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July 23, 2007

The Problems of being a Conservative Academic: Jeremy Black considers the challenges faced by a conservative Professor in the UK

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter and the author, amongst much else, of The Slave Trade and A Short History of Britain - ponders the challenges faced by the conservative academic in the UK.

Let us be clear at the outset. The circumstances of academics vary greatly, not least by discipline, institution, age and seniority. There are also different types of conservatives, not simply with reference to their beliefs but also to their activism. To be, for example, a public figure writing for the newspapers on political topics from a Conservative viewpoint is not the same as being an historian opposing, in academic publications, classic left-wing stances.

There are also national differences. In the British context "conservative" means something very different from that which has become common in the US: it does not, for example embrace attachment to strong fundamental Christian teachings and it has no "right to life" attachments.

All of those elements are present among British conservatives, but at a much lower level. American Conservatives in Britain are seen as extremist and right-wing and would not be welcome to David Cameron's brand of conservatism. Rather British conservatives are far more concerned about the rights of the individual in relation to the state - about personal freedom, privacy, the ability to work within a free market, the re-statement of what are seen as the traditional values of Victorian society - the importance of the family, self-help, thrift and responsibility (rather than rights).

Allowing for this, it is relevant to ask about the experience of Anglo-American conservative academics as a whole. This experience reflects three particular elements. First, in each country, there have been alterations in political power over the last half-century so that academics have seen both Conservative and non-Conservative governments in power, although the former have frequently disappointed conservative academics.

Secondly, irrespective of the nature of government, there has been a need to confront the fact of government and its demands and requirements. The challenge of the state has been a particular problem in Britain but is also an issue in the USA. This challenge reflects traditions of academic independence that are lacking in most of the world. In most societies in the world, the role of the state is central. This is, for example, a key aspect of the background of German and French academics, and this creates an unwelcome normative practice within the European Union.

Thirdly, there is the issue of social pressure. This can be seen not so much as a democratic product of society, but, rather, as a consequence of the seizure by the left of the norms of allegedly appropriate behaviour on behalf of an agenda of cultural, social and ideological activism, a theme brilliantly discussed in Roger Kimball's The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (San Francisco, 2000).

Which of these is taken as the point of departure depends on individual perspectives. Moreover, the second has greater saliency in Britain and the third in the USA. Part of this is a question of power. In the USA, the use of the courts and other bodies to advance a particular social agenda is in part an attempt to remove the autonomy of scholars and scholarship and, instead, to push to the fore a conformity with the non-conformist. In Britain, this may become a key issue, and, already, well-intentioned legislation on race and gender issues could serve, in the wrong hands, to affect debate.

Nevertheless, the pressure in Britain is primarily of a different type. The intervention of the state compromises the autonomy of academic institutions as a result of the propagation of centrally-set requirements and standards in teaching, research and admissions. To an American, this might seem a reasonable response to indolent or self-centred academics and, indeed, a necessary response to their rights of tenure.

In Britain, however, the situation is different, and not simply because tenure was lost, as a result of the policies of the Thatcher government. The setting of central standards has served to increase the power of government or, rather, of those able to capture the ear of government and to persuade it of appropriate goals and policies.

Furthermore, the goals of government have become the rules of governance as, in order to meet the requirements of the state and to earn its largesse, universities have internalised its rules. These are then replicated with universities seeking to fulfil government guidelines by setting up monitoring and enforcement procedures accordingly. This is utilitarianism to a purpose. Aside from the malign role of the purpose, there is also a squeezing out of alternative modes of academic life, indeed of pluralism.

One aspect of utilitarianism that is ignored is that of culture. The cultural role of universities does not play much of a part in the discussion of their future within Britain, but is in fact central to their place. Higher education encourages people to think and to express themselves. Each is central to education understood as a process of more than simply the repetition of lessons; and each is crucial to cultural life, understood both as an individual activity and as a collective process and affirmation. This is very much a conservative goal. A concern about cultural continuity and values, and the cultural dimension of identity, has characterised conservative opposition to the utilitarianism of the left.

Universities, indeed, have become more important in the cultural life of Britain, and the USA. This is because the numbers going through them have dramatically increased. Possibly more significant, the cultural salience of universities has increased as the cultural life of Britain itself has become more plastic and far less a case of the apparent continuities that were fatally shattered in the 1960s. Thus, irrespective of the particular contours of culture wars, the role of universities in cultural life has been pushed to the fore.

Nevertheless, if this is true of the cultural and intellectual life, in so far as it exists, of the nation, government in Britain has underplayed this dimension. This reflects the difficulty of assigning a measurable value for these activities, and this has become very serious as the debate over universities has been conducted in quantifiable terms.

In part, this is an aspect of the triumph of means over goals in the discussion of higher education, a triumph especially noticeable in the case of the Labour government in power in Britain since 1997; but, in part, it is a case of a sense that cultural activity and value are unworthy of serious attention. The latter view has been driven, in part, by the primacy of research-linked funding issues, and by a view of the economic value of education propounded in narrowly utilitarian terms.

