Great political theorists visit my class
And students for the most part sit silently and look bewildered (a Part II to yesterday's paean to lectures)
[This is the image on front page of my syllabus for the course. The painting is Massacre des Carmes, which depicts a revolutionary mob murdering nearly 200 priests in a convent that had been converted in the days of the French Revolution into a prison]
I have been teaching a course on conservative thought for three or four years now. The full course title is: The View from the Right: Conservative, Reactionary, and Anti-Revolutionary Thought in the Western World.
Would it shock you to know that it is the only course of its kind at Bucknell, at least so far as I am aware?
There are by contrast many courses in which students can learn about progressive and radical left political theories, sometimes explicitly as the central theme of the course, sometimes in the occluded form of the not-quite-hidden but unexpressed politics in some substantive topic (most of my department’s offerings, for example, and everything in the Studies departments is this latter kind of left politics course).
There are numerous courses in which students can learn about classical liberal and libertarian politics too.
But my course is the only one in which they get deeply introduced to “the view from the right.” One or two students will occasionally admit to having heard a tidbit about Edmund Burke in a survey course on the history of Western political thought, but they never know anything substantive about him and they always say that the course in which they had been briefly introduced to him made it clear that he was not to be taken very seriously.
(The phrase Vu du droite I pilfered from a work by the French New Right philosopher Alain de Benoist, whom I consider one of the most interesting 20th century conservative writers. I sometimes have them read something from him, often a chapter or two from a book in which he challenges the notion of universal human rights).
The course has filled, with a waiting list, every time I’ve taught it to date. Many of the kids lean right, or at least they think they do when they enter the course, having read very little if any serious conservative thinking. But I also get kids who consider themselves centrists (who for the most part just have not thought much about politics), and even a few of those on the left who are interested in informing themselves about what the other side thinks.
I want to be careful not to overstate the numbers of the latter because there are not many of them. This is quite in keeping with what universities look like today. Right-leaning students cannot avoid exposure to leftist ideas, as they dominate the institutions. Left-leaning kids, though, have few opportunities here to encounter the ideas I deal with in this course, and they have to have some real natural curiosity in this environment even to have fought off all they are constantly told by many of my colleagues about the obvious a priori truth of the view from the left.
I invite serious contemporary conservative thinkers we read in the course to visit the class so students can have the opportunity to inquire directly of the authors of those texts. My friend Paul Gottfried, who is one of the most formidable political philosophers and historians of his time, is a frequent guest. Paul’s most recent visit to the class came just a few weeks ago.
Typically, I give them material from his recent book Fascism: The Career of a Concept, which has been widely celebrated as a particularly insightful work on a complex and difficult subject. Perhaps the greatest living writer on the topic, Stanley Payne, has spoken of the book with the highest praise. Here is a nice short discussion of the book that speaks back to the left’s constant and radically historically illiterate designation since 2016 of Donald Trump as a fascist. (And, just for the heck of it, here’s something I wrote a while back in response to the growing academic industry in “anti-fascism” that mostly consists of lurid, mendacious distortions of reality and book-length statements of “Hey, look out, I think I see Fascism sneaking up behind you!”)
Paul’s book explores the history of political movements and regimes that used or were given the term and the way in which it became what it almost exclusively is in contemporary American culture, that is, an epithet for folks in political disagreements to use to malign opponents as undeserving of being heard or even allowed to appear in the public sphere to dispute.
We read that bit of Fascism in the midst of a several week treatment of the conservative reaction to three revolutions: the French, the Bolshevik, and the American cultural revolution of the 1960s. They are given a lot of details about the three revolutions, but the real point is to gather some of the complexities of conservative reaction to each, and to revolution generally.
How fascism fits into that picture is complicated. The first part of the complexity is that fascism is a decidedly plural political phenomenon, and the thing most 20 year old college students can be counted on to think when they hear the term ‘fascism’ (Nazi Germany) is in important ways an outlier to some of the generic characteristics of fascism, closer to the Soviet Union than to the early Mussolini regime in Italy, the Falange in Spain, or the Action Française. When one reads about more than the German case, the impression is of tremendous diversity in trying to attend to the same failings of political modernity that gave rise to that other wild political beast of the early 20th century, Marxian communism.
