Buried within the Mary Grabar column that everyone is ridiculing for its opening paragraph are the interesting and important claims made by Claes Ryn. Unfortunately, the heart of Grabar’s argument has been lost on these critics because of the inclusion of the irrelevant remarks about the presidential election. Grabar writes:
Claes G. Ryn, in the Fall 2007 50th anniversary issue of Modern Age, accurately attributes the decline of intellectual conservatism to an abandonment of tradition, philosophical foundations, and artistic expressions, for a focus on political pragmatism, manifested in a fondness for economics and business. Professor Ryn writes, “in trying to effect a renewal of American and Western society, winning and exercising political power cannot take the place of the patient and demanding intellectual and artistic efforts that, in time, might change the mind and the imagination of a people.”
What is unfortunate about Dr. Grabar’s column is that she seems to have missed that her own initial framing of the culture wars in terms of presidential politics and bizarre visions of Obama’s legions looting and pillaging in the quads partakes of the same preoccupation with politics that has contributed to the decline that she is lamenting in this paragraph. Further, I would add that Dr. Grabar is not doing any favours for intellectual conservatism or the edification of students by making the academy seem so forbidding to conservatives that only a fool would want to embark on an academic career rather than take up the more practical and lucrative “fondness for economics and business.” Certainly no one will come away from this column with the idea that conservatives should make any attempt to challenge the trends that she describes; she makes it plain that it is a fool’s errand. Meanwhile, by connecting the state of educational institutions to an Obama victory in November, she reinforces the soul- and mind-killing obsession with party politics that has been as much the ruin of intellectual conservatism as the preference for economics and business. With her first paragraph she undermines the rest of her message, which is one that conservatives desperately need to hear more often.
As I have said before, one of the structural reasons why the academy has drifted left for decades is that the lifestyle of academics is not especially conducive to stable, settled family life, so that what you might call the ‘natural’ conservatism that comes from family life does not enter the scene until well after the academics are more or less fully formed in their attitudes and prejudices. Likewise, the academy does not tend to attract those who need to support a family, especially a large one, because the financial burdens of paying for graduate school and paltry income early on in teaching careers along with the frequent demand for mobility are incompatible with supporting a family. Once the leftward drift begins, it steadily reinforces itself as those liable to pull these institutions back to the right, so to speak, go into other lines of work where their values are rewarded rather than constantly put under scrutiny and question. The work of imagination is in some respects more demanding, because it entails not only defending received traditions but also reproducing and building on them. That is more laborious and time-consuming than the transitory party and movement boosterism, but its effects will also be more enduring and not as reversible. As I argue in a forthcoming column, conservatives need to remember that it is supposed to be their central insight that culture can change politics, which makes one wonder why conservatives (myself included) spend so much of their time on politics rather than engaging in the creative and imaginative work of fashioning the culture they want for their posterity.