When conservative undergraduates look around for mentors these days, who do they find? Not conservative professors, at least not very often. Our ranks have been slowly vanishing since the 1980s. Instead, those students find organizers from the MAGA-verse who teach them how to own the libs. That’s who is instructing the next generation of Republican leaders, modeling how to act and think like good conservatives. It’s a squalid education, one that deepens their alienation from the university and guarantees that the next generation of elected officials will make Ron DeSantis’s war against higher education look tame.
Liberal professors have the power to help solve this problem. They can show their conservative students how to become thoughtful and knowledgeable partisans — by exposing them to a rich conservative intellectual tradition that stretches back to Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke, David Hume and Adam Smith. They could mentor their conservative students, set up reading groups, help vet speakers and create courses on the conservative intellectual tradition.
This is easier said than done, of course. One challenge is that there are not many incentives to take undergraduate teaching and mentoring seriously, at least not at research universities, which instead dole out promotions based on research and publication. A bigger obstacle, though, is that very few professors know much at all about the conservative intellectual tradition. Many assume there is little of value in it.
To the uninformed and skeptical alike, I recommend reading Jerry Z. Muller’s introductory chapter in his “Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought From David Hume to the Present.” Among other insights, he stresses the need to preserve customs and institutions that direct wayward human beings. These systems of social control are complex, easy to dismantle and difficult to rebuild. For these reasons, conservatives are leery of campaigns that promise to liberate us from a host of norms and institutions that the left sometimes sees as unjust, like marriage, religion, gender roles, the police and sexual repression.
Every year I ask my students, most of whom are quite liberal, to read books in this conservative tradition, all of which are paired with books by progressive authors. Books like “The Case for Marriage,” “The Case Against the Sexual Revolution” and “Why Liberalism Failed” open students to the possibility that our ancestors were not merely fools or bigots. Instead, they built social institutions that, however flawed, also repressed some of our more self-destructive impulses and encouraged some of our better angels.
Take marriage. Members of the upper middle class still largely get and stay married, even without the old social pressures that once made marriage all but mandatory. Most of my liberal students know as much. But what they are rarely forced to confront is the idea that this kind of traditionalism builds wealth, softens men and creates an ideal environment for privileged children to flourish, while for most everyone else, the expansion of sexual and romantic freedom has undermined family life, deepening inequality in its wake.
They confront other challenging ideas, too. For example, what if the sexual revolution has left young women less happy in their romantic lives? And what if the collapse of traditional religion has depressed charity to the needy? Like a laissez-faire economy, perhaps a laissez-faire culture mostly benefits the privileged few.
These arguments can be jarring because they provide a window into conservatism at its best, highlighting the wisdom it still has to offer us in an age in which the G.O.P. has descended into madness. On occasion, students are shaken by reading them. As one student told me after reading a book on marriage, “I think I need to rethink my life.” Far more often, though, students simply discover that there is a tradition of conservative thought that is worth contemplating.
I fear, though, that such experiences are becoming rare. As late as the mid-1980s, about one-third of American professors were still right of center. But by 1999, one survey found that Republicans accounted for just 2 percent of English professors, 0 percent of sociologists, 4 percent of historians and 8 percent of political scientists. Given these numbers, it’s hardly surprising that students usually can’t find even a single course on the conservative intellectual tradition.
The people now teaching them to think and act like conservatives mostly belong to Trumpist outfits like Turning Point USA, which recruits and trains young conservatives to be campus activists. (Turning Point has taken to hosting deliberate provocations like affirmative action bake sales, in which students are charged different prices, depending on their race.)
The point of these stunts isn’t just to provoke liberal outrage on campus; it’s to alienate conservative kids from their surroundings. Turning Point’s bombastic founder, Charlie Kirk, a college dropout, wants his young protégés to feel every bit as contemptuous of higher education as he does. As he told Fox News, “Anything but college.”
Conservative students, though, might start saying “Anything but Trumpism” if they learn about a more enlightened alternative.
To make those awakenings commonplace, there must be a coordinated national campaign to broaden our curriculums. Every American university should offer a course on what is best in conservatism. That means teaching conservative intellectuals, not just the history of the G.O.P. or right-wing populism. Perhaps this campaign could be led by a group like Heterodox Academy or the American Political Science Association, either of which could partner with a politically diverse network of scholars with expertise in this arena. Those scholars might offer summer crash courses for professors and develop model syllabuses. Universities might also give course development grants to develop this curriculum.
A national campaign could do more than just improve the next generation of Republican leaders. It might also restore some semblance of lost faith in higher education as a whole. A substantial majority of Republicans now believe that universities have a negative influence on the country. That distrust will only encourage more DeSantis-style attacks on these institutions, especially the public ones. If professors want to defend the legitimacy of universities against the charge that they are simply leftist indoctrination centers, they should relentlessly broadcast the new efforts they’re making to mentor their conservative students.
Of course, none of this would fully inoculate the next generation from embracing a reckless populism. Senator Josh Hawley was close to his thesis adviser, David M. Kennedy. A prominent historian and visiting fellow at the center-right Hoover Institution, Dr. Kennedy even helped Mr. Hawley turn his thesis on Teddy Roosevelt into a book. That didn’t stop Mr. Hawley from going all in on Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud, infamously raising a clenched fist as he entered the Capitol on the morning of Jan. 6.
But this seems just as true: It’s hard to imagine how the next generation of Republican leaders will become thoughtful conservatives if all they’ve ever been tutored in is its Trump-style expressions. Professors have the power to make sure that doesn’t happen; it’s time they use it.
Jon A. Shields is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He has written widely on the American right and the politics of higher education.
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