Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Conservatives in the classroom

I think something I wrote in Sunday's post implies something I don't believe.

Writing about David Horowitz's drive to muzzle college professors who don't teach the things he wants taught---or who teach ideas and history and books that he sees as threatening to the Right Wing agenda he's made himself an agent for---I may have sounded as though I think there are no qualified young conservatives who want to teach college.

It may also sound as though I don't think there are any talented young conservatives who want to make movies.

I'd be a bigot and a moron if I thought this.

But the network of "filmmakers" Horowitz has helped put together and that produced the director of The Path to 9/11 does not have as its goal helping aspiring directors, screenwriters, or producers learn their chosen crafts. It identifies true-believers and looks for ways to fast-track them into positions where they can subvert the film industry so that Hollywood produces more Right Wing propaganda.

As for academia, Horowitz, an avowed opponent of affirmative action for women and minorities, often seems to be arguing for affirmative action hires of conservatives, which, since I'm guessing he's like most Right Wing opponents of affirmative action and believes that the only reason women and minorities need affirmative action programs is that they aren't qualified for the jobs they take away from deserving white men, must mean that he believes there are no young conservatives qualified to take jobs away from liberal academics.

I'm sure he'd put it differently, in a way that pretty much says that Liberal academics are bigots who won't hire anyone who doesn't toe the party line while out in the business world all potential employers evolved their world view from Benetton catalogs and repeated listenings to Three Dog Night.

There are in fact plenty of conservatives teaching at colleges and universities. They teach business courses, medicine, engineering, and, although more of a minority there, law. Horowitz and other Right Wingers are focused on humanties departments, and there they almost have a point. There are relatively few conservatives teaching women's studies.

I don't know, though, if any one has done a thorough study of the politics of late medievalists teaching Chaucer.

I wrote that Horowitz's sense of how the world works doesn't seem to include any notion of work.

But more than that it doesn't include any sense of people as people. He sees them only as being like himself, agents of an ideology.

He doesn't take into account the possibility that people wind up in their chosen careers because they want to do the work that defines those careers.

I'm pretending to believe that Horowitz actually cares about helping young conservative scholars get jobs teaching in their chosen fields and isn't simply using them and their supposed plight to bully and cow college presidents into bullying and cowing their professors into self-censorship.

At any rate, thinking like Horowitz pretends to think doesn't take into account that the late medievalist teaching Chaucer probably came by her love of her subject early in her life, that young scholars---young filmmakers, young doctors, young architects---discovered their own talents and inclinations when they were even younger, that the process of growing up and choosing a career begins in junior high school, sometimes in grade school, sometimes for the very gifted in the playpen. At any rate, it begins well before most of them begin to think seriously about politics.

The young Chaucerite almost certainly read The Canterbury Tales before she ever heard of Leo Strauss or picked up a copy of Das Kapital.

But what then happens is that the young person's politics begin to evolve alongside or along with her literary interests and academic ambitions, with the latter having a strong influence on the former in a variety of ways.

Imagine you're an aspiring young scientist, discovering your talents in your tenth grade biology class. You're 15 years old, just beginning to think like an adult and to look around the world like an adult, and you read about the Bush Administration's attitudes towards science and the scientists who work for the government---fudge the data so that it supports the ideology or you're fired---and you see on the Internet, or on your own textbooks, one of the dopey stickers Right Wing Christian-controlled school boards have had stuck on textbooks, or you hear Ann Coulter raving about there being no evidence for evolution in a way that shows she doesn't understand what constitutes evidence, what evolution is or how it works, or how science is done and doesn't care.

Think you're going to think, Wow, that Republican Party's the party for me!

More generally, aspiring young intellectuals and scholars, artists, writers, and poets, loving their books and their music and their artist heroes, come face to face very early with the fact that on the whole what passes for Conservativism in America, in religion, in politics, in the day to day business of living, is anti-intellectual, know-nothing, superstitious, Philistine or Puritanical in its attitudes towards art, when its attitudes aren't out and out contemptuous, afraid of new ideas and suspicious of anyone who shows signs of thinking for themselves or wanting to live eccentrically. And it quickly becomes clear that the bigots and blockheads who "think" this way are not just at home in the Republican Party these days, they are actively courted by it, proudly boasted of by party leaders as its base. Mainstream America. The Real Amurika.

Doesn't matter if you meet a few intelligent, cultured, progressive conservatives along the way, by the time you're ready to commit to going after your Ph.D. you've learned that American Conservativism is the enemy of all you intellectually hold dear.

Then there's the matter of peer pressure and adult influence.