Indeed, there has been a shift in the understanding of the academic world. In America, and once in Britain, academics are regarded as worthy and admirable members of society - teaching and researching - finding, disclosing and disseminating valuable knowledge to the benefit of society. In Britain, however, this concept has become corrupted and the function of the academic has been eroded. Academics are seen as a corrosive force, holding back and diverting the "proper" development of the modern state. Their work is dismissed as irrelevant and unimportant - to describe something as "academic" has become a term of opprobrium - irrelevant, without real value. Academics must be disciplined, brought to heal, focused, controlled, held insecure in their positions - made to concentrate only on research work of immediate functional, corporate value or of service to the state. Their teaching must rehearse the statist line without deviation. Whole areas of debate are forbidden in the classroom and increasingly only the "approved" curriculum may be taught.

A narrowly utilitarian view of education is, at once, limited as an account of education, as it deliberately neglects the cultural dimension, and also mistaken as an account of economic issues, as the cultural health of a society is in large part important to its capacity for economic progress. This might strike some as a curiously vitalist statement, but culture relates directly to the spirit of inquiry, and the desire for improvement, and these are important to a bottom-up concept of economic development.

A functional defence of the cultural role of universities does not, nevertheless, suffice. It is also necessary to see this cultural role as inherently valuable both in the sense of present realisation and with reference to the long-term development of society. Indeed, as with expenditure on the arts and heritage, there are fundamental questions of value and worth involved.

A problem with the British system, however, is that, in what is very much an elective dictatorship, it is the state that assigns value and fixes worth. This is functionally unsound as well as unfortunate for ideological reasons. As far as the first is concerned, national, "state-driven", solutions for higher education are implausible in an age in which education is increasingly traded as a commodity. This is not only because of the potential represented by digitalisation, but also due to the general culture of globalisation. For defenders of the present, state-driven situation, this will be fatal as global demands are unlikely to respond positively to national attempts to fix provision. The one-size-fits-all approach will not work at national or international level. At the international level, indeed, the market is heavily volatile as a result of political and technological developments.

Digitisation may led to an e-university system in which individual students rarely, if ever, meet others, in which there is little serious interrogation of what students are doing or thinking, and only also a peripheral role for academics. The process risks reducing education to a series of skills, rather than allowing it to be central to a process of self-development.

Transnational study offers market opportunities and disciplines, but it may lead not only to a damaging volatility, but also to downward-price pressures, that will challenge established systems of provision, especially in residential universities.

This is an aspect of the problem of using the market as the source of demand for academic services and as the means of providing them. The market approach, nevertheless, has many attractions, not least because consumerism is an adjunct to democracy, but also because state provision has been compromised by its tendency to centralisation and uniformity, as well as by its openness to politicisation. This is readily apparent with repeated Labour pressure on universities over student access.

The issue of the state is challenging, whether the government in question is conservative or not. In Britain, at present, the Conservative Party has proved more open to arguments for academic freedom, at least at the institutional level. The latter proviso may not be of value, however, to academics if the institutions are run by politically-correct lobbies. Indeed, this returns us to the problems created by societies determined to hold academics to account for their opinions.

The state also seeks to constrain by limiting some forms of research, as with the attempts to restrict, if not prevent, stem-cell research. The involvement of the Bush government in this is a reminder that freedom may be challenged from the Right as well as the Left or, looked at differently, that authority lusts for power.

Conservative academics can also be challenged by students, although that is less prominent a threat than was the case in the 1960s. In place of organised student pressure, there is the intellectual problem posed by the post-modernist consensus that everyone's opinion is worth heeding, a situation that makes all-too-many seminars a pooling of ignorance. Among many students in Britain, there is no respect for professionalism and, separately, a sense that normative values are those of the Left. Processes of student evaluation open up the danger that conservative academics may be hounded, but there is scant sign of this. Thus, there is the contrast between structures that could be used to harry or remove conservative academics and a degree of politicisation that does not match this potential.

Instead, the principal challenge is institutional, and there we have a classic instance of the hazards of dependency culture. It helps some producer lobbies at the expense of others, and does not fulfil its goal of general improvement, but, more seriously, is corrosive of moral purpose and intellectual integrity.

As a result of the above, we find that the true "conservative academic" in Britain will be someone who appears almost as a radical defender of traditional liberal values - and in this sense perhaps very different from his American counterpart. Powerful state controlled conservatism - in the sense a strictly centrally controlled orthodoxy - triumphed in Britain under Thatcher and Blair. Those in America who dream of such a counter-revolution against a liberal-left controlled academia should pay careful attention to Britain to see what it will cost them.

In one respect, there is no problem of being a conservative academic in Britain - all of those who have survived in the profession are such (by deed if not by aspiration) if conservative is understood as conformist. Before Americans rejoice and look for a job "over here", take a close look at what you have currently got "over there" - it could be worse - much worse. I am a "Conservative academic" but I think that what you have currently in America is almost the best of both worlds. A freedom to express anti-left opinions will not be obtained out of a move towards a more authoritarian shift to the right in the colleges or at national level.

I am grateful to Roger Burt for his comments on an earlier draft.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) and A Short History of Britain (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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