Political Science’s Neglect of Conservative Thought

by Lee Sigelman on July 12, 2009 · 8 comments

in Academia,Political science,Political Theory,Teaching

Peter Berkowitz:

…political science departments … offer undergraduates a variety of courses on a range of topics. But one topic the undergraduates … are unlikely to find covered is conservatism.
There is no legitimate intellectual justification for this omission. The exclusion of conservative ideas from the curriculum contravenes the requirements of a liberal education and an objective study of political science.
…While ignoring conservatism, the political theory subfield regularly offers specialized courses in liberal theory and democratic theory; African-American political thought and feminist political theory; the social theory of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school; and numerous versions of postmodern political theory.
…Without an introduction to the conservative tradition in America and the conservative dimensions of modern political philosophy, political science students are condemned to a substantially incomplete and seriously unbalanced knowledge of their subject. Courses on this tradition should be mandatory for students of politics; today they are not even an option at most American universities.
…It would also be good if every political science department offered a complementary course on the history of progressivism in America. This would discourage professors from conflating American political thought as a whole with progressivism, which they do in a variety of ways, starting with the questions they tend to ask and those they refuse to entertain.



anonymous coward July 12, 2009 at 11:18 am

The most obvious problem is that he presents no evidence whatsoever that thinkers like Burke, Hume, Mill, Oakeshott, and Strauss are under-represented in political theory reading lists beyond his bald assertion that it is so.

SJ July 12, 2009 at 12:03 pm

From the Harvard courses of instruction for 2009-10:

“*Government 98tf.

Conservative Political Thought – (New Course)

Catalog Number: 46317 Enrollment: Limited to 16.
Half course (spring term).
Tu., 2–4

This course examines conservative thought from the French Revolution to the present. In addition to studying the visions of society articulated by thinkers like Burke, de Maistre, and Oakeshott, we will consider the theoretical status of conservative arguments. Is conservatism a political philosophy? An ideology? Or simply a practical disposition? Roughly the first half of the course treats conservatism in a transatlantic context. The final weeks focus on the American tradition.”

Fringe Oblivion July 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Equally as unacceptable is the ability to graduate from many an American university with an undergraduate degree in history without having taken courses in ALL of the ancient, medieval, early modern and late modern eras… (let alone there being a requirement for an additional language.)

Alex Birch July 12, 2009 at 1:11 pm

It may be simple: Leftism became an intellectual discipline within academia in the West after the fall of Soviet Russia. How did Conservatism progress? Answer: It didn’t. We need a Conservative strain of thought popularizing its ideas in intellectual form.

RW July 12, 2009 at 1:12 pm

I understand the direction of the critique to be mainly that “because political theory searches discount conservatives, we get no classes/scholarly work on conservative thought.” That only conservatives are seriously interested in conservative thought is a seriously flawed assertion and one that Berkowitz’s own CV can attest to–do only progressives write about “varieties of progressvism? Apparently not. Are their many dyed-in-the-wool conservatives (Burkean, Hayek-ian, or fusionist) in the academy? Maybe not. But there are a host of scholars who are deeply interested in what conservatives have said.
To provide some evidence to the contrary:
1.) plenty of new courses are being offered on conservative thought (thanks in part to sponsoring organizations like the Gentle Foundation). These classes are serious treatments of the history and development of conservative ideas, taught by political theorists of all stripes (and, to be sure, they are not designed to give conservatism a harsher critical look than progressivism).
2.) What’s more, we only need to look to a few recent political science contributions (Glenn and Teles’ recent edited volume is one really well-done example) that have been taking conservative thought (and its consequences for policymaking) seriously.

Award88 July 12, 2009 at 7:01 pm

There certainly is a lack of courses on conservatism in political science and philosophy departments. I do not believe however, that this is a result of a deliberate attempt to prevent conservative ideology from influencing students. Rather, I feel it’s a result of the lack of professors that are willing to teach about conservatism, either due to having no interest or simply because they can not associate with something that contains the word conservative in it.

Noni Mausa July 12, 2009 at 11:17 pm

And if I can insert a layman’s question here, what would such a course teach? Old style Tory conservatism? or the modern movement which calls itself conservative but seems to me quite different (almost opposite, in fact)? or is there some abstract conservatism taught by political scientists which the parties do or do not conform to, as the mood strikes them?


DN July 13, 2009 at 8:47 am

“But most students will hear next to nothing about the conservative tradition in American politics that stretches from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to William F. Buckley Jr. to Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan.”

Not do I agree with everyone else that this is simply false, but I’m also going to guess that assigning most of Theodore Roosevelt’s most influential oeuvre wouldn’t exactly rectify Berkowitz’s concerns.

Another problem with Berkowitz’s concern should be self-evident: until you get to Mill, virtually every liberal and republican read in the PT canon (Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville etc.) can be claimed by both contemporary US conservatives and liberals as an ideological ancestor.

Unless Berkowitz is concerned that we don’t assign a sufficient number of patriarchal theorists (more Filmer, less Locke?) or other assorted royalists, then surely he knows he’s just blowing smoke.

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