When you head down a chosen career path you put yourself in the company of a whole lot of people of similar tastes, temperament, interests, and ambitions. You talk to them, learn from them, model yourself on them, consciously and unconsciously, follow their lead and take their example. They shape your habits of behavior and thought.

By choosing to go into a field you are choosing to become more like people already in that field. So that by going into the arts or into academia you are choosing to become more liberal, just as by going into the corporate world or the military you are choosing to become more conservative---which explains why when you come across a conservative actor or a liberal soldier you often come across someone with a rebellious streak a mile wide with a vanity and ego to match.

It takes an awfully strong personality to choose to live your life sawing against the grain.

It may be unfortunate, but it's certainly true, that most people don't want to live their lives as a ripsaw.

There's another kind of peer pressure young people have to contend with when deciding the paths they will take in life, the kind that works from outside.

Imagine you're a liberal 17 year old announcing to your friends in the drama club, "You know what I'm going to do when I get out of college? I'm going to join the Green Berets."

"I'm going to be a cop."

"I want to run a Fortune 500 company."

Or you're a conservative kid telling your buds on the football team that you went to the ballet last night and think you might like to take some dance classes.

There are a lot of reasons why I'm not the submarine commander I dreamed of being when I was 14, but I can't help thinking that one of them is that when I was 17 the girl I thought I was going to marry told me she would never speak to me again if I joined the military.

(Ironically, at the time she was an avowed socialist and thought my Teddy Kennedy-worshipping liberalism was pretty much the same thing as voting Republican and these days she's the Republican and thinks that I'm practically a communist. But our friendship hasn't changed. We didn't talk politics much then, and we don't now.)

David Horowitz seems to think that young people choose their careers opportunistically. If there's a job available and sounds like they might like it or be good at it and it pays, they take it.

And that's the case with most people, mainly because it has to be. Most people aren't born lucky enough to be able to choose to do what they love to do.

Either they weren't blessed with the talent or they weren't blessed with the money to get themselves through college and grad school and weren't able to find it or the job that would have allowed them to do what they love has disappeared on them.

But the lucky get to choose careers that are congenial to them.

They choose careers that let them use their skills, employ their talents, pursue their passions, and spend time with like-minded people whose company they enjoy.

Based on my experience, I believe that the world of artists and intellectuals is far more tolerant and even affectionate toward its eccentrics than the business world, and a conservative would feel much more welcome in academia than a liberal would feel at corporate headquarters.

But that doesn't mean that the conservative would want to spend time among artists and intellectuals.

I like actors but their habits of self-dramatization get on my nerves after a short time. And I am at home among academics and intellectuals, up to a point. I can imagine how much more annoying both groups can be if you don't share their pretensions, politics, and sometimes rather careless attitudes towards money, dress, manners, and commonplace pieties.

The crunchy conservatives who give Roy Edroso the giggles aside, most people's political views are expressions of their temperaments.

Most people vote what they feel, not what they've read---they've usually chosen what they've read based on what they feel.

Which is a way of saying that most Conservatives are Conservatives because they're conservative.

I taught college in Indiana in the late 1980s, when it was morning in Reagan's America and when the sun was still shining for the first George Bush. I had a lot of very bright, highly motivated, hardworking conservative students, not one of which wanted to be a college professor.

There were a few, all of them women, who wanted to teach, but they wanted to teach grade school, which when you think about it is a very conservative and traditionalist ambition.

One, again a woman, wanted to be an actress.

The rest wanted to be lawyers and doctors and engineers and businessmen and women.

The most idealistic of them wanted to go into politics.

It wasn't because they didn't think they could get hired by any universities if they went on to get Ph.D.'s in English or History or that no one would finance their movies if they went out to Hollywood to become the conservatives' answer to Oliver Stone.

It was because they were conservative, temperamentally, and certain things mattered to them. One of those things was money, and they knew struggling artists and young academics didn't make much of that.

But it was what the money would buy them that was important (to most of them; there were a few greedheads), including a nice house in a nice neighborhood (I'm not going to get into their definitions of nice), and, not incidentally, the security and respect that came with the money. Wealth was important to them, but wealth was relative. What was more important to them was status. They wanted to be well thought of by people they thought well of, their parents and their parents' friends.

They wanted to marry young too and start families and they knew how much it cost to raise kids and how not having to worry about money was one of the keys to happy and stable marriage.

In short, they were conservative.

I'm taking a long time to say that the reason there are relatively few conservatives in the humanties departments or on the set in Hollywood (as opposed to in offices in the studios' accounting departments) may be that most young conservatives would rather be themselves and live their own lives than enlist as double agents in David Horowitz's plots to subvert the movies and take over the classrooms.


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