the greater it is, the greater the potential problem. It matters most in the most important professions. The dangers in a divergence between the military and society need not be detailed; divergence of lawyers and doctors would not be trivial either. But for heaven’s sake!–*teachers educate the young!* They reshape our sense of the past, change our sense of who we are, change what the future will be. They not only can change the political allegiance of their students by the way they teach, they define the political identity of the nation. How can the polis not be concerned by this? How can the fact that the overwhelming majority of teachers emerge from a narrow political fraction of the community not have an effect, and not be of concern to every other political fraction of the community? The only reassurance you have to offer is “professional self-discipline”—which clearly fails, not least because your monolithic ideological uniformity blinds you to the failures within your ranks, and enfeebles your urge to discipline your offenders.
    3) Conservative pundits aren’t part of a profession—unless one takes journalism seriously as a profession. I don’t particularly see any difference in quality between conservative and liberal pundits. As for conservative intellectuals—what professional discipline have we dominated lately, such that we can make a comparison? But let us say that conservative intellectuals would behave no better: this is not an argument for liberal complacency, but for breaking their monopoly, and preventing any one ideological grouping from professional dominance. Professional mispractice, surely, is much more difficult when different ideological fractions must frame their arguments and practices to arrive at a mutual consensus.
    4) Loads of military historians know lots about other disciplines. It doesn’t gain them any more prestige. Furthermore, a historian can be excellent without getting all interdisciplinary—there are pure economic historians, pure intellectual historians, pure political historians, who assimilate all sorts of new data without changing their methodologies, and that’s fine too. And then, military history has all sorts of innovations within it that don’t require it to get all interdisciplinary. You have an innovative theory of logistics—a brilliant study of German infantry tactics in World War One—of French strategy in 1940—all of these have profound effects upon the field, and indeed upon our understanding of history writ large, and you are saying this is intellectually immobile. Speaking of embedded assumptions ….
    5) The academic profession, as it now stands, has forfeited all respect; I do believe it should be brought down. I am with Horowitz: the malfeasance is too great to rely on professional self-discipline to cure it. The academic profession, as it should be, is a wonderful thing—and its practice is still embedded in the habits of many admirable individuals, who embody the invisible church of the profession, intermixed with the corruption of the visible Church. Meanwhile … I’m supposed to take my PhD and become a trucker? I’m supposed to abandon what I’m best at, and what I’ve trained to do, to become a staffer for Horowitz? I care about knowledge and teaching, and I want to earn a paycheck—so, no, I’m not getting out of Dodge. In the meantime, I’m preaching that the profession has problems that have forfeited its legitimacy and authority, in vague hopes that enough people will recognize the problem to actually make changes that make it legitimate and authoritative again. (After all, the drastic shift leftward only dates to 1968 or so; there’s no reason to believe this has to be a permanent condition.) But what you call “professionalized behavior” means rendering respect to people who do not deserve it, and who have made the profession a disgrace—means forfeiting all appeals outside the profession, at the very least to bring public opinion to bear on the profession’s follies and corruption—means a nasty version of omerta, loyal silence; or, if you prefer, the silence imposed on Sor Juana by the Church. Prudentially, I largely keep my peace—though I answer direct questions honestly. But I only acquiesce to the regime, as a citizen of Eastern Europe acquiesced to Communism. And if you take my refusal to support your regime as a reason not to reform, then I will continue to support revolution.
    6) The question of personal civility toward Republicans and conservatives is inextricable from the rest. Fix that, and I imagine enormous repercussions in teaching and research. Fixing the teaching and research would also result in more personal civility. But, practically, I think personal behavior has to change first.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not saying any given work of military history is immobile. I am suggesting that I have talked with older military historians at times where their sense of their field’s antagonistic relation with the rest of the discipline is partly caught up in a sense that military history ought to be written and studied much as it always has been. Don’t worry, social historians will be (already are?) at something of the same intellectual moment sooner or later, and cultural historians after that, no doubt. There’s a lot of older diplomatic history written before 1965 or so where my main reaction to reading it is that yes, it *is* kind of stodgy: that it takes for granted a great many premises that need to be argued for, sees the importance of its field as a given, and so on. Occasionally I hear someone who argues for the field now who basically takes that kind of canon as the model for contemporary practice.

    Sure, you’re supposed to take your PhD and become a trucker, if you really think the whole thing should be torn down to the foundations. Or a staffer for Horowitz. Come on! If you think it’s that utterly undredeemable, why are you bothering to even talk about it with me, or pretend to be demanding a high ethical standard from all of your many opponents? If I’m a member of an institution that is utterly beyond the pale in my view, I *should* leave it. And you know what? People do, all the time. Psychologists who decided that psychotherapy was bullshit left the field. Doctors who decide that their particular speciality is flawed seek retraining. Military officers who object profoundly to the military (or a particular war) leave when the distance between themselves and the institution grows too great. Policymakers who can’t support the policy of their bosses resign. Middle managers who get tired of the rat race try to find something else to do with their lives.

