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Let the Right Ones In

By Chris J. Barker

Speaking somewhat angrily at a 2008 conference, radical historian Hayden White said this: "...the best way of finding out what the community…thinks is rational and irrational is [to] go and look at whom they designate as irrational and what they do to them.”

Who, then, is the excluded minority whose thoughts academe currently makes it impossible to think? There are many candidates: the poor majority; racial minorities; religious groups; even the rich minority. The group I’d like to single out is conservatives—not necessarily Republicans or bible-thumpers, but those who follow the politics of Edmund Burke or who adhere to the classical liberal conception of state power. Their power lies largely outside academe—in think tanks, research institutes, corporate sponsors, and so on.

One study looking at 10 years of books published by Harvard University Press labelled 39 percent as leftist, one percent as conservative, and 9 percent as classically liberal or tending that way. (In HUP’s favor, they published a book in 2013 on precisely this topic. It found that a deselection process attracts conservatives to jobs outside of academe.) Other findings indicate that hiring committees are substantially less accepting of colleagues that have connections to the NRA or to the evangelical movement.

All of these findings have been challenged. There have been findings of no substantial bias against conservatives in academe, even in studies done by conservatives. But, in the social sciences where one’s ideas and beliefs become a part of one’s teaching, the easy pathways of liberal scholarship and the demotion and deselection of anything less popular and saleable feels very real, especially in job markets where one article, even one answer to a search committee, may make the difference between advancement and stagnation.

During graduate school, and afterwards, I received very significant funding from external funding groups to pay for tuition, to support postdoctoral positions, and to attend expensive research institutes. I experienced no pressure to change my views at any times from outside funders/donors. But, sheepishly, I admit that I engaged in self-censorship in order to be more attractive to the ideal of conservatism that I imputed to them.

Graduate school is a funny time of experimentation. Specialization often works centrifugally, pushing you towards an unpopulated periphery, and professionalization works centripetally, drawing you towards what seems to work. Conforming to an imagined ideal is, in its worst form, rent-seeking, and in its middling form, unintelligent. You can decide for yourself by reading the reports and newsletters of the Jack Miller Center, for instance, what these groups want. In my view, what the conservative or classical liberal counter-academy wants is to have star scholars within their network, not scholars who handcuff themselves through boilerplate or hypocrisy, and what budding scholars want is to be recognized for their work.

The big sort that allows conservatives and liberals to engage in “way-of-life segregation,” on the basis of their political identities, may be the bigger problem, but it is a difficult one to address. To be one of the minority liberals in the Midwest or the South, to leave for Harvard College and its majority-liberal student body, and then to stay in the Northeast after graduation may liberate the individual student, but it fails to achieve the desired diversity, either within Harvard or in broader society.

The academic ostracism of conservatives and the big sort raise a few interesting questions. First, the claim for representation made by, or more likely on behalf of heartland America, is worth entertaining. Can a school devoted to excellence, such as Harvard, represent the populist values of Middle America—family first, traditions accepted, ambitions scaled to circumstances? If so, who benefits? The second question concerns whether pains should be taken to include conservative scholars in the academic conversation.

At their best, conservatives offer a reflective antidote to presentism and abstraction, a long time-scale, a respect for the Anglo-American tradition, and a refusal to accept only oxymoronically “typical” liberal issues as grist for protest. Their commitments may actually deepen social democrats’ commitments to equality, welfare, and social justice.

Let the right ones in and let them publish on their figures in the history of thought. Let them expand your moral imagination. Yes, even rig the academic market to generate diversity within schools such as Harvard. Both liberals and conservatives need each other to be themselves—scholarly and mentally independent—and neither group should hope to win the culture wars.

The winner’s freedom has always been diminished by winning. Ideological parity and contestation, not domination, is what is needed to achieve academic freedom. If it takes noblesse oblige on behalf of liberal hiring committees, so be it. Even liberty needs a bit of planning.

Chris J. Barker is an assistant professor of political science and director of legal studies at Southwestern College.

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