American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Do we really want to join big liberal institutions?
By Anonymous, July 8, 2009 in Editors' Picks, Publishing and Research

Those of us at Princeton this past June know we missed one little thing on our schedule. In one of the afternoon forums on the academic career, we were supposed to discuss the issue of whether we should aspire to move to better institutions. So many of us, after all, are at the Texas-State San Marcoses of the world. (Sorry, Paul, but your school is my schoolís rival, and our rival must always pay.) We never got to the matter, so I think Iíd like to take it up a bit here.

Itís a little strange for conservatives to want to join big liberal institutions. What conservative would want to be a higher-up in the Ford Foundation, say, or a mainstay at Riverside Church (friends at NEH notwithstanding)? Maybe thereís a rascal or two in our ranks who would want to shake the places up from the inside, but the general conservative option is to let big liberal institutions flounder on their own, without our assistance or help at reform.

Yet when it comes to universities, we are not so sure. We would rather, in the main, join than fight. Our heroes Ė justifiably Ė are such people as Robbie George, Harvey Mansfield, AC Kors, dear Hadley, S Thernstrom, Miss Betsey Genovese, Roy Jastram, and the like. No doubt, these people do and did yeomenís work in keeping their places sane and responsible. But still Ė itís odd that a conservative would want to set as a goal a seat in a big liberal institution.

In the world of work, of course, this is no longer the goal. People with real ambition want to get out of IBM. They want to start companies and, possibly, bring down IBM, if not wholly, then a couple of notches Ė indeed to get IBM to dance to their tune. This is what happened in American business over the past some 40 years. It used to be the goal to get a seat at the Fortune 500; today, such a goal nearly smacks of copping out! These days, youíre a nobody Ė youíre a lifer Ė unless you started your own business.

How much of the entrepreneurial revolution has penetrated the thinking of conservative academics? To be sure, there are conservatives dubious about capitalism, but all on the right are in accord that small is beautiful. The demise of the Fortune 500, and at least the idea of small enterprises is something we all love.

So I ask again: do we really want to join big liberal institutions? Why? So we can make them big conservative institutions? Thatís essentially a contradiction in terms. I think we have to start thinking about how to incorporate the idea of the sole practitioner into our vision of what an academic career should be. As for communitas, that can be built up at the schola level in many ways, if one has a mind to it.

My ideas are not specific Ė but surely the Net is a boon as goes academic entrepreneurialism Ė but I do want to get the ball rolling. So I want to ask the question again, itís so stark: do we really want to join big liberal institutions?

Image credit: Photo by Quantockgoblin on Wikimedia Commons:

Tags: No subjects

Anonymous on Jul 8, 2009 at 11:15 am

Great question. I always thought I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those heroes you mention--and I would add Ewa Thompson down at Rice--fighting the good fight in the big instituton. Some might argue that this is the best place to be to fight AS A SCHOLAR. But it occurred to me that AS A TEACHER it is a really rotten way to go about one's work--no coherent curriculum, university ethos, teacher-faculty community, common intellectual principles or tradition reduces one to inevitable ineffectiveness as a teacher. I am now extremely happy as a teacher AND am confident that the kind of intellectual labor I now do will eventually lead to BETTER SCHOLARSHIP TOO--from me, but also from my students. One can aspire to being a Lone Star Scholar, publishing regularly in the current journals along fairly predictable lines of thought that the whole bland homogenous generic professional association is following, given the time/financial support of a large institution but teaching in a real university leads one to aspire for something more than this as a professor--which is an identity in which the scholarship is not separable from the schola.

So much more here...real scholarship, according to Newman, must advance precisely that unity of knowledge and sense of one's own discipline's relation to others, a task that requires a real schola/university. As it is most of what we called scholarship is just disciplinary incrementalism. Cool stuff--we all love it, we all have to do it, and necessary in the order of division of labor, but not university level scholarship per se if I read Newman correctly. University level scholarship is when our disciplinary incremental knowledge leads us to have *something to say* to those outside our discipline--something that humans as humans can care about--not historians as historians or physicists as physicists.

Gabriel Martinez on Jul 9, 2009 at 2:29 pm

We can also join small institutions.