    If it’s worth staying, then it’s a statement that there’s something to reform. Or it’s a statement that you want to simultaneously object strenuously and universally to the terms of your employment but don’t mind (like the rest of the professoriate) getting the paycheck that the terms of employment provide you. Which for most people at least inclines them to some slight humility in the extent of their complaints. How on earth can you ask people to change their personal behavior in terms of civility while also saying, “By the way, you’re all hopelessly corrupt bastards working for hopelessly corrupt institutions and if I had my way every single one of you would be booted out on your behinds?”

  14. Timothy Burke says:


    the “liberalism” in “procedural liberalism” is really a reference to 19th Century liberalism rather than “liberal” as in the sense of recent American politics. As I sometimes observe to my students, in terms of the older meaning of the term, Ronald Reagan was more of a “liberal” than Tip O’Neill.

  15. withywindle says:

    Visible church, invisible church. I want to boot out the AAUP and the AHA, tenure and professional self-regulation; I take so great a number of professors to have acted unprofessionally that they have forfeited professional trust merely on the basis of their credentials. There are also a great many people who act as professionals should–who research, review, and teach properly. I honor and esteem their practice, and wish to join them as a colleague. I see no contradiction in esteeming the professional practice of the invisible church, and wanting to tear down the structures of the corrupt visible church.

    Note, incidentally, that I want to get a paycheck from a college or a university, not from the AHA or the AAUP. I don’t see that getting a paycheck from Miscellaneous State University obligates me to be loyal to the profession. Indeed, shouldn’t I be putting the best interests of the university first? Of the students?

    The profession, as constituted, is corrupt and not worthy of my loyalty. I am under no obligation of professional omerta, and I will gladly take recourse to extra-professional means to reshape it. That does not mean it is impossible for it to reform itself so as to make itself a true church again, worthy of loyalty. I find the prospects dim, but if you do so, I will then swear allegiance. I find no contradiction between urging revolution, under current conditions, and saying that reform will obviate the moral case for revolution.

    And you are incidentally misstating my critique. I said that I did not take professional membership as a guarantee of professional virtue; that does not mean that all members of the profession are corrupt. (Though inability to regulate your colleagues is a grave flaw, no matter how virtuous your own practice.) I am not saying “you all are hopelessly corrupt,” but rather that “I no longer respect your professional credential, in and of itself.” I suppose you can take that as existentially uncivil–or as an invitation to join the invisible church.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the vast majority already have joined it–and I think you mis-state the extent to which the profession is subordinate to what you call the visible church.

    I’m curious about “professional self-regulation”. Surely that’s part of hte professionalism of the invisible church that you esteem?

  17. withywindle says:

    Sure. But since we currently have no institutions under our command, the only power we have is the expression of our opinions. And if we did have power to (help) regulate the profession, we’d be (part of) the visible church.

  18. elliotreed says:

    Professor Burke, it seems to me that you are asking too much of conservatives. Why should conservatives be expected to have a portrait of a specifically conservative project for the humanities when conservatives are being systematically excluded from those very disciplines in thousands of small ways? We don’t know what “conservative English literature” would be because conservatives find it very hard to become and get hired as English scholars, and harder to get professional approval for specifically conservative projects. We can only know what conservative English scholarship would be, or if there would even be such a thing, by hiring conservative English scholars.

    Incidentally, I think it’s worth pointing out that just as conservative arguments for conservative inclusion in the humantieis mirror old liberal arguments for race-based affirmative action, defenses of conservative exclusion mirror the old arguments against affirmative action: the argument from stereotype (all conservatives are greedy and want to work on Wall Street!), the argument from inherent inability (conservatives can’t make it in academia because they’re stupid!), etc.

    FWIW, I’m a liberal, and can’t claim to speak for conservatives. Nor am I a fan of Horowitz et al. But I do think aspiring conservative professors have legitimate gripes about academica generally and the humanities specifically.

  19. withywindle says:

    And just to tie in two conversations … my argument (in the last comments thread) about deferring to the authority of the ballot box for the good of the country, even when shenanigans may have altered a marginal election, I actually think is parallel to your argument that conservatives should defer to the authority of the profession, even when individual professors may act unprofessionally. There is a question of civility at work in both: the country depends on the civility of not doubting the results of the election, and the profession depends on the civility of not doubting the professional virtue of other professionals. I think we are actually reversing our arguments on these two different issues. Just throwing that out there.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle, I completely agree about elections: it’s why I argued in both 2000 and 2004 that questioning the *results* of the elections even with evidence of flaws in the procedures was a bad idea. (Not the least of which because the one thing that was convincingly true in both elections was that the electorate was fairly close to 50-50 split). But it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea to pursue reforms to the system when flaws are demonstrated–which is something that I think about academia too.

    Elliot, I agree that those difficulties exist. But Bauerlein and others keep arguing that there is a specifically conservative project in the humanities which is somehow kept from coming into being. My thought would be that if they could tell me more about what it looks like, I think they might find that it in fact actually is already here, or that the project has intellectual problems which aren’t reducible to its putative conservatism. (E.g., if “conservative history” turns out to be political history as it was written in 1955, there are problems with that mode of doing or writing history which are not about its conservatism.)

