Traditionalists in the university

In my last post, I argued that conservatives need intellectuals of the professorial type.  We need more analyses and fewer manifestos.  The ignorance and shallowness one sees in reputedly conservative magazines like National Review is an embarrassment to us all.  It’s no less true that we have a great deal to offer the universities.  In fact, I think that reactionary conservatism has a brighter future in the academy than classical liberalism, if we have the talent and energy to sieze it.

How can this be?  Currently, the fraction of conservative faculty in the universities stands at approximately zero percent.  The remaining one hundred percent are both totally ignorant of and violently hostile to conservatism of any kind.  Furthermore, we’re always being told that the Right needs to become intellectually respectable, and the only way to do that is to move Left.  In particular, we are told to drop all the distinctively conservative elements of our creed (religion, patriarchy, authority, censorship) and instead use liberal principles to defend a moderation of liberal practices.  Then people would listen to us.  I don’t think this is true.  Not only has moving Left not served the interest of truth, it hasn’t even bought us any respect.  I think full conservatism would actually be more successful.

The reason is this:  professors are ideologues, but they are also scientists whose goal is to understand what exists and not just condemn it.  Social scientists have a great deal of interest in other cultures, which are seldom liberal, and in the history of our own civilization, which was not liberal.  Not only are they nonliberal, but when confronted with liberalism, they do or did resist in order to defend their own distinct forms, i.e. there arose conservative elements in them.  As a historian or anthropologist, the professor will want to understand these cultures, how they operated and what motivates people to defend them against the onslaught of freedom and equality.  On the other hand, the professor is also a liberal, and as a liberal he is committed to the belief that there’s nothing to understand.  All opposition to liberalism is not just wrong, but irrational; one can’t make sense of it, because there’s no sense to be made.  Cultures defend themselves either because of obvious logical blunders or because of the selfishness of the ruling classes.  On the one hand, to really understand his subjects, the social scientist would like to get inside their heads and understand their motivation from the inside.  On the other hand, liberalism and Marxism force him to believe that this is just subjective illusion and that the only true and objective knowledge comes from the viewpoint of the hostile outsider.

Given this confrontation, most professors will stifle their curiosity and just write off most of the human race as evil.  There are, however, intellectual movements in another direction.  Sociology, as Robert Nisbet has convincingly shown, has been from the beginning the appropriation of conservative categories for social science.  Communitarianism has unknowingly presented the academic world with much of the conservative critique of liberalism.  Even movements like postmodernism and cultural relativism implicitly have the effect of humbling the liberal metanarrative as much as any other.  Most important of all, anthropology has generated not only knowledge of primitive peoples but sympathy for their efforts to maintain their traditional ways of life.

The dilemma of the liberal anthropologist is discussed in my review of Wade Davis’ The Wayfinders.  On the one hand, Davis appreciates how religion and culture have dignified the lives of tribal peoples, and he even acknowledges that egalitarian ideologies have been harmful for them.  On the other hand, being an atheist, he admits that ultimately these tribal cultures are built on lies, and they’re only useful for manipulating people into reducing their carbon dioxide use.  His defense of culture is also vitiated by his inability to find a single kind word for the Christian culture that his readers will be most familiar with.  Compare this failed attempt at cultural appreciation with the brilliant success of Mircea Eliade who has unveiled the inner meaning of myths around the world.  The key difference between the two is that Eliade took primitive beliefs and rituals seriously using theological/sociological/conservative categories like that of sacrality.  When he encountered a belief, say that a certain temple is the center of the universe, he understood the social utility of this belief, but he didn’t dismiss it as an illusion; he taught us what the “center of the world” symbol means for the religious–it’s the point of contact with God.  It should be pointed out how much Eliade’s religious sensibilities owed to Eastern Orthodoxy and its iconic view of the world.

Conservatism gives one the intellectual tools to appreciate another culture or religion from the point of view of a sympathetic insider without necessarily converting.  The lack of such a tool is a serious issue in the academy today, as the uproar over Kenneth Howell’s Catholicism class at the University of Illinois shows (see here and here for the best insider view of this controversy).  The university has more or less stated that the only objective way to study the Catholic Church is from the viewpoint of an outside (hostile) critic.  A sympathetic presentation of Church doctrine is proselytism, so it would be better to feed students ignorant prejudice than risk them being contaminated with religion.  The conservative point of view would allow students to understand and sympathize with Catholicism’s concern with dogma, ritual, sacrament, authority, and tradition without necessarily accepting Catholicism as true.  I imagine that students thus exposed would be more open to the possibility that Catholicism is true, but a little open-mindedness isn’t such a terrible thing.

There is a real ideological opening, I think, for a group of scholars to present a vigorous conservative defense of all the beseiged religions and cultures of the world.  Liberal social scientists may sympathize with non-Western cultures, but they can’t help them on the intellectual level.  We conservatives can give non-Westerners the reasons why their traditional ways are both socially beneficial and intrinsically good.  How would liberals respond to a defense of patriarchy among Native Americans, or a defense of religion in government among Muslims?  It would make their heads explode.  We conservatives can also help non-Westerners address the problem of how to maintain the essence of their traditions and beliefs while accomodating modern science, history, and technology.  Catholic traditionalists like Cardinal Newman have thought long and hard about issues like this.  Liberal anthropologists can’t help here, because they think the beliefs of their subjects are just beautiful superstitions.

What I would very much like to see is the the beginnings of a trans-cultural traditionalist alliance of the sort envisioned by Adam Webb in his excellent book Beyond the Global Culture War.  At this time, such an alliance would involve just a handful of professors from different civilizations.  They could, however, be tremendously influential in the long term.

2 Responses

  1. […] is this 1974 essay titled Conservatism and Intelligence.  It addresses the same subject as that of one of my recent posts–what conservatives have to offer the university.  I was pleased to see that one of the […]

  2. I think this is a great idea… How could we ever make it happen?

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