Peter Wood wants some help. On behalf of the National Association of Scholars, he is asking,
Who are the key authors and what are the key books in the liberal, conservative, libertarian and radical traditions? The National Association of Scholars is designing a project to examine how political theory is conveyed in the American undergraduate curriculum. To that end we need to compile lists of works that (A) unambiguously represent different strands of political theory, (B) are widely recognized, and (C) are plausible material for undergraduate courses. We are interested in contemporary books as well as older works, but nothing published before 1750. Our goal is to compile lists of ten books in each category that all sides would agree are a fair sample of these political traditions.
As he explains elsewhere, “The disparities on campus between the percentages of liberal and conservative professors is well-documented, but the effects of this disparity are still in dispute. In principle, it is possible that leftist professors are teaching (in a fair-minded way) important authors and books that are associated with the traditions of classical liberalism, conservativism, and libertarianism. The National Association of Scholars has embarked on a project to find out whether this is so.”
Okay. But, some thoughts:
- political theory isn’t the whole story of politics on campus, and maybe not even a significant part of the story;
- many vitally important thinkers are not associated with particular traditions of political thought, indeed are not political in any conventional sense at all — think about the endless controversies over Shakespeare’s politics;
- liberal education isn’t just (or even primarily) a matter of “exposure” to certain texts — the “how” is often more important than the “what.”
More on that last point: it’s relatively easy to figure out what is being taught, because that kind of information tends to be on the internet. But how are the books being taught? The attitudes of teachers are probably more important for the political (in the broadest sense) orientation of a given class than the explcit political views of the authors studied: condemning Jane Austen for her complicity in British colonialism, or Milton or Plato for misogyny — these are common political stances in the academy, and they wouldn’t show up in an list of texts for a particular course or sequence of courses. That’s the big problem with the new ACTA guide to campuses: it’s based on one kind of information only, and not, I think, the most important kind.
Note that I’m not taking a stance here on the question of what counts as legitimate “politics in the classroom” and what doesn’t — maybe I’ll do that another time. For now, I’m just pointing out that if you want to understand the political orientation of a particular professor or program or department or college, you need to know a lot more than the list of texts being assigned to students.