  21. tweedyprof says:

    Tim Burke writes: if “conservative history” turns out to be political history as it was written in 1955, there are problems with that mode of doing or writing history which are not about its conservatism.

    Why this present-minded assumption that later is better? In 1955 American political historians included Benny de Voto, Garrett Mattingly, S. E. Morison, Roger Southall Freeman. (Those are just names off the top of my head, I am not a US historian nor familiar with the history of American historical scholarship). The idea that there are any comparable giants today is to me laughable. But then I’m instinctively conservative, like Withywindle.

    Newer perspectives are not necessarily better, although they may be. To the conservative sensibility, however, the presumption is that they are probably worse, until proven otherwise.

    If what Tim means is “I don’t like the kind of history that Garrett Mattingly wrote because it did not bow to the idols of class-gender-race perspectives, or because it was about diplomacy, war, and rulers rather than the daily life of some group or other, or some such” that would be more honest. My answer would then be “but for a few of us wars, rulers, and diplomacy are just vastly more exciting and satisfying than all that social and cultural stuff, and since so few of us share that interest, how about letting us follow our bent, there’s no chance we’re going to outnumber you anyway.”

    I agree with most of Withywindle’s points except his alarm that the academic profession does not sociologically resemble the surrounding population. Of course it never can, only a tiny fraction of any cohort has the peculiar drive and desire to become full-time academics. The problem is not representativity but the culture and ideology of large parts of the academic class. Part of that culture and ideology is an instinctive suspicion of all things Western and American as tainted by … you know the list … This suspicion is often not based on reason in some Enlightenment sense but on what Roger Scruton calls oikophobia, fear-of-one’s-home. Withywindle wants academics to be the opposite, instinctive oikophiles.

    This seems utopian. It would be enough for me if I could believe that oikophiles are not deterred from starting and excluded from continuing by the in-built biases of the teaching and hiring processes to which Withywindle has alluded.

    What Withywindle is saying is that it’s all very well for Bérubé and Tim Burke from their insider position generously allowing for pluralism, while in the real world search committees select for ideological compatibility and in cases of doubt preferring a woman or minority. Long before it makes sense to discuss professionalism on the inside, or what a conservative sensibility would mean in terms of teaching or research, you (insider academics) need to abjure your biases and ideological preferences, including the diversity cult. When a candidate for a job is afraid to admit to voting Republican or being against affirmative action, you do have a problem. You may not notice it, because the problem works down to indoctrinate grad students in what they can say, think and feel.

    One thing that a conservative sensibility in historical or literary study would definitely mean is a belief in quality; some works are better than others, some events, people, or traditions are more worth studying than others. Second, that learning requires diligence, skill, and humility. There are no short cuts to learning. Third, that “new” is usually “worse” in the sense of more superficial, barbaric, illiterate, ideologized. Fourth, that “progress” is a weasel word. New methods and insights seem excuses for prejudice, ignorance, and self-righteousness. Fifth, that true excellence is possible only for a few, but worth emulating by all who claim the name of scholar, and that being a scholar entails duties and obligations to the past that outweigh any obligation to currently fashionable prejudices.

    I could add other elements, but these seem basic.

  22. Alan Jacobs says:

    Why this present-minded assumption that later is better?

    I suppose your view of this will depend on whether you think that historians produce knowledge. If historians have not just written in different ways, or employed different interpretive strategies, since 1955, but have actually discovered new information, then there’s reason to think that history written today will need to be different in order to take that new information into account. It makes sense, I think, to claim that political history and military history are just as valid as they ever were — and it is ridiculous to try, as some people do, to press every historian into the subaltern-social-history model. But I think that even very traditional military and political historians, if they want to be fully responsible, will need to take into account how the great developments in social history in the last thirty or forty years change the way that every historical subject looks, if only subtly.

    So later is not necessarily better, but later is more — more knowledge that needs to be reckoned with.

  23. hestal says:

    Herr Burke,

    I have tried hard to understand all of this, and I don’t think I do, but…

    The question of conservative and liberal is settled by modifying the famous sentence in the Declaration of Independence:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” — UNLESS they are liberals, or gay, or black…

    Varietas libertas will reject this modification. Many Varietas tyrannis, conservatives, will accept it. That is why the conservatives cannot answer your question about what a conservative discipline in the humanities would like — tyranni, like liberti, can only follow their evolved roles.

  24. Timothy Burke says:


    I think that social history has contributed to *knowledge*, not just or even primarily to ideology. So I think writing old-style political history as if social history never happened is a kind of ignorance. Just as I think writing social history as if old-style political history were an intellectual sin rather than a prior foundation is a kind of ignorance.