Lee Trepanier on Jul 11, 2009 at 7:10 am

It's an interesting question that's raised and something that I've been contemplating about myself but in terms of changing the culture of society. Are we more effective in changing the culture by reaching students in teaching institutions or by producing scholarship read by a few academics. Collectively both are needed to be done, but individually we have to choose between a research-oriented institution or a teaching one. I would be interested in what other people have to say about this topic from their own experiences.

Anonymous on Jul 11, 2009 at 9:37 am

Do we really want to join big institutions? Resoundingly, YES! Sometimes there seems to be an assumption that those employed at big liberal institutions donít care about teaching, while those working at small liberal arts colleges donít care about scholarship and publishing. The bottom line is that we conservatives should strive to excel in both areas. Where is this more possible? At my small liberal arts college, Iím teaching four courses a semester. I get solid student evaluations, my department chair is happy with my work, and I know Iím doing a satisfactory job. But deep down inside, I know I could be doing better. There are other books I should have read to prepare for my topic. In all truthfulness, in some cases, I possess only a cursory textbook-level understanding of the subject since I am asked to teach so far afield from areas of expertise. With such a heavy teaching load and the seemingly continual stacks of papers to grade, thereís no time for this type of preparation which I desire. I pride myself in giving a conference presentation each semester, not a warmed-over dissertation chapter but new research. I secured a book contract with a top-level academic press only seven months after graduation. I deeply care about scholarship, yet very few at my institution share this passion or do much to encourage me in my publishing pursuits.

On the other hand, employment at a big liberal research institution would free up so much time. With only two courses to teach per semester, I actually would be able to read again, and read a lot! I believe that I could take my teaching to another level because I would feel better prepared and more knowledgeable about so many other subjects. For behemoth survey courses, graduate students would carry the grading load. Many students like hearing concepts and viewpoints different from what most other professors in the department are giving them. In sum, I think both my teaching and scholarship would benefit. Furthermore, a graduate program gives the opportunity to groom likeminded students. Yes, there are conservative students at big liberal institutions. Publishing high quality scholarship will draw these students to study with a fellow traveler, so the opportunities to influence higher education for years to come seem to be much greater.

Finally, there seems to be an assumption that small liberal arts colleges are bastions of conservatism, or at least more conducive to conservative intellectuals. At my school, Iím sick and tired of hearing so many colleagues fawn all over the current president and his socialist policies. Unless I want to make each lunch a battleground, I keep quiet most of the time. Being new and not wanting to make enemies from the outset, I generally fly under the radar. How is this more advantageous than being at a big liberal institution? No matter what type of school, a conservative will have to pick his battles carefully.

As a conservative, my goal has been to secure a position at a large, liberal research institution. I see no reason to abandon it now.

Stephen Clements on Jul 11, 2009 at 9:56 am

Excellent point, Brian, and thanks for raising it. In fact, a version of this same point was gnawing at the back of my mind during that same session at Princeton. I remember back in the latter 1980s, when stories began to circulate of persecution of conservative intellectuals in universities, some people began arguing that we should abandon social science and humanities departments for think tanks. I'm not sure that's the solution to the problem--although as Matt Spalding illustrates it is certainly a viable option. But the think-tank-as-alternative notion does imply that we ought to be very pluralistic and creative and indeed entrepreneurial about how to exert influence. Maybe an examination of Brian's question ought to lead us not just to take satisfaction in teaching college work, but also to think more seriously about establishing new institutions to promote the intellectual perspectives we embrace. This could be a conversation not just about how to establish higher education institutions--many smaller ones will probably go bust in the current recession and could be "flipped" with the right financing and savvy leadership--but about how to use the digital means at our disposal to establish new mechanisms for learning and teaching. What if the Lehrman American Studies Center could itself evolve into a distribution node for online instruction or even degrees, as well as an outlet for scholarship? I think we'll only be limited here by our own creativity and energy.

Anonymous on Jul 11, 2009 at 1:41 pm

This is a great post, Brian. Given how little of academic "literature" is read, I think it is obvious that the vast majority of us will be far more influential as teachers than as "researchers" (though of course we don't want to make it seem like we can only do one or the other). Where will we influence the most students, with the most future, in the best way? I don't know. Question: is influence our primary goal?