A second part is what the relationship of fascism to conservatism is. Many in the contemporary public sphere think they know something about this, and some of my students too have some of the same preconceived and unfounded beliefs. Like conservatism, fascism opposed both the liberal democratic regimes that were becoming the political face of modernity and the communist totalitarian alternative that emerged with the Bolshevik Revolution. There is a shared attention to mythologies of the past and the inevitability of social hierarchy, but there is much more that separates conservatism and fascism. Both ideologies (along with the communists) rejected the atomistic individualism of modern liberalism, but each concentrated on quite different and even inevitably opposed institutional frameworks within which individuals worked toward common goals. The State (as an extension of the nation) was that agent for the fascists, who considered it the source of ethics. (In this, the fascists and the communists found common ground). This is an idea that conservatives could not have reviled more. They were hostile to State power and saw in more primordial institutions such as the family, the community, and the church the sources of identity and purpose.
Paul is one of the most important living American writers on this topic. He commands a level of knowledge about it that is just awesome to behold, and I always enjoy his visits to class. I fear though that students in this generation are ill-equipped to understand what a privilege they enjoy in getting the opportunity to directly engage with and ask questions of someone of his stature.
I’ve invited him to this same class several times now over the last few years. Every time, the format is the following: he gives a 15 minute overview of the reading (which they should have done already), and then we open up for questions. I’ve told them in advance to prepare for this, and they are assigned to write responses to the reading on our course blog. And yet most of the time getting them to engage is like pulling teeth.
I have the suspicion that the central problem is that most of the students have so little of the historical and intellectual culture required to understand him that he might as well be speaking another language to them. This is the fundamental weakness with the “student-centered classroom” that I discussed yesterday. This works (in the sense that students will engage) only if you refrain from treating subjects that require students to know things as background beyond their personal feelings and experiences. In the typical “student-centered classroom,” this—the personal feelings and experiences—is mostly what is being shared and discussed. So that model is a success by its own standards—students talk!—but there is no evidence that it teaches them anything substantive about a topic outside of their personal experiences and feelings.
This is a problem of the schools at least as much as of the students, and probably very significantly more the former than the latter. Indeed, the schools we have presently have helped make the students (along, of course, with the various scintillatingly elevated intellectual statements provided to them by their popular culture). Students who show up at university have already been carefully socialized for 18 years in the accepted contemporary cultural definitions of academic ‘rigor,’ and they know just how little it is possible to know about important things while still succeeding in the institutions that are now dominated by the values of The Education People. Content is not important! That’s just memorization! There’s no reason beyond ethnocentrism to know more about the history of the West than any other part of the globe! Critical thinking is the goal! With the emphasis on the “critical” and not the “thinking”!
It has never been very clear to me precisely how much students know of the relevant political history, and I am not at all certain that they knew more of it 20 years ago when I started on this road than they do now. How much do they know of the Italian Risorgimento, or the formation of the Deutsches Reich, or the Franco-Prussian War, or the Weimar Republic, or the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik Revolution, or the French Third Republic? Almost certainly little, and only relatively superficial knowledge of communism, fascism, conservatism, and liberalism is possible without that baseline knowledge.
Yes, there is the young person’s typical aversion to anything that happened more than 15 minutes ago going on here, and that is not new. And yes, they’re college students, not Ph D candidates. (And God knows more than a few people today escape with degrees from Ph D programs with a level of general learning that is only marginally higher than that of the typical undergraduate student). But I find increasingly little value in excusing in this way what is patently a broad lack of preparation for serious academic work on the part of many, probably most of the students who come to sit before me.
And, I will say it again, it is mostly not the fault of the students. The real culprits are to be found in the broader American culture, and I find special cause given my vantage point to single out the faculties in the colleges and universities, who have renounced the project of trying to ensure that any student who found his way on to a campus would not be able to leave with a degree without knowing a reasonable amount of the history involved in the making of the modern political world. Now, instead of having them read that history, we endlessly parade before them all the intolerable things that must be changed (and it’s up to you, the youth, to do it!), encourage them to vigorously explore how their personal identity fits into the accepted identity hierarchy, and then sprinkle some cultural diversity ever so lightly on top, and off they go into the world.
From this recipe we get a world in which those on political left and right throw the epithet “Fascist!” vapidly at one another, none of them capable of putting together a coherent sentence about the thing or about its relationship to anything else.
Nothing brings home the difficulty of trying to give students a wide view of politics in the contemporary university more clearly than trying to get them to engage intelligently on topics like the one we were discussing at Paul’s visit.