  25. mark says:


    You ask for some positive indication of what a conservative humanities looks like, not just attacks on liberal bias. A few changes in principle would help:

    1. return to the distinctions between high culture, popular culture, and mass culture (acknowledging their fuzzy borders)

    2. reverse the “opening the canon” practice, and shrink the number of central works to a core and require all humanities majors to become acquainted with them

    3. instead of setting that insipid and vacuous trait “critical thinking” as the main goal of humanities instruction, set tradition-centered goals such as the “historical sense” (derived from Eliot) and the old Arnoldian command to know the “best”

  26. withywindle says:

    Tweedyprof: I readily grant that a universally patriotic professoriate is an unlikely goal (although we had one in 1918; it’s not as if this never existed); I too would be satisfied with the lesser goal of more openness on the part of the profession.

    Tim: Not all knowledge is relevant. I don’t think that a social historian of Zimbabwe, say, should really be faulted for not reading and incorporating in his thinking a cultural history of American Saturday-morning TV shows. 🙂 And that sort of thinking ultimately leads to really annoying gotcha thinking: you didn’t discuss this … you didn’t discuss that … you didn’t discuss the other thing. Well, no. The list of what I didn’t discuss is endless. What about what I did discuss? And then, we still have departmental disciplines like history, economics, etc., as our prime divisions, rather than American studies, Russian studies, etc., because we think focused disciplinary approach is the most important and productive way to approach matters. It’s a question of balancing ignorances, after all, trading broad knowledge for deep knowledge. I don’t suppose I want any sub-discipline of history to completely ignore its brethren–I don’t suppose any does–but I’d also want each sub-discipline to have a core of researchers centrally concerned with the methodologies of their field, pushing and extending them without much external reference, and–who knows?–coming up with an insight impossible to gain by “interdisciplinarity.” I don’t want any normative bias in favor of interdisciplinarity (or against it).

  27. tweedyprof says:

    Tim: Ok, it’s important (and a good conservative principle) not to generalize. Some of the post-1960s ways of doing history can lead to fine things from which I too have learned much. My beef with social and cultural history is (1) that they’ve crowded out too much political-diplomatic-military history and (2) that some (not all) of what gets published as social and cultural history is jargon-ridden and resentment-driven stuff written to impress search and promotion committees and to bolster reigning prejudices. I wouldn’t want to be without books like Natalie Zemon Davis’ “The Case of Martin Guerre”, but I also wouldn’t teach it, and wouldn’t have benefited from it myself, without a thorough grounding in the political history of the French Wars of Religion, in the administrative system of late Valois France, and in the Reformation generally.

    James McPherson’s enormously successful volume on the US in the Civil War Era in the Oxford History of the US strikes me as a classic example of how to write a kind of history open to a range of approaches judged and mobilized by the author in ways that increase knowledge rather than confirming some preconceived idea.

    Alan Jacobs speaks of “great developments”. Possibly, although such language to me reveals a sort of later-is-always-better positivism. Especially when he goes on to speak of “more knowledge”. To me knowledge is not a function of the number of printed pages.

    Withywindle’s desire for a patriotic professoriate continues to bother me, but I can’t decide whether it bothers me because it is utterly utopian or because of what that — its being utopian — reveals about the ruling prejudices and preferences and socialization of the dominant academic class. I’d be happy if we could get back, or forward, to the point where it’s no longer bizarre or grounds for exclusion if a young faculty member thinks that America is, on balance, a society worth defending, that George W. Bush is not really a new Hitler, or that the world’s greatest problems are not sexism and racism as perceived by the liberal intelligentsia.

    But back to Bérubé. If what he calls for is fairness and honesty and not impugning others’ motives, I’m all for it. I’ve often dreamed of departments of history (or literature) in which conservative, liberal, feminist and other sensibilities could freely display themselves in teaching and scholarship and interact.

    Alan Jacobs was right above when he said that a grad student who wanted to become a Helen Vendler-type literary critic would have a hard time finding a suitable program and would almost certainly not be hired afterward. That is the kind of problem we face. To remedy it the liberals have to get back to being liberal in the original sense of the word.

  28. Timothy Burke says:

    Tweedy, I’m also partial to McPherson’s integration of lots of different specializations, which is another way of saying that social history may be as important a kind of “thorough grounding” to the political history as the other way around.

    Mark, that’s a useful description of a conservative program of literary study. Here’s a question about the program you describe. Is it one that could coexist with others? E.g., could a scholar with those as his/her guiding stars be content to operate in a discipline or department where other, very different, visions operated? Could you have a Department of English that had people who argued against aspects of what you describe and those who argue for it, and still have both groups construct a reasonably coherent disciplinary program of study? Or would this be like the “four fields” conflicts in anthropology, which often cannot be contained successfully within the discipline or a given program of study?

  29. mark says:

    I think, Tim, that a traditionalist English program cannot share department space with (to use an umbrella term) a cultural studies program. This isn’t only because, in the last 30 years, cultural studies has been aggressive in displacing traditionalists (much more so than vice versa), and would enjoy a pluralistic setting probably less than traditionalists. It is because for traditionalist conceptions to survive, they must have strong institutional support, and near uniformity on basic principles within. In turn, this is because of what is happening in youth culture, which is ever more adamantly anti-historical, anti-intellectual, anti-books, and anti-tradition. We need to preserve a space in the institution for the concentrated study of literary history and literary form, and extra-campus culture has less and less of it. With the momentum of youth culture all toward consumerist, present-oriented, image-heavy stuff, the protections of traditional study must be vigilant. Let cultural studies cultivate its own garden in another part of the campus.

