Education, History, Spotlight

A Liberal’s Case for Conservatives in History Departments

I am a liberal historian, and in my four years as a Ph.D student in history, I have found that my conversations with conservative peers have often been most productive in challenging my biases. This benefit may be rare within the discipline. According to research cited in Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn’s book Passing on the Right, only around 4-8 percent of professional historians are registered Republicans.1

This experience suggests that the liberal-to-leftist makeup of the discipline significantly influences the questions historians ask, the answers that we privilege, and the ways we teach and engage with the public. We devote our lives to certain subjects largely because we believe they have great moral weight and relevance, but we often overlook how our political tilt shapes what we see as important. We also possess the human tendency to gravitate toward answers that fit our preconceptions. These observations raise an important question: What does the discipline of history miss by not having conservative historians in the room?

To explore this question, I conducted interviews with eight conservative historians and two conservative political scientists to see how they approach research and teaching differently from their liberal colleagues. They ranged from established senior figures to new Ph.Ds. Most of them openly identify as conservative, although Niall Ferguson of the Hoover Institute and Darren Staloff of City College of New York said they are often described as conservative but generally do not see themselves as such. Our discussions suggested that conservatives’ distinct sensibilities can help historians pose sharper questions, challenge entrenched assumptions, and more sensibly define the historian’s public role.

These historians’ responses defied many stereotypes about conservative intellectuals. For one, they praised the addition of race, class, and gender as major themes in the discipline, which they believe has deepened our understanding of the American experience. However, they protested the political bias and theorization of history that have frequently accompanied this shift. They argued that given most historians’ ideological leanings, certain assumptions and approaches have become embedded and radicalized rather than properly critiqued.

On this problem of homogeneity, Thomas Sheppard, a recent UNC Ph.D now working at the Naval Heritage and History Command, said, “One thing that academics are big on is interrogating ideas and digging into underlying assumptions, but when you have everybody coming from one side of the ideological spectrum, there are a lot of assumptions that aren’t questioned.” This ideological imbalance, these scholars contended, has also skewed course offerings and led to the exclusion of crucial topics. Niall Ferguson, for instance, argued that it is “absurd to have history departments that do not teach war, peace, and high politics, that don’t offer courses on the origins of the First World War or the Second World War.”

The most common example these scholars gave on these problems was the study of conservatism itself. Gregory Schneider, a historian at Emporia State University and David Frisk, a political scientist and resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute, argued that scholars of modern American conservatism too often downplay its complex and contested roots as an intellectual tradition in order to emphasize its alleged racism and sexism. Schneider maintained that the focus on prejudice in modern conservatism “has been raised to the nth degree by those who make conservatism’s rise all about racial backlash.” He responds that “conservatives were arguing these things for a variety of reasons, not just race…anti-communism was much greater than that, and anti-statism.”

These historians often understood this flaw as part of the broader problem of not “taking ideas seriously” as motives for historical actors, in the words of Stephen Knott, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. Many of them argued that the rise of postmodernist critical theories in the discipline has conditioned historians to automatically see ideas as cover for economic motives or the assertion of power. Wilfred McClay, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, thinks that “ideas tend to be treated roughly in the discipline. Abolitionism is hard to explain through strictly material explanations.”

In general, these conservative historians contended that neglect for ideas simplifies human behavior, reducing history to a moralistic story of oppressors and oppressed. More broadly, they argued that critical theories too often act, in independent historian George Nash’s words, as “pre-formed models” that predetermine arguments and reduce objectivity.  They universally defended empirical, source-based research that tries to sideline theoretical blinders. Niall Ferguson and others recommended a return at the graduate level to studying the philosophy of history, including thinkers on factors like causation and contingency. While many of my subjects thought critical theories could be productive if used as tools and with skepticism, the consensus was that this category of theories has too much influence in the discipline at the expense of clear writing and standard research methods.

These scholars’ critique of theory in history seemed to flow from a broader conservative sensibility about the pitfalls of grand transformative ideas. George Nash told me, “Conservatism tends to see itself as anti-theory in the sense of abstraction and, in the Burkean sense, skepticism about grand schemes of interpretation that don’t get down to earth.” These historians often said that conservatism gave them a stronger appreciation for what Allen Guelzo, a historian at Gettysburg College, called the “irony of results” in human affairs and the potential for defects of human nature to ruin great plans. They wanted more attention to contingency, human error, folly, and the limitations of knowledge as causes of events rather than more leftist emphases on structures of power and economic motives.

