The University of Colorado at Boulder started up a visiting scholar program for conservative thought last year. I had my doubts about it. I don’t like the idea of “affirmative action for certain ideologies.” One would think that if a university’s mission was to educate they wouldn’t care what one’s political leanings were. That’s a private matter. I would think a university, fully cognizant of its role in society, would look for people who are not only highly qualified, and show a dedication to academic work, but also seek a philosophical balance, not ideological. However, it has been noted many times how politically slanted university faculty is, at least in their political party registration. Looking at the stats, one would think that the institutions have in fact become bastions for one political party or another, and listening to the accounts from some scholars and students, you’d think that the arts & humanities colleges have become training grounds for political agitators and propagandists. I don’t find that encouraging. The fact that for many years universities have not used this apparent tilt toward ideological purity as an opportunity for introspection about what they are actually teaching, but seem to rather take it as a mark pride, is also troubling. All of the excuses I’ve heard over the years sound like prejudices against classical thought. I’d like to ask them, “Can you come up with anything qualitatively better” (if they’ve even thought about that), but I’m afraid I will be disappointed by the answer while they high-five each other.
Having actually witnessed a bit of the conservative thought program at CU (seeing a couple of the guest speakers), I’m pleased with it. It has an academically conservative slant, and, from what I’ve seen, avoids the “sales pitch” for itself. Instead, it argues from a philosophical perspective that is identified as conservative by society. The most refreshing thing is it’s open to dialogue.
The first professor in the program, Dr. Steven Hayward, wrote a couple excellent speeches I read on political discourse.
I thought I would highlight the profile that was written for the next professor in the program, Dr. Bradley Pirzer. He appears to be a man after my own heart on these matters. I’m looking forward to what he will present.
How would you characterize the state of political discourse in the United States today?
Terrible. Absolutely terrible. But, I must admit, I write this as a 46-year old jaded romantic who once would have given much of his life to one of the two major political parties.
Political discourse as of 2014 comes down to two things 1) loudness and 2) meaningless nothings. Oration is a dead art, and the news from CNN, Fox and other outlets is just superficial talking points with some anger and show. Radio is just as bad, if not worse. As one noted journalist, Virginia Postrel, has argued, we probably shouldn’t take anything that someone such as Ann Coulter says with any real concern, as she is “a performance artist/comedian, not a serious commentator.”
Two examples, I think, help illustrate this. Look at any speech delivered by almost any prominent American from 1774 to 1870 or so. The speeches are rhetorically complicated, the vocabulary immense, and the expectations of a well-informed audience high. To compare the speech of a 1830s member of Congress with one—perhaps even the best—in 2014 is simply gut-wrenchingly embarrassing.
Another example. The authors of the Constitution expected us to discuss the most serious matters with the utmost gravity. Nothing should possess more gravitas in a republic than the issue of war. Yet, as Americans, we have not engaged in a properly constitutional debate on the meaning of war since the close of World War II. We’ve seen massive protests, some fine songs, and a lot of bumper stickers, but no meaningful dialogue.
As a humanist, I crave answers for this, and I desire a return to true—not ideological—debate and conversation. Academia has much to offer the larger political world in this.
How do you view the value of higher education today, particularly given its rising cost and rising student-loan burden?
I’m rather a devoted patriot of and for liberal education. From Socrates forward, the goal of a liberal education has been to “liberate” the human person from the everyday details of this world and the tyranny of the moment. Our citizenship, as liberally educated persons, belongs to the eternal Cosmopolis, not to D.C. or London or. . . .
But, in our own titillation with what we can create, we often forget what came before and what will need to be passed on in terms of ethics and wisdom. The best lawyer, the best engineer, the best chemist, will be a better person for knowing the great ideas of the past: the ethics of Socrates; the sacrifice of Perpetua; and the genius of Augustine.