  30. withywindle says:

    Two questions should be disentangled: “Can a traditional curriculum co-exist with a modern one?” and “Can a traditional curriculum *continue to* co-exist with a modern one?” After all, we proceeded from a traditional one to a modern one by slow stages, in some of which they did co-exist. The trouble is that the combination was unstable; the traditional curriculum opened itself up to the new, and ended up a victim of parricide. Now, as we fleeing remnants of the Battlestar Humanistica flee the Cylon menace, we wonder if durable co-existence is possible.

  31. Timothy Burke says:

    Hmm. Ok, that’s an interesting proposal, Mark. It’s an extremely non budget-neutral one unless it involves replacing what you call “cultural studies” positions with “traditional” ones, e.g., this is about creating two departments with extremely rivalrous understandings of shared terrains.

    The problem I see too is that you’re creating a kind of preloaded argument that such a traditional department could not survive unless it had a strong institutional backing, which I take to mean more than just funding, but also probably to include requirements or other structural supports. E.g., you’re not content just to do a “market test” for such a traditional program.

    What worries me about that is that in the name of opening up the educational marketplace, you’re constructing an aggressive argument for premature reclosure of it, a notion that it’s not enough just to remove existing structures on competition, or to seek intellectual pluralism–that our institutions have to assertively *favor* a “traditional” mode of study.

    I think for one this relieves the traditionalist platform of having to actually argue for its strengths in a way that honestly engages the intellectual projects which superceded it. I like the idea of reinventing Arnoldian criticism, for example, but it seems wrong to argue that this should happen as if history had never happened. Just as I think older modes of narrative political history should *have* to contend with social history (and vice-versa), I think the program of traditional literary criticism you outline should *have to* argue with, for and through other modes of literary and cultural analysis, not just hive off into its own protected spaces. Not assume, for example, that there is an obvious virtue to reemphasizing the boundary between high and popular culture, but remake that argument anew in light of all the quite good arguments against that boundary. I don’t think it works to just be all Harold Bloomish and say “Stephen King is a penny dreadful author, yuck!” as if that is and of itself an actual argument. Any more than it works to just say, “Well, aesthetic and literary quality doesn’t matter: we should be interested in anything ‘cultural'”, because that hardly describes the actual practice of most English Departments.

    If this wasn’t just about creating a kind of disciplinary apartheid, or two flavors of Kentucky Fried Literature, I think there might be something useful about amalgamating all forms of “cultural studies” (including cultural anthropology) under one heading, and all forms of “high cultural analysis” under another departmental heading. But I’d hate to see those two new departments be convened under a sense of their permanent incommensurability, or under a banner of permanent and unending war.

  32. Alan Jacobs says:

    It seems to me that people who — quite legitimately — want to see room made in english departments for more traditional curricula and objects of study need to come up with proposals that don’t look so much like the last thirty years of proposals for ethnic/gender/sexuality studies programs. When Mark writes “for traditionalist conceptions to survive, they must have strong institutional support, and near uniformity on basic principles within” — well, this is precisely the argument used to create “radical” programs, even if there’s not much student interest in them, and then to keep those programs ideologically homogeneous. I would love to see more traditional programs of study thrive, but not because they benefit from institutional quotas and set-asides. In these matters conservatives need to formulate arguments that don’t open them so obviously to pot-kettle-black retorts.

    Oh, and tweedyprof: you write, “To me knowledge is not a function of the number of printed pages.” And you think that sets you apart from the rest of us, huh? Give me a break.

  33. withywindle says:

    I think Mark’s point is that a traditionalist curriculum (as any tradition) can only survive if unquestioned; merely to question is to upset the traditional world. Unquestioned verities can’t survive where everything is questioned. Or they change their character: the Church of England after toleration is simply not the same thing as when it was the only tolerated religion. I think the conception of a university he is propounding is analagous to that of Cardinal Newman. Now, if that sort of tradition isn’t hegemonic, it needs to be in a very hard-walled bubble to survive–a spaceship traveling in vacuum. (Or compare various fundamendalist educational systems.) Possibly every traditional education needs such walls–though I’m willing to attempt a sort of traditional/conservative education that engages with radical modernity.

  34. Timothy Burke says:

    Certainly if that kind of hard-walling is required, then it puts a somewhat different cast on the argument that all conservatives need is a place at the table. I think really in its strongest version this is just asking for someone to create a couple more St. John’s Colleges, which would be fine with me. What strikes me as not fine is asking for more space at the table at a more heterogenous institutions and then grabbing the table and running away with it.