In addition, these historians argued for a more constrained public role for the profession compared to what they see as the Left’s excessive activism. In their view, historians should take a step back from contemporary debates in order to maintain their credibility as impartial experts. Stephen Knott argued that historians “have a professional obligation…to wait for emotions to cool and for the evidence to be available” before issuing judgments. Wilfred McClay labelled this approach the “reflective” or “quietistic view” of the profession. Allen Guelzo said that historians should see themselves as “calling the play-by-play” more than taking a particular side.

These conservative scholars frequently argued that liberal and leftist historians fall into these traps less because of ill will or ideological defects but because of universal social and psychological tendencies that encourage this behavior. “In scholarship, one cannot presume that men and women are angels,” said David Frisk, suggesting that human social and psychological foibles affect scholars as much as anyone. He sees problems of ideological bias largely as a result of a homogenous environment, which reduced incentives to “have balance in one’s courses” and engage with conservative scholarship.

If the main bulwark against bias is our own commitment to fairness and objectivity, these scholars argued, then historians are likely to falter because human beings are poor judges of their own cases. In Frisk’s words, it is “best to have something built in that creates pressures and incentives for balance in syllabi and research.” Darren Staloff argued that more conservatives in the room would arrest this drift toward extreme interpretations and make us “account for alternative premises and interpretations,” thereby helping unmask certain biases and assumptions. These arguments certainly had a conservative flavor, but most of these historians acknowledged that these social and psychological problems would occur if the discipline’s political imbalance were reversed.

The approaches to history outlined here are not necessarily the right ways to research and teach. I disagreed with much of what the conservatives I spoke to said even as I greatly appreciated their willingness to speak to me. But their ideas can be vital correctives. They help the majority of the profession to ask questions and investigate assumptions that often do not get asked or investigated. They can also help left-of-center historians communicate more effectively with a huge portion of the country that is underrepresented in our community. Welcoming more thoughtful conservatives into the room should be part of the profession’s broader mission of including an ever-wider array of views and experiences, both in terms of what we study and who studies it.

 

Joseph Stieb is a Ph.D Candidate in history at UNC-Chapel Hill studying American policy and foreign politics. He is writing a dissertation on the containment of Iraq from 1990 to 2003. You can follow him on Twitter @joestieb

Reference:

1 Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 137.

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23 Comments

  1. X. Citoyen says

    A well-written piece. Still, I think you’d be further ahead dispensing with the notion that there’s a unified conservatism in the same way that there’s a unified liberalism. A better dichotomy would be liberals and non-liberals (or non-progressives). Conservativism, after all, is a hodge-podge of different philosophical and ideological persuasions. Classical liberals, libertarians, Thomists, and neoconservatives are estranged bedfellows voting Republican because it’s the only show in town. This more nuanced perspective would also help you understand your dissertation project. The ideological force behind the Iraq invasion was not so much “conservatism” in general as neoconservativism in particular.

    • David B Frisk says

      I don’t think that’s a significant criticism of this piece, which isn’t about conservatism. It’s about the extremely weak position people who are called conservatives have in the academy, and why we believe this is bad for the academy.

      • Jachin says

        Is it then just limited to a “conservative” vs. “liberal” dichotomy? Why should not universities then increase the number of persons with lots of different viewpoints? Should we ensure that there are different intepretations of what caused the fall of the Ottoman Empire, for example? I don’t think that “increasing the number of conservatives” in history is a worthy of even plausable goal. History suffers most from an inability to be economically relevant and robust tools that can falsify claims. What is going to be done? Will more conservatives be “recruited” to major in history? Will historians have to teach from perspectives they don’t understand/believe in? The problem lies within the nature of the discipline, not the people in the discipline.

      • X. Citoyen says

        It was advice, not criticism, though I have some of that too.

        You and Stieb claim that ideological diversity is good for historians, so the underrepresentation of one side is a bad thing. I wouldn’t dispute that intellectual diversity is necessary for intellectual rigor and that ideological diversity a decent proxy for intellectual diversity. But this is a sociological analysis (not an historical one) that ignores how the ideological disparity came to be: Liberals (or, more accurately, progressives) have been actively and passively proselytizing and promoting one another on the basis of their shared convictions for at least a century, while non-liberals, for the most part, have not. As a result, non-liberals have become a minority.

        You might object that the reasons are water under the bridge, that we have to deal with the here and now, and that your framing of the problem is a less confrontational than mine. I suppose everything depends on your proposed remedy. (I don’t assume the success of a remedy depends on complete and accurate knowledge of the disease.) If your remedy is the same as that of the Heterodox Academy, it might work.

        But I remain skeptical, at least in the short term. The problem in the academy is not really an imbalance of liberals and conservatives; it’s more accurately characterized as an activist progressive monoculture crowding out everyone else–nowadays that seems to include liberals as well. I don’t see progressives being especially interested in your appeal to intellectual health because, for them, such concerns must take a backseat to social justice. So everything hangs on how many old-fashioned liberals are left and whether they can bestir themselves to join you.

