The Right Coast

January 24, 2006
What is to be done?
By Tom Smith

How best could conservatives reform the culture of the academy? Interesting thoughts here.

I wish I had some deep insights on this. As a pessimist, my inclination is to say, it cannot be done. The academy is just too pervasively on the left to ever become 'balanced' or intellectually diverse. The only real alternative is to build alternative institutions outside of the academy. But then, I really don't know.

I am not sure what the experience in law schools teaches us. Without a doubt, the Federalist Society has made it more respectable, on balance, to be a conservative or libertarian scholar. But the success of conservative ideas, such as Originalism, has been far more striking on the bench than it has been on law faculties. The US Supreme Court may soon boast a solid majority of justices one might call conservative. And yet no top 20 or perhaps any law school faculty will soon or perhaps ever make a similar claim. But if there is a time when the majority of federal judges, say, are what we would now call conservative, does it really matter all that much that law school faculties continue to think conservativism is out of the mainstream? They will say we are out of the mainstream with their dying breath. The mainstream is kind of a platonic thing, I gather.

The most important influence of the Federalist Society, I would hazard, has been on law students and lawyers who go on to take positions of responsibility in public life. It has had this influence without getting anywhere near achieving balance in the academy. Ideas work in mysterious ways.

One might think a similar logic could work itself out in other areas where the academy is notably left wing. When people say the academy is over-poised to the left, I think they are talking much more about the humanities and social sciences than physics or molecular biology. In the liberal arts, such as history, or English Literature, I am far from certain the academy has any great institutional advantage in producing valuable new insights about past events or letters. Futurology is mostly impossible, but it is possible to imagine a world a few decades in the future where wealth and high productivity support intellectuals and artists of various sorts who will be able to do their thing, and have access to by current standards fantastic resources and audiences, quite apart from having to teach graduate students or attend departmental meetings. If all the great libraries are available online through GooglePrint or something similar, why does an historian need the imprimatur of the Harvard history department anyway? I think it may be more a case of, will the last Marxist please turn off the History department coffee machine, while the good, new stuff comes out of new places, which will be located who knows where. The scientific and technical side of universities have never been healthier, I would guess. But everything else -- one almost wonders if it can be rescued or even if it should be.