  35. Alan Jacobs says:

    I hold to Alasdair MacIntyre’s view that a tradition which insulates itself from the possibility of change is a dead or at best a dying tradition. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? he writes, “In systematizing and ordering the truths they take themselves to have discovered, the adherents of a tradition may well assign a primary place in the structures of their theorizing to certain truths and treat them as first metaphysical or practical principles. But such principles will have had to vindicate themselves in the historical process of dialectical justification. . . Such first principles themselves, and indeed the whole body of theory of which they are a part, themselves will be understood to require justification. The kind of rational justification which they receive is at once dialectical and historical. They are justified insofar as in the history of this tradition they have, by surviving the process of dialectical questioning, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical predecessors.”

    What Mark is suggesting is a supposedly “traditional” or “traditionalist” curriculum which can only sustain itself by insulating itself from “dialectical questioning”; but it thereby would insulate itself from true intellectual development. And (pace withywindle) this is not Cardinal Newman’s model of the university. Newman’s views about how universities conserve and transmit the truth, based as they are on the key ideas in his famous “Essay on the Development of Doctrine,” depend on the belief that traditions can change and develop in profound ways while remaining consistent with their core principles and therefore remaining themselves.

    Of course, they can change in bad ways that betray the tradition’s character as well — and we have seen many, many universities do just that — but Newman and MacIntyre agree that the proper response to this danger is not to legislate against change but to teach the adherents of a tradition to become more skilled at defending and justifying its key principles. In my view the major — not the only, but the major — cause of the exile of traditionalists from university humanities departments is the manifest failure of the traditionalists themselves to do the hard intellectual work of constructively engaging and responding to challenges. And by failing in this way they have lost, at least so far, the opportunity to strengthen their ability to articulate and defend their own core commitments.

  36. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, Alan. I think that gives voice to a lot of my own anxieties, some of which underlie my pressing for the content of a conservative humanities in the initial post. I’m actually taken aback by Mark’s institutional vision for his desired program. Not by the content of the program per se, but by the argument that this program cannot, must not, exist in dynamic or dialogic relation to what he terms “cultural studies”, that the conservative humanities must not be subject to the same pedagogical or intellectual marketplace as other programs of study, and so on. Quite beyond what Alan notes about what happens to “tradition” when it is placed beyond challenge, I just think that this puts a radically different cast on Mark’s complaints about the exclusionary practices of current humanities departments. Given his vision articulated here, I don’t quite see why he objections to exclusionary practices: his program of conservative study in the humanities aspires to such exclusions itself.

  37. mark says:

    I accept the points people make here in the main, and that a tradition that resists all change and a department that resists all outside input are doomed. It can’t be as rigid as that. But if we look at the current situation in the humanities, we see far too much input coming from the social sciences (as dilettantish borrowings) and too much from mass culture and popular culture. I mean the undergrad curriculum, not the research or grad school. The reason to set up stronger boundaries is because the current boundaries are so porous, which is not a benefit. On the contrary, I think humanistic studies have suffered a lot from the changes of the last 30 years (again, in terms of undergrad curriculum, not research). The measure of failure is not theoretical or ideological, but empirical, that is, the learning outcomes of recent college grads. Check their basic knowledge and understanding of civics, history, geography, foreign affairs, and cultural traditions, and you find abysmal ignorance. This is where we should begin in our examination of recent advents–not with ourselves, but with our students.

    Tim mentioned St. Johns curriculum. Yes, it and similar Great Books curricula should be the norm, with various contemporary and cultural studies programs an add-on.

  38. Timothy Burke says:

    Mark, I’m a bit confused here, given that your own scholarly work (Negrophobia) seems to me to be fairly subject to the critique you make. And you’re teaching a freshman seminar in an English department on liberalism vs. conservatism this spring that seems to have a great deal of borrowing of the kind you here decry. There’s a deeper theoretical problem as well. First, that I think you have to demonstrate rather than merely state that there is “too much input”–e.g., what exactly *is* the problem with historicism? What’s the difference between historicism and the kinds of mimesis that literary representation has always had? Hasn’t the “world” always been present in some fashion even in “traditional” programs of literary analysis? Aren’t there problems with taking “literature” as a subject whose definition is axiomatic and tautological, beyond questioning within the space of inquiry and teaching? And so on. These aren’t just fashionable nonsense: they’re real challenges with real intellectual heft behind them. I think that’s a good part of what I object to, is the notion that a traditional program of the kind you describe has to start with a kind of fiat, an absolute secession, a rejectionism. A lot of us would readily concede that there are excesses to high theory or to historicism, but proceeding from the point that excesses cast into doubt the entirety of a huge body of intellectual work is more or less a repudiation of all discrete methodological and disciplinary styles (including any conservative or traditional programs of study). In fact, isn’t this what you complain of in your Weekly Standard piece–that liberal colleagues disparage the curricula of military academies by hyperbole and caricature, by exaggeration?

    On the outcomes question, one might suggest that the conservative program of literary study you outline isn’t the answer to most of those shortcomings (e.g., for someone who wants to get the social science out of your literary study, four of the five areas of ignorance that concern you are in the terrain of socail science more than literary study.) I’m also profoundly skeptical that American students today are substantially *more* ignorant in many of those respects than students in the 1950s or 1920s, which to me raises the question about whether the outcomes as measured are consequential, and in what respect. (This is particularly considering that many of the worst outcomes are comparing populations that didn’t go to college at all before 1960s with those who now go to college). It all sounds dreadful to intellectuals, who prize knowledge, but what exactly is the outcome of those outcomes? It has to be at least possible that “critical thinking”, however low your opinion of its vagueness might be, produces better practical results within certain workplace and everyday life contexts than students who know their Latin, have all read Mill on the Floss, and can recite a formal history of the succession of American Presidents.