Paul DeHart on Jul 11, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Well, now I'm confused. Are the Sam Houston States of the world the "big liberal" or elite institutions such that we should question our desire to teach at such places or are they just the places at which we should want to be?

On a serious note, it's unclear to me where the contradiction comes into play. There's certainly no formal contradiction between being "conservative" and wanting to be part of (perhaps for the purpose of making conservative—though that is not obviously the only reason for which a conservative might want to be part of such an institution) the big (or elite) academic institutions. I know of some "conservative" intellectuals who view the project more as one of storming the ramparts so as to re-take the ivory towers (e.g., Bill McClay). That is, one might argue that the elite institutions once were conservative or at least places where serious conservative thinking occurred. There is, it seems to me, a conflation in the argument above—"big institution" and "big liberal institution" are simply assumed, a priori and thus without argument, to be identical. This is far from obvious. Surely there is some possible state of affairs in which a big (whatever that means) or elite institution is in fact also a conservative institution. In order for my friend from Sam Houston to establish the contradiction at the heart of his argument, I think he's got to establish that there is no possible world such that there is a big or elite constitution that is also conservative. I can't see how such a proposition could be proven. That being the case, it seems that the argument above commits the fallacy of equivocation.

I'll raise the stakes higher—something I hope to elaborate in further posts. I think conservatives should aspire to have people in teaching and research institutions, in big liberal institutions, and in state schools. It seems to me the dichotomy presupposed above is false just because there are good arguments to suggest that we need good people at places like Wheaton, Houghton, Calvin, Dallas, Aquinas, etc. and at Notre Dame, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, and other places. I won't elaborate the argument just yet. I just think, agreeing with my friend Bill McClay, that there is something to be said for re-taking or (perhaps better yet) simply re-opening the big or elite institutions to conservatives and to persons rather serious in traditional religious faith.

As to Molly's last question—that's a wonderful question. I think the right answer goes something like this: It is an important goal and even an essential one. But it is not (or ought not be) our ultimate goal. The telos of any educator as such is, I am firmly convinced, to bear witness to truth. For knowledge of the truth is the particular non-instrumental/substantive good at which education is aimed. The problem with many of our so-called teaching schools (and even of some of our traditional, liberal arts institutions) is that this goal was abandoned some time ago. I cannot tell you how many times I have suggested that the goal of Christian institutions of higher education is the pursuit of truth as such and the pursuit of truth for its own sake, only to have a theologically conservative Christian educator disagree, usually, without realizing it, by quoting the rather agnostic Pontius Pilate—"What is truth?" The sad truth of the matter is that Phillip Johnson is right—most of our "teaching schools" and even most of the "teaching schools" grounded in the great theistic traditions are no longer places where the pursuit of truth is any longer on the table in any serious matter. In fact, it is common in religiously traditional liberal arts schools and in teaching schools more generally to see so-called "propositional truth" dismissed and derided. To put all of this another way, the teaching schools are presently part of the problem. But very few, other than Phil, have been quick to see this.

I don't think that this points to a solution on line, though. Those of us who subscribe to an incarnational theology are bound to think that real presence matters—even in the classroom—I think.

Well, now I'm beginning to say too much of what I intend for my next post. So I'll let it go at that.

Lee Trepanier on Jul 11, 2009 at 11:04 pm

A number of great points, and I would be interested in what Brian thinks of them.

I'll address of few of them, for what it may be worth. Each point could be turned into a separate post, which I encourage all of you to do.

1. The reality is that certain institutionsóR1 and the Ivies óhave a disproportionate influence on American higher education in terms of administrative and curriculum standards and practices. This does not necessarily equate to impacting students, but these types of institutions do play a large role in setting the agenda for faculty and administrators. Whether they should is another question, but I do think it's the reality out there.

2. I'm not sure about the "research feeds into teaching" paradigm currently being espoused by the education-types. Perhaps in some cases it can work, such as at the graduate level, but I am suspicious about the undergraduate level, because the knowledge base of undergraduate students is so much lower than graduate students. If I am correct, then we really do have to choose which path to take between teaching and research. One certainly can do both, but the emphasis, it seems to me, will have to be on one or the other.

3. I am curious how online degrees are perceived by the faculty here and in academia in general. Are they respected? Will they be respected as much as a traditional degree over time?