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Conservatives often complain about left-wing bias in academia, and to an extent they have a point. In many faculty departments, you are likelier to come across a Marxist than a Republican. But what is concerning about universities today isn’t that they are turning unsuspecting students into socialists; the real bias is more insidious and unintentional. The problem isn’t the liberal texts that are assigned, but the ostensibly conservative ones.
A personal example may help explain what I mean. In multiple philosophy and political theory classes I took as an undergraduate, my professors assigned large tracts of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, essentially the theoretical underpinning of the generous welfare state most liberals support today. We also read a pamphlet called Why Not Socialism? by the philosopher G. A. Cohen.
Neither of these texts were particularly indoctrinating, and they weren’t intended to be. My professors encouraged us to poke holes in Rawls and Cohen’s arguments, even as they were broadly sympathetic to the authors’ beliefs. We were also given right-wing works to read in tandem: Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” by Friedrich Hayek, and in one instance Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Surely, then, there can be no charges of one-sided teaching here.
At least, that’s what I thought at the time. I felt Rawls and Cohen’s works were flawed. I also was convinced Nozick and Hayek’s were better. I didn’t agree with everything they wrote, and in my more honest moments I knew their theories lacked something substantial. But as someone starting to identify as conservative, they were my only alternative—the only sources I could use to creditably disagree with my left-leaning peers and professors.
And that’s the problem. Nozick, Hayek, and Rand are all in some respect “on the right,” but they are also liberals in the broader sense. They view individual freedom as the paramount virtue, and treat other priorities like stability, order, and community as secondary goods. Outside the American context, none of these thinkers belong to the “conservative” tradition at all; Hayek wrote a famous essay belaboring this point.
None of this is to say Nozick and Hayek aren’t worth teaching. But presenting them as the lone right-wing alternatives to Rawls, Cohen, and Marx leaves students with an impoverished language with which they can grapple with left-liberal ideas. We learn to quote extensively from Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, but hardly anything from Edmund Burke or Benjamin Disraeli.
This leaves Americans on both the right and left worse off—the right because they are cut off from half of their intellectual tradition, the left because they must deal with a far less circumspect right. Teaching a more robust conservative canon would begin to change this dynamic, cutting down on the facile rhetoric so common among conservatives today who are prone to saying “socialism sucks” and little else. My recent experience feels illustrative. In those endless classroom debates pitting Rawls against Nozick, I found myself arguing that any hint of income redistribution was inherently suspect, and that any suggestion of state economic intervention was a violation of limited government.
Looking back now, I am reminded of George Orwell’s colonial officer in Burma who, surrounded by natives with certain expectations of him, “wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” I knew I wasn’t implacably opposed to spending money on the poor or regulating various industries. But in a classroom setting, I realized as one of the few non-progressives in the room that those were the opinions expected of me. And I quickly and dutifully assumed them. I could have admitted my doubts, but that would have meant surrendering to the smug self-assurance of my left-leaning classmates who on a fundamental level I still disagreed with. The cliché that academic disputes are so vicious because the stakes are so small is true; in that environment, I wouldn’t give an inch. If Nozick’s philosophy was the closest weapon at hand, I’d wield his strident libertarianism as my own.
Outside of the classroom, however—and independent of the assigned curricula—my worldview had more room to develop. Discovering Burke opened up an entirely new way to justify some policies and criticize others. I realized every rationale did not need to stem from man’s fallible reason, contra liberal thinkers from Rawls to Rand. Burke instead stressed the value of what he called prescription, “the means by which practices and institutions that have long served society well are given the benefit of the doubt against innovations that might undermine them,” in Yuval Levin’s words. Levin contrasts Burke’s thinking with that of Thomas Paine, a radical closer in thought to both modern-day libertarians and progressives. In this wider, classically conservative view, libertarianism and progressivism are not political opposites but two sides of the same coin, both heirs to a broad utopian project with an unconstrained view of human reason and perfectibility.
Less a policy program than a sensibility, Burke’s thought changed my perspective in a way the approved college debates never did, widening my sense of what was politically permissible for conservatives to believe. The laissez-faire economic approach backed by Hayek and Nozick was no longer the only the source from which I could draw; the one-nation conservatism of Disraeli or the “American System” associated with Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay were fair game as well. More rooted in history and circumstance than pure reason, Burke's strand of conservative thought was wholly absent from the libertarian philosophers that comprised my syllabus, and the ideological horizons of right-leaning students like me were more cramped as a result.
Amending college reading curricula to focus more on writers like Burke obviously won't fix how constricted our political discourse has become, and I’m not sure how indicative my experience is of higher education elsewhere. America itself is also a product of Enlightenment liberal thinking, so any comprehensive rejections of liberalism are unlikely to find fertile ground here. All that said, I remain convinced that introducing students to more conservative thinkers outside the liberal tradition could only improve our political debates today. Then again, it would be hard to make them worse.