  39. bbenzon says:

    What I want instead is to figure out a way to open the spigot wider to encourage innovation and joyful passion in general. But that means trying to *live* that kind of vision, and I really don’t see a lot of the conservative critics of academy doing that. It’s not just the lack of joy, it’s the lack of any affirmative practice whatsoever, any description of the ways they actually want to be academics.

    If it’s joyful passion you want, then, alas, academia is not the place. I don’t see much of that anywhere, conservative, liberal, radical, reactionary, not anywhere. Yes, it is there, somewhere, but not much of it. That’s just not what academia is about.

    As for the lack of affirmative practice, the whole deconstructive post-modern moment in lit crit is all about skeptical counter-punching. It depends on having an opponent to demystify and undermine. Without that, it loses its energy. There’s no positive program there. So, the conservatives don’t have a program, the pseudo-radicals don’t have a program. They’re all clock punchers pretending they’re above it all.

    Is that a too harsh? Probably. But it’s on them to come up with a positive program. Until that happens, who cares?

  40. bbenzon says:

    We need to preserve a space in the institution for the concentrated study of literary history and literary form . . . .

    I agree on both of these. But, as far as I can tell, there has never been space for the concentrated study of literary form. Literary formalism, for example, was not about the study of literary form. Rather, it was a philosophical position that asserted literary form as the rationale for a certain kind of critical practice. The actual study of form was incidental to that practice, though it did take place.

    For a sustained argument for the consideration of literary form, formulated in thoroughly contemporary intellectual terms, see my Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. I should note that, while that article references work in the cognitive and neurosciences, the pedagogical practice that follows most easily from it would be one that emphasizes practical criticsm: the analysis of the form of specific texts (based, in part, on examples of such analysis).

  41. mark says:

    I’ll respond to the curricular questions tomorrow, Tim, but on the outcomes issue, I can refer you to several studies showing declines in knowledge and skills from the last 20 years. Check out the latest report from the National Institute for Literacy, showing that collge grads went from 40 percent “proficiency” in the early-90s to 31 percent in 2003. And look at NSSE for comparisons of reading and cultural habits for the last ten years. And look at the ISI report on Civic Literacy from last month that showed many colleges had freshmen scoring higher on the multiple choice civic knowledge and concepts test than did their seniors–a poor comment on the value of higher ed.

    I’d be happy to debate whether the items tested count as serious and important knowledge, and I would add that the academic practice of discounting such closed-response tests has done a lot to discredit the trust the public has in our schools.

  42. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m thinking about the deeper historical terrain, Mark, as far as outcomes go. It’s something of the same way I feel about research showing that the representation of violence on television creates social violence. Even if that research is in some sense accurate (and it’s more dubious even in its particular design than the public suspects, on average), the effect sizes are very small. At a time when almost all measurements saw a huge increase in the representation of violence in television and films, the incidence of violent crime overall dropped quite significantly. This suggests that whatever the relationship is, it is inconsequential. Same on a 40 to 31 percent proficiency, or on the decline of reading. It’s one thing to show it exists, another to figure out what exactly it means. I tend to think that it’s the latter point where the critique falls down somewhat. Particularly against the deeper terrain–did most Americans in 1920 know many of the things they’re tested on knowing today, or in 1940 or 1960? If they didn’t, what were the consequences then? What are the consequences now? Given the time frame of the studies you cite, Mark, you’d expect the late 1980s and 1990s to show significantly better or more improved results of *some kind* on larger social terrains if those superior proficiencies are consequential. So what was better about the 1980s than now in terms of the consequences of civic, historical, literary knowledge?

    You could even argue the opposite when it comes to social consequences. Maybe the decline of the canon is a direct or indirect result of the relative efflorescence of popular culture in the 1990s and early 2000s, for example? Maybe it’s the precondition of the aesthetic improvement of television, or of the growth of games as a media form. Culture in general is more revenue-producing as a whole today than it was in 1960, even including books, despite declining readership as a whole. Etcetera. I think very little “speaks for itself” in these kinds of debates.

  43. withywindle says:

    I’ll have to reread my Newman; clearly it’s been too long …

    I would ascribe the abysmal ignorance of college students to failure in the elementary and high schools, rather than to failure in the college. Now, there’s a critique which says the modernist pedagogy on all levels is aligned, and equally culpable, but I suspect one could argue that drilling of basic facts and writing skills is possible at the basic levels, combined with a modernist pedagogy at college and above. I don’t think the argument from ignorance necessarily applies here: traditional remediation and modern remediation are equally unsatisfactory outcomes.