  2. There is something in this article that rings of a plantation owner who bothered to talk to a few of the slaves–it is so smug and simpleminded it’s infuriating.

    “These arguments certainly had a conservative flavor, but most of these historians acknowledged that these social and psychological problems would occur if the discipline’s political imbalance were reversed.” The author clearly doesn’t know when he is being ‘managed’. ‘Social and psychological problems’ for whom? When the term is referenced above in the article it is in the context:” “In scholarship, one cannot presume that men and women are angels,” said David Frisk, suggesting that human social and psychological foibles affect scholars as much as anyone.” I’m sorry, but how is that a surprize? Is Mr. Stieb so naive that he doesn’t know this? Apparently so.

    “Welcoming more thoughtful conservatives into the room should be part of the profession’s broader mission of including an ever-wider array of views and experiences, both in terms of what we study and who studies it.” The descriptor ‘thoughtful’ is hilarious. Thoughful according to whom? Who is the arbitor, the liberal historians themselves? In this case I think we know the outcome.

    Oh and I am part of that huge portion of the country that is underrepresented, and if this is an example of your communicating–I think that I prefer your silence.

    Have a nice day.

    • EK says

      Truly, dividing historians and political scientists into liberals and conservatives is clearly a dead end.

      Better to divide them into communists, socialists, democratic-republicans, whigs, oligarchs and totalitarians. And then identify their respective ultimate sources into traditionalists and natural law enthusiasts being careful to closely inspect the sources of their tradition and natural law.

      Too much of run of the mill conservatism is simply myth and hagiography and too much of liberalism is simply iconoclasm and hagiography.

      • Agreed. Your comment is particularly interesting because it points out one of the problems inherent in Mr. Stieb’s playful little missive. Are historians and political scientists different? In my understanding of the disciplines they are, but in Mr. Stieb’s case these essential boundaries are blurred so profoundly that he seeks to limit his experience of “conservatives” to those he deems “thoughtful”, and to those who seek to protect academia from the ‘social and psychological problems’ that might arise in his profession from the introduction of points of view that challenge his own. One can only assume that he is laughing behind his hand as he wrote this–or at least hope that this is the case. If this is not the case; it is astounding, and grave in it’s implications.

        As you wrote, the idea that there is a “conservative” point of view that is codified is an empty idea and is why I called him out on being ‘simplemided’. Mr. Stieb seems to believe that anyone who offers alternative argument, or even just an obliquely challenging argument; carries the unpleasant whiff of ‘conservatism’ to him and as such he needs to activate the ‘thoughtful’ descriptor as an apriori determination (on the part of himself and his mentors apparently) to those he will consider worthy to deign an opportunity for discourse with him. He has to protect himself from such intellectual poison, afterall. This attitude on Mr. Stieb’s part is so anti-intellectual, it is frankly disgusting. His PhD should be denied on this basis alone.

        I found this statement in your reply somewhat mysterious: “Too much of run of the mill conservatism is simply myth and hagiography and too much of liberalism is simply iconoclasm and hagiography.” So much so I had to look up the definition of ‘hagiography’. While I understand it superficially–do you mean something more?

      • David B Frisk says

        See my response to “X. Citoyen.”

    • David B Frisk says

      That’s a nasty rant which contributes nothing to the discussion. As for your presumption that young Mr. Stieb is arrogant and condescending — I can assure you that your accusation is utterly false.

      • And I assure you Mr. Frisk that my assessment of Mr. Strieb’s article as exposing him to be “arrogant and condescending” (your words) is based on nothing but his own words, in this very article, and so available for all to see and assess for themselves. Your assertion that this opinion is a falsehood on my part–is not yours to make alone. I object to your characterizing my comments as “nasty rant”, but I admit to a certain smug satisfaction that you do so. Your reacting with such hostility to my comments only proves my point. You expose yourself as one of the self-proclaimed ‘intellectual elite’ that fears the uncomfortable reality of actual intellectual discourse, and so in fact you celebrate your own ignorance and promote the ignorance of others. Do you know that? Have a good long think about it, it is long past time that you do.

        • It occurs to me, that you are the David Frisk referrenced in the article. When this finally sunk in, I was even more impressed by the haughty arrogance and profound innocence of your comment, Your calling him “young Mr. Stieb” in your defense of him, while lovely and romantic, ignores completely his horrible disregard for you and his twisted use of your comments as a rationale for the continuance of the profoundly anti-intellectual indulgence of a single political bias in the field. Don’t you see this? He may be very charming, and likeable–sociopaths are always likeable and charming.

