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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Patrons of Conservative Minds

What needs to be accomplished to improve society and foster the common good?

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Credit: Levan Ramishvili

Throughout the history of civilization, the wisdom of great men has been passed down for generations through the words they wrote and the institutions they built. A sampling of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century could include dozens of great men and women, but a few are worth singling out.

C.S. Lewis produced The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and countless other volumes rightfully considered modern classics. 

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J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is perhaps the greatest fantasy literature written in modern English. 

Leo Strauss’s work on the ancients, particularly Plato, laid the groundwork for a renewal of the study of the classics. Strauss’s students range from Hadley Arkes to Harry Jaffa, and his legacy is largely responsible for the formidable work of the Claremont Institute, a conservative intellectual force. 

John Senior’s work teaching and writing about the humanities paved the way for the classical school tradition that has emerged in the U.S. in recent decades. The Integrated Humanities Program, begun at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, cultivated a classical education that studied the great books from the ancients to the moderns, emphasized the memorization of poetry, and encouraged learning simple arts such as folk songs and dancing.

In the tumultuous 20th century, when war ravaged the world and modern innovations left men rootless and spinning, these great intellectuals thought, taught, and wrote in ways that sought to reconnect people to truth, beauty, and goodness. Their work continues to inspire the thinkers, the writings, and the institutions that shape the conservative movement today.

These four men share something important in common: they earned their living as professors. Lewis and Tolkien graced the halls of Oxford (Lewis was also at Cambridge). Strauss taught at the University of Chicago, among other prestigious institutions. Senior, again, was part of the movement that created the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. The cultural contributions these men made to the world definitely included the teaching of the next generation of students. But their lasting contributions come down to us primarily the same way that great men have always contributed to intellectual culture: through books and institutions. Would they have had the time, the platform, the ability to accomplish what they did if they did not have the patronage of colleges, the salaries of professors?

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Today, the landscape has changed drastically for conservatives. One need not look far to find examples of conservative intellectuals who have been canceled and lost their jobs in academia. It is true, of course, that universities often lean left of the broader culture and that this has been the case in the West for decades. But conservatives of past generations could largely find a home in academia as a respected—or at least tolerated—minority. And while conservatives, especially those who teach in less culturally controversial fields, may be able to survive in certain universities by keeping quiet, academia is becoming more and more a place where they are simply not welcome.

We have a problem. The common good is clearly served when the most brilliant and creative conservative minds are able to spend much of their professional lives thinking, speaking, and writing. But there are few career opportunities outside academia where such a life is possible, and academia is no longer very hospitable to such people. 

Conservatives need to consider alternative ways to patronize great intellectual work. On one hand, the work of conservative academics in colleges and universities is unique and itself needs to be recovered. Young students need to be formed by great professors, and a major disservice is done to the next generation when academia increasingly excludes right-of-center teachers from its classrooms. Good work is being done on the state level in places like Florida, as well as locally in a handful of liberal arts colleges across the country, to make a home in academia for conservative intellectuals. This is crucial both to serve students and to patronize conservative intellectual thought.

On the other hand, the reformation of certain colleges is a small-scale solution to a massive cultural issue; the movement is good but insufficient to address the scope of the problem. There are about 4,000 accredited schools of “higher education” (it seems appropriate to put this term in scare quotes) in the United States; I can count the places that come to mind as bastions of intellectual renewal on my ten fingers. 

So, where else can we look to patronize the intellectuals that will provide us with great works of conservative thought in the coming age? Fortunately, the answers are easily available. There are already conservative think tanks, both national and at the state level, that raise money in order to pay scholars to think through, research, and write about the great issues of the day. There are publications—magazines and journals of religious, political, and cultural thought—that employ scholars full-time to think about these issues and to write and edit the quality scholarship that may not be taking place in the academy.

One danger is that modern conservatives—the patrons (or potential patrons) of conservative institutions—often look for the utility of the product. They want results. Does this think tank produce policy proposals that actually get passed into law? Does that magazine have readers who actually implement the ideas on the pages?

Of course, these are legitimate questions: donor dollars are limited and those donors want to ensure that their money is being spent well. But it is important to realize that, especially in these times when the academy is decaying, such institutions are meant not simply to produce a result but to patronize great intellectuals. Perhaps it is a good in itself—a good worth funding—to give money to a place that will support conservative scholars to spend their days thinking and writing for the common good. This effort will surely bear fruit, even if that fruit grows slowly, in the years to come. Those think tank scholars, writers, and editors may not produce a policy proposal that becomes law next year. But they may very well produce something rarer and more important: a text that is read for years, or hopefully for decades and even centuries to come.

Perhaps this requires a foundational shift in the thinking of conservatives regarding donor practices. Typically, donors make charitable donations, political donations, and perhaps some small donations/purchases for products and services they like—such as periodicals. If we realize the current state of the culture and what needs to be done to foster renewal, a different mindset may be best. The question should be: what needs to be accomplished to improve society and foster the common good? This involves charitable donations to churches, religious organizations, charities that care for the sick and homeless. This also involves practical political donations to good candidates for public office, organizations that research and write policy proposals that become law, organizations that train and place interns and staffers into important government positions. 

But a third category of giving should become normal: donations that patronize intellectual and cultural work for its own sake. This used to take the form primarily of alumni donations to one’s alma mater. Frankly, unless one graduated from a school that is still sane, still forming young minds and producing scholarship that promotes the good, the true, and the beautiful, those donations should cease. Immediately. 

I have watched my own alma mater descend into woke nonsense since I started law school in 2016, when the student body received a ridiculous email about how students should be treated delicately because they were legitimately frightened for their lives due to the election of President Trump. I have since watched the school weigh in inappropriately on the nomination of Justice Kavanaugh, Covid, Black Lives Matter, and every other controversy of the day. The leadership has gotten the university involved in political and cultural extremism. They won’t see a dollar from me. If your alma mater behaves similarly, I hope you will follow suit. In the wake of the October 7 attacks in Israel, many major donors have woken up to the decay of modern academia—at least to a certain extent—and have acted accordingly.

The answer may be as simple as withdrawing alumni donations and giving those dollars to the schools that are still pursuing truth in a rigorous way (whether one attended those schools or not), the think-tanks one admires, and the publications that are publishing the essays, articles, stories, and poems that have the potential to transform culture. Look at the thinkers, writers, and speakers that you believe can transform the culture as did Lewis and Tolkien, Strauss and Senior. Look at who is patronizing those people you admire. Who employs them? Subscribe to those institutions; send them your checks. 

Find the institutions that pay the people changing our culture and support them, rather than the institutions to whom you have donated for decades despite their decay. This one change will serve to patronize the great minds of the modern age. This alone can go a long way to the cultural transformation and renewal for which we long. 

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