I was reading Stanley Fish’s opinion piece in the New York Times about the University of Colorado’s plan to create a Chair of Conservative Thought at their Boulder campus. The reason? To address political imbalance at the university. Does this mean that they are also going fund a Chair of Liberal Thought? You know, in the interest of “balance”? Probably not.
But does this mean that only a conservative can teach a course in conservative thought? If that’s the case, then how do you explain the wealth of academic knowledge on conservative thinkers like Plato and Aristotle published by individuals who fundamentally disagree with the object of their study? Have those academics (not schooled by Leo Strauss or any of is disciples) been less informed on Platonic or Aristotelian thought? Is there one way, and only one way, to read a text?
You see, just bringing up these questions starts a line of inquiry that leads to a less politically charged atmosphere. I should amend that last sentence to say that while questions of politics are discussed, they are not the end-all and be-all of the discussion. Those whose credentials reflect a life not devoted to the pursuit of money or power, but rather to the rather solitary and tedious study of ideas, will often teach with an eye toward the critical analysis of political ideas — and that includes those which one holds dearly.
This is where things get uncomfortable for a lot of people. Because when you start to interrogate your own beliefs, you run the risk of venturing down a road where you may draw conclusions that run contrary to what you purportedly hold dear. Conservative thinkers like Plato engaged in such thought, and it was done so for fruity, new age-like reasons like “knowing yourself.” There are some thinkers in the realm of political thought who you might not think of as conservative. Karl Marx is arguably one, and if you read beyond his critique of capitalism, you’ll find a yearning for an unchanging world that is free of oppression. That unchanging world is conservative; it’s not dynamic, rather, it’s a static environment where we’ve progressed beyond the characteristics of what defines us as human. Plato also yearns for a realm where our earthly imperfections are no more; where we (okay, a select few) can commune with perfect Forms. Which idea is more antithetical to our way of life? The answer is that both are, because both thinkers would find the United States a corrupt or tyrannical form of government. Given that, would a Chair of Conservative Thought teach Plato’s ideas, or would such a department be created for trivial reasons — reasons that, on the surface, lead to snap judgments about political motives based on the following caricatures:
- Academics are by and large left-wingers whose agenda is to convert people to their cause.
- Universities are hives of tenured radicals who yell and shout their beliefs to a captive audience, who pay for the privilege of hearing an advocate for socialism.
- Academics are ponytailed America-haters who have one goal: the wholesale destruction of the greatest country that’s ever existed in human history!
- The majority of academics vote for Democrats.
- The majority of them listen to Air America and NPR.
- The majority of them drive Volvos or even hybrids.
- The majority of them read books that are critical of our foreign policy.
- The majority of them don’t go to Christian churches.
- The majority of them support gay marriage.
If an academic department based on the finger-pointing kind of moralism expressed above is being given $9 million in startup money by the University of Colorado, then three cheers for the unexamined life, because clearly it’s a life worth living!