Old School

by Damon Linker | February 9, 2009

As a witty and informative essay on the TNR home page explains, former Bush speechwriter David Frum wants very much to foster the growth of a new style of conservatism -- one that can win a "new majority" of votes in a future presidential election. Since it launched on inauguration day, Frum's new website has posted an interesting range of articles. I'm not sure if I've seen the stuff of a new majority there yet, but it's early. And Frum himself should be congratulated for penning a stinging critique of Yuval Levin's deeply ambivalent (not to say confused) reckoning with Sarah Palin in the new issue of Commentary. (I responded to Levin's essay here.) To judge from this piece, Frum fully understands both how addicted the right has become to cultural populism and the danger of such appeals to its future electoral prospects.

How, then, to explain Frum's decision to run a retread of an essay by Lincoln scholar Allen Guelzo titled "Conservatism's Greatest Failure: The Academy"? The piece reads like something cut from an early draft of Roger Kimball's 1990 polemic Tenured Radicals and then updated with a few contemporary references -- like a reference to FoxNews, for example, which Guelzo absurdly likens to a conservative "soloist trying to be heard above a chorus" of liberal media outlets. Ah yes, if only the university were as vulgar and simplistic and contemptuous of objectivity as FoxNews, then all would be well with the country and the conservative movement!

Back in the heyday of the conservative critique of the academy, authors like Kimball and (the much more intellectually rigorous) Allan Bloom attacked the left-wing politicization of the humanities in the name of free and open study of the great works of Western philosophy and literature. These conservative critics defended the study of ideas for their own sake, without regard for ideology. But not anymore. Over the past 20 years, the right has abandoned its defense of dispassionate thinking and instead actively sought to ensure political "balance" on campus: if a school hires a left-wing radical, then conservatives call on David "Blacklist" Horowitz to bully the administration into matching her with a right-wing ideologue. It is the failure of this effort in political counter-indoctrination that Guelzo laments in his essay.

Thank goodness it failed. The solution to left-wing brainwashing is not right-wing brainwashing. It is a genuinely liberal education that opens the minds of students to an expansive world of ideas and allows them to find their way through it on their own, without forcing them into predetermined ideological boxes. But this liberal vision isn't for everyone. Apparently it doesn't appeal to old-school conservatives like Allen Guelzo, who would prefer to treat higher education as a form of cultural combat. But the real question is: Why does this vision appeal to David Frum?

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