    There is then then the question of whether American students *are* more ignorant than they used to be. I have a pretty profound sense of *yes*–where yes means expectations per education level, not average attainment of the population as a whole. (My great-aunt graduated from a public high-school in NYC ca. 1920–admittedly a good one–with Latin and Greek. And became a secretary, such is the way of the world, which I think means she was literate in English too.) I’d be willing to believe that Americans are more literate, on the whole, than they were in 1900, or even than they were in 1950, at the same time as the value of a high-school degree has plummeted.

    I do also think there’s a specifically academic-level expectations game going on: I have a wild theory that the influx of refugee (German) professors in the 1930s meant that a whole lot of academics arrived with higher expectations for academic performance than America had ever achieved; American graduate students today aren’t the polymaths that Heidelberg graduates were in the 1920s, but neither were American graduate students in the 1920s!

    Tim: the general conservative idea that principles are best embodied in institutions is also relevant here. The thesis is that a traditional curriculum embodies the best way to teach critical thinking skills. We think this not least because we recollect that reading Cicero and Tacitus (say) has something to do with various political revolutions in our history, which were rather marvelous exercises in critical thinking. And, indeed, a highly practical test: read Cicero and Tacitus, and you can turn the world upside down. Read Derrida, and you can get tenure.

  44. Mr. Burke:

    You ask: “I want to know more about what conservativism in the humanities actually looks like.”

    I can’t spell out all the details of what a “conservative” research program would look like in various disciplines, but it would be interesting to see what might emerge absent the sort of politically-motivated behavior that is described here. No?

  45. mark says:

    On the curricular issue, Tim, I think what we need is theoretically simple: a major on campus that aims to produce in students a historical and aesthetic understanding of a literary tradition. I mean an old-fashioned one, in which students develop erudition of the basic kind: deep acquaintance with plots, characters, expressions, themes. The syllabus would have all the customary names, and the goal of the curriculum would be to produce an accumulation of learning, with students reaching the full sense of what tradition means, so that Shakespeare and Co. are alive for them, part of their intellect. The tradition would serve the Arnoldian goal of providing a foundation by which to apprehend the products of the present age, and judge by by a surer yardstick that the materials of the present age alone provide.

    For the same reasons, it would regard the advances of the previous 30 years with a skeptical eye. One of the bedrocks of cultural conservatism is to avoid contemporary enthusiasms, to accept something as great or important only after it meets the critical demands of the tradition and thrives outside of its moment of origination. This will save us lots of embarrassment. Otherwise, we look back upon the products of the 70s, 80s, . . . and laugh at the zeal with which we embraced them.

    On the outcomes issue, I think confining the time frame to the last 3 decades is crucial. We have enough data sources to get good pictures on what’s going on with youth culture, youth knowledge, and youth academics. Of course, as you say, the inferences one draws are tricky, and there are differing messages. For example, when we look at behavioral measures, we see improvements in many areas, for instance, violent crime and teen pregnancy and attitudes toward parents. On economic measures, too, there are gains, as Generation Y, as the marketers call them, are the most powerful consumer cohort in human history. But one area hasn’t improved: academic achievement. Why? Why haven’t knowledge and skill levels kept pace with social and economic levels?

  46. Alan Jacobs says:

    I thank Mark for his clarifications, but — with all genuine respect — I think what they show is that his hypothetical “major,” which I guess would take the institutional form of a department, is but a dream. A delightful dream in some ways, but a dream nonetheless, because unlike almost every other department on campus it would be characterized not by its object of study but by its beliefs about an object of study. That is, the professors teaching classes in this major would be placed or defined not by their teaching of Shakespeare or Milton — who presumably could also be taught in the neighboring Cutural Studies department, should the professors there choose to do so — but by the conviction that Shakespeare and Milton provide “a foundation by which to apprehend the products of the present age.”

    So what would happen if a professor changed his or her mind? What if many years of studying and teaching Milton ultimately led one to the conclusion that those people who claim that Milton’s views of gender are oppressive and unjust are right? In Mark’s vision of the “conservationist” English department such a thing simply could not be allowed to happen. A person who came to such a conclusion would need to resign or be forced to move to the Cultural Studies department. But how could this ever be done without lawsuits? There would have to be a kind of creedal statement which all members of the department would be willing to sign and abide by — which, in a university context, is manifestly absurd. (“I pledge that I will not change my mind about these matters”?) Yet without such restrictions it would be impossible to maintain the department with the integrity that Mark wants it to have.

    One could argue that American universities already support majors in Women’s Studies and African-American Studies that effectively, if not openly, maintain ideological unanimity through unspoken and unwritten “creeds.” But the conservative response to that kind of thing has always, and rightly I think, been “Shame on them,” not “Gimme some of that.” Moreover, it is easier for unspoken and unwritten creeds to be changed; once ideological uniformity is formally and structurally mandated it becomes truly immovable.

    No, if people in English departments ever “laugh at the zeal with which we embraced” the theoretical movements of the ’70’s and ’80’s, it will be because of the passage of time or because individual members of the profession make strong arguments demonstrating the absurdity of those theoretical trends and revealing the intellectual damage they have done. There’s no other way for the changes Mark desires to take place.

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