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Do Political Science Departments Ignore Conservatism?

By Matthew Yglesias on July 13, 2009 at 11:26 am

"Do Political Science Departments Ignore Conservatism?"

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Peter Berkowitz offers some old whine in a slightly new bottle:

The political science departments at elite private universities such as Harvard and Yale, at leading small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore and Williams, and at distinguished large public universities like the University of Maryland and the University of California, Berkeley, offer undergraduates a variety of courses on a range of topics. But one topic the undergraduates at these institutions — and at the vast majority of other universities and colleges — are unlikely to find covered is conservatism. [...]

But most students will hear next to nothing about the conservative tradition in American politics that stretches from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt to William F. Buckley Jr. to Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan. This tradition emphasizes moral and intellectual excellence, worries that democratic practices and egalitarian norms will threaten individual liberty, attends to the claims of religion and the role it can play in educating citizens for liberty, and provides both a vigorous defense of free-market capitalism and a powerful critique of capitalism’s relentless overturning of established ways.

Since Berkowitz specifically calls out Harvard, and since I went there and no how to navigate its course catalogue, I thought I’d look into this.

In the coming year, the Harvard Government (i.e., political science) department is offering exactly six courses on “Political Thought and Its History.” Two of the six courses (Gov 1060 “Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy” and Gov 1061 “The History of Modern Political Philosophy”) are taught by Harvey Mansfield and so I trust the right won’t be slighted in his presentation. One is Eric Nelson’s Gov 1074 “Political Thought of the American Founding” which name checks John Adams in its three-sentence course description. There’s also Gov 1094 “The Jewish Political Tradition,” Gov 1092 “The Past and Future of the Left,” and finally Gov 1072 “Moral Issues in Contemporary Politics” which promises to “weigh both sides of arguments over such issues as economic redistribution, the rights of women and racial minorities, the political status of the family, the regulation of the beginning and end of life, and the conduct of foreign policy.” That doesn’t seem to me as if conservative thought is being ignored. Now you could fairly say that Harvard simply isn’t offering an especially large quantity of courses on the history of political thought in general but that’d be a very different complaint.

Meanwhile, the course with the most students and the most direct policy relevance is the introductory economics course that was taught by economist and Republican Party operative Martin Feldstein in my day and is currently taught by economist and Republican Party operative Greg Mankiw.

No doubt there is some college or university somewhere for which Berkowitz’s complaint is valid, but he specifically cited Harvard as an example and it doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. My initial impulse on reading his article was to crack a joke about how people don’t study conservative ideas because conservative ideas are of such low quality. I’ll restrain myself from saying that, but suffice it to say that the research methods and evidentiary standards being employed by Berkowitz and the WSJ op-ed page don’t exactly make a strong case for inculcating young people with the conservative approach.

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