  3. Skip says

    Good lord! Is Ferguson correct when he says history departments do not teach the macro causes of war and peace, to the extent they don’t often address the origins of the world wars? If he is, why, and how is that a part of some liberal bias?

    I beg to quibble with the assertion that an emphasis on “structures of power and economic motives” is a leftist attribute, at least it wasn’t “back in the day.” I went to a very conservative Catholic college and my first academic exposure to international relations was via a seconded British Christian Brother who instilled two thoughts into my young brain that a lifetime in the national security arena have never proven to be anything but on the money (paraphrasing here): “When Britain ruled the waves, it waved the rules” and “Britain has no eternal allies, only eternal interests;” the latter being from a Palmerston speech to the Commons, of the former I’ve no clue.

    An interesting piece, btw. Thank you, Mr. Stieb.

  4. Skip says

    Tsk. That woud be “waived the rules.”

      • Skip says

        “Waived the rules” is a metaphorical reference to Britain’s high-handedness in such things as forcefully establishing a worldwide colonial empire, imposing trade blockades, etc., which are examples of “structures of power.” The “tsk” refers to my misspelling of waived in the initial post. 🙂 Cheers

        • “Britain’s high-handedness in such things as forcefully establishing a worldwide colonial empire…” Here is my observation–Britain’s colonies fought for and won their independence from Britain, time and time again. What do you make of this? Each time Britain’s colonies have succeeded econimically as independent states whereas the colonies of France, most particularly, and others have failed profoundly. What do you make of this? Slavery is alive and well in the world except in those countries most influenced by the British ’empire’, what do you make of this observation? Isn’t this worth consideration?

          • Skip says

            LOL You misunderstand, I have nothing against Britain. In fact, I’m quite fond of the place. I lived there long ago, still have many friends there, and tried to emigrate to that sceptered isle a decade ago. Also, I lived and married in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, where the benefits of colonialism were myriad for gweilos like me and “love is a many-splendoured thing.”

            I’m also a firm adherent of realpolitik and totaly disinclined to judge the past by the mores of the present. However, I don’t believe for a minute that the well-worn defense of the civilizing legacy of British colonialism would have carried much weight with Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, Kenyatta, Nasser, and a host of others and their successors. And it shouldn’t carry much weight with you unless you wish to fall afoul of the current zeitgeist. TTFN

  5. “However, I don’t believe for a minute that the well-worn defense of the civilizing legacy of British colonialism would have carried much weight with Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, Kenyatta, Nasser, and a host of others and their successors.” Agreed. But Ghandi, Nasser, Kenyatta, were all products of the British system which taught them, just as the British taught proto-Americans,that (most simply) government is a social contract based on the needs and intentions of the people. So government, in the best case, is inherently weak.

  6. Darren, Nottingham says

    “I am a liberal historian” – really? You decided not to be an historian for the sake of your politics?

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  8. William Lane says

    “I disagreed with much of what the conservatives I spoke to said.” I hear this line a lot from people calling for more dialogue with the other side, whomever that may be.

    I wonder which parts, specifically, Mr. Stieb disagreed with.

  9. Eric Dahlgren says

    A couple things strike me about this piece. First is the apparently accepted premise that conservatives historians are by default unworthy of any intellectual respect. For example ‘These historians’ responses defied many stereotypes about conservative intellectuals.’ Really? What stereotypes are these? I suspect it is something along the line of conservative=stooopid.

    If the attitude of most academic historians is that their liberal views are automagically right while conservative views are incorrect, I can pretty much guarantee that the liberal views are misguided at best, absolutely wrong at worst.

    Second, ‘This experience suggests that the liberal-to-leftist makeup of the discipline significantly influences the questions historians ask, the answers that we privilege, and the ways we teach and engage with the public’. No shit? Really? Group think discourages creativity? Group think limits the questions that can be asked? Who knew?

    I work in the real world, not academia. In the real world dismissing ideas because you don’t like the politics of the person who originated the idea is a road to failure. The value of the idea is independant of who origniated the idea. It appears, after reading this article, that this concept is foreign to academic historians which means that it is likely a huge chunk of the work academic historians produce is garbage.

    I applaude the author for daring to speak with conservatives. Way to go (though it is mighty sad that an academic is getting props for daring to talk to a conservative). At the same time the fact that he a) labels historians based on political views and b) had to actually seek out conservatives tells me that there the idea that ‘academics are big on is interrogating ideas and digging into underlying assumptions’ is absolute crap. If it were true then the balance of conservative/liberal in history departments wouldn’t be so lopsided. If it were true, then college history departments would go out of their way to ensure that they had a politcally diverse staff. Since this isn’t the case then it is clear that ‘interrogating ideas and digging into underlying assumptions’ isn’t a real goal.

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