Friday, September 26, 2008

The Conservative Attraction to Youth

The NYT has an article tracing the relatively recent change in tactics in the way conservatives are approaching the War to Reclaim the University. Essentially, the difference is that conservatives have stopped trying to make education look uniformly bad, and are now trying to promote models of good education cleverly disguised as models of the education they have been condemning for the past twenty years or so.

The old strategy was basically one of trying to convince the American public that left-leaning professors are the greatest imaginable domestic danger to the nation's health and well-being. The hope in this strategy was that with enough undermining, the combined weight of the suddenly outraged silent majority would force a curricular and methodological overhaul, probably instituted by the government. David Horowitz is still trying this tactic, but has been increasingly criticized by conservatives for petitioning for what amounts to ideological affirmative action.

Now the strategy seems to be to inject conservative-approved texts into the university and hope that students find conservative explanations for things more compelling or more reasonable than cultural theory or gender/race/sexuality studies. Kind of a last-ditch effort, it seems to me, and rather redundant—the lowest common denominator at any school can usually be found reading Ayn Rand with or without professorial or curricular suggestion.

I have never really understood why conservatives have dug in their heels so hard over the past forty years or so when it comes to the politics of the university. God knows they gain enough of them back over the long haul to senescence middle age—why the constant fear that college kids are being irremediably poisoned? Kids don't even vote, usually, so it's not like they're abandoning an important demographic.

A few thoughts:
  • Modern, post-Buckley conservatism is built largely on the idea that conservatism must have a cohesive ideological framework or it will go astray. The chance that youth could emerge into adulthood feeling somewhat ambivalently or unevenly conservative is as threatening to such a mindset as the thought that they might be indoctrinated with queer-Marxist-feminism or something. Because if one is only incidentally conservative, how will one be able to answer the Marxists when they ask you about school bussing? The heroic figure of Buckley stands as the model conservative—a man who has an answer for every question, and an overarching narrative that can explain everything (e.g. David Brooks's column today about McCain: "what disappoints me about the McCain campaign is it has no central argument. I had hoped that he would create a grand narrative explaining how the United States is fundamentally unprepared for the 21st century and how McCain’s worldview is different. McCain has not made that sort of all-encompassing argument, so his proposals don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Without a groundbreaking argument about why he is different, he’s had to rely on tactical gimmicks to stay afloat. He has no frame to organize his response when financial and other crises pop up."). But conservatism was not always this way.

  • A temperamental fatalism: if you believe that the world is constantly going to shit, you're compulsively worried about the next generation to the point that the only ideological battles that seem to matter are over who gets to bore adolescents.

  • The influence of commercial culture: Since the Sixties (cf. Mad Men), advertising and marketing has been obsessed with locking in the young to favorable habits of consumption. This is why Apple is running ads clearly targeted to people buying their first computer; Microsoft, though it doesn't understand youth, is also trying to target them by throwing Jerry Seinfeld and old people with exciting jobs into their commercials. But the basic thinking that directs advertising dollars—go for the consumer who hasn't set his habits/preferences and lock them in for life—has carried over without change to the realm of conservative ideology. And as in most cases of commerce (do I have any brand-loyalty to Honda because it was my first car? Definitely not), the results are mixed to ineffective.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

You should check out a recent book about this very topic, The Unmaking of the Public University, by Christopher Newfield. That book treats Horowitz/D'Souza/Kimball et al as part of a concerted effort to roll back the sort of inevitable liberalization that happens in a society with a large educated, diverse, and mobile middle class. For my money at least it is the most satisfyingly comprehensive and sound rebuttal to just about all of the cultural and economic complaints conservatives make about higher ed.