In the May 6 issue of Commonweal , Fordham theology professor Michael Peppard promised to provide a sympathetic treatment of concerns raised by those who perceive a dearth of conservative voices in the Academy. Dissatisfied with the diagnosis of widespread discrimination, Peppard, whose journalistic and scholarly work I greatly admire, seemed poised to provide a judicious analysis that would take seriously the charge that the Academy lacked a certain intellectual diversity by outlining some particularly compelling, if underrepresented, conservative claims.
I was disheartened to find, however, that in the same breath with which he dismissed the suspicion of prejudice, he proceeded to engage in the very armchair psychoanalysis that serves only to perpetuate mutual paranoia on both sides. Instead of outlining a series of rationally grounded positions that might be called conservative, Peppard identified four temperaments or dispositions, which might make conservatives ill-at-ease working in the contemporary research university. Peppard fails to recognize that his so-called temperaments are actually serious claims concerning the character and value of tradition, family, freedom, and the rationality of behavior. While I may disagree with many conservatives on a number of issues, telling them that the source of our dispute is due to particular personality traits seems, at the very least, to be a conversation-stopper.
Peppards first conservative temperament is the most surprising of the four. As a New Testament scholar, it seems particularly strange that Peppard would claim that valuing the maintenance and passing on of intellectual tradition is a simple matter of preference, which the contemporary research university lacks. One only has to glance briefly at the Chronicle of Higher Education or the opinion page of the New York Times , both of which have not often been accused of conservative bias, to get a sense of the robust conversation surrounding the depreciating value of traditional, humanistic education in the face of higher returns promised by investing in career-oriented, scientific training.
Even in the humanities, though, Peppard claims that most conservatives would not feel at home having to revise, shatter”or at least complicate”some traditional idea. But is this discomfort not grounded in a particular understanding of what counts as an intellectual tradition and how such traditions are transmitted?
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae , argued not only that our empirical inquiries are fallible, due to the fact that they treat objects that are finite and always changing, but our theological inquiry is also subject to continued scrutiny, because, though our object of study is unchanging, our finite minds cannot grasp the infinite reality of God. Thus, we have to constantly rethink our traditional ideas of God so as to avoid the kind of prideful idolatry that claims to have rationally exhausted knowledge of the Divine. The conservative who finds it necessary to preserve the constancy of tradition for fear of having to revise, complicate, or shatter traditional ideas is not suffering from a particular intellectual idiosyncrasy; for Aquinas, such a person is simply wrong about how ideas work, not to mention potentially heretical.
The second trait that Peppard identifies involves plans to marry and have children, which he says can be frustrated by the lack of family-friendly policies at many universities. Im not so sure that the lack of family-friendly policies is exclusive to the liberal Academy. There are probably a number of conservatives on Wall Street or working for Fox News facing the biological and professional risks of balancing career and family.
More importantly, however, I dont know many parents who would describe their desire to marry and have children as a particular disposition. Minimally, most people describe marriage and children as something they simply couldnt not do”that is, they were called or fell in love. Maximally, they might subscribe to a set of beliefs about the procreative and unitive entailments of sexual love and the individual and communal commitments they require.
Claiming that such a rigorously normative conversation can be reduced to a matter of personal proclivity treats the debate over family-friendly policies as if it were on the level of arguments for more smoker-friendly policies. Smokers want more sheltered, designated smoking areas, and conservatives want more lactation rooms.
Peppards third conservative trait is the desire to have as much individual freedom as possible. Peppard says that those who want control over where they live and want several employers from which to choose, would be dissuaded by a competitive academic job market in which most professors are grateful to get any job, anywhere. Again, however, this competitiveness is not specific to academia. There are plenty of workers who are forced to relocate in order to find or maintain employment, which may point to a general problem regarding the plight of labor in a capitalist economy that is not simply confined to the Academy.
Specific to the Academy, however, is the character of scholarly research, which is not simply about building, marketing, and selling a product, but is primarily about stewarding a set of perennial questions and forming students in their asking and answering. Of course, the academic profession is not without its share of self-promotion and promises of independence, but at its core, the professoriate is a service-oriented and artistic vocation. We are, for the most part, teachers and writers, and this means that we have to go where our services are needed, and we depend on the cultural and financial capital of our patrons to support our work, which is also predicated on successfully arguing for the intrinsic value of humanistic education.
The longing for autonomy dovetails with Peppards final conservative trait ”avoiding irrationally risky behavior. This is also neither a clearly conservative temperament nor a question of individual disposition. Concerning the former, it is not clear to me that passionate pro-life activists, fiscally conservative opponents of entitlements, or stereotypically neo-conservative war hawks are any more risk-averse than Peppards latte-sipping liberal.
Indeed, it seems that given the degree to which one is committed to a particular position, including the soundness of the reasons and validity of the arguments that are believed to support it, many people are prepared to risk quite a lot in its pursuit. Beyond this, though, Peppard seems to think that the primary criteria for determining what counts as rational behavior is the guarantee of stable returns for investments. Is it really irrational to do what you love, even if it entails certain necessary sacrifices that might exceed the tolerance of many?
It is unfortunate that Peppards analysis does not treat the complex issues that lie at the heart of current discussions both within and outside of the Academy regarding the future of university education. His obvious goodwill toward both conservatives and liberals might have enabled him to engage in the debate without getting lost in the echo chamber of useless sloganeering. In the end, though, by refusing to recognize the rationally grounded claims of either side, Peppard fails to take seriously those with whom he would like to claim sympathy. Instead, he merely sets up yet another clash of cultures, which pits tradition-bound, family-friendly, fiscally sound entrepreneurs against nihilistic, family-free, impractical communists. For my part, I can see good reasons to resist either characterization, but then again, maybe Im just ill-tempered.
Eric Bugyis is a Ph.D. Candidate at Yale University and a Graduate Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.
Michael Peppard, Risky Business: Why so few conservatives become professors
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?