'Liberal' and 'Conservative' Misunderstood

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), November 6, 2005 | Go to article overview
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'Liberal' and 'Conservative' Misunderstood


Byline: C.A. Bowers For The Register-Guard

The current debate about whether university faculty indoctrinate students with liberal ideas suggests that the faculties' real failure is being overlooked. A basic misunderstanding about what the terms "conservatism" and "liberalism" stand for, both historically and in today's context, is shared by students who label themselves as conservatives, as well as by the faculty who identify themselves as either conservatives or liberals.

This misunderstanding also underlies self-identified liberal think tanks (which journalists and the general public misidentify as conservative) and organizations that are funding the current attack on higher education, as well as the pundits and journalists who are, in their reporting, passing on the misconceptions they acquired during their years in university classrooms.

Labeling Vice President Dick Cheney as a conservative and, in one newspaper account, as a "market-liberal conservative" are among many examples that could be cited.

Words have a history - especially the words that make up our political vocabulary.

Words such as "conservative" and "liberal" carry forward in a highly condensed manner the ideas, values, and silences that emerged from earlier complex debates and writings.

When they are used in a formulaic manner, as is the case today, they carry forward both earlier and current misunderstandings. Students who now label themselves as conservative and charge that they are being indoctrinated in the classroom might have a better understanding that they are really in the liberal tradition of thinking if they had been asked to read and reflect on the writings of such conservative thinkers as Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Michael Oakeshott, James Madison and Clinton Rossiter. They would then have a basis for recognizing that they share few, if any, of the ideas and values of these conservatives.

These students should also be asked to read environmental conservatives such as Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold and Vandana Shiva on the importance of conserving of species, habitats and the world's diverse cultural and environmental commons.

In addition, if students had been asked to read the writings of classical liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith and John S. Mill - as well as the writings of Herbert Spencer, who used social Darwinism to explain the significance of winners in a free-market system - they would be able to recognize that the real tension between themselves and their liberal professors is the tension between the values of market liberalism and the social justice liberalism of their professors.

Widely shared knowledge of what separates the tradition of conservatism from the tradition of liberalism that so many professors identify with and promote in their classes (e.g., the assumption that the individual is the basic social unit, that change is progressive, that the Western way of thinking is the most culturally advanced, etc.

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'Liberal' and 'Conservative' Misunderstood
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