Saturday, January 22, 2011

Teaching Burke and Conservatism

I am just wrapping up my lectures on Edmund Burke for my large (245 students) Introduction to Political Theory course here at Queen's. And this has inspired me to share a few thoughts, and items from the lecture, here on my blog.

Of all the historical figures we cover in this year-long course (from Plato to Marx), the section on Burke and conservatism is one of my favourite to teach. It is also, I believe, one of the most important topics students can cover in their time at university.

I realize saying this will surprise, perhaps even offend, many other theorists (though I would point out I am just as passionate about the importance of teaching them Karl Marx). So please permit me to explain.

"Why is it so important that students learn about Burke and conservatism?", you ask. Most students never seriously engage with conservative political thought. And I think this is a real shame. The result is our students leave university with a less diverse "cognitive toolbox" than they could have if they were exposed to a more balanced, and diverse, range of political thinkers and traditions. Higher education should open (not close) minds. As citizens our students will be expected to engage with conservatives and so, at the least, they should develop an understanding of (if not an appreciation for the potential value of) conservatism.

The need for learning about conservatism is evident if you ask your students to summarize what they believe constitutes (small "c") conservatism as a political theory. Some typical answers include "someone who is close-minded", "someone who is afraid of change", "someone who is motivated by religion and tradition", etc. Of course there is not one uniform, concise, statement of conservatism. Like liberalism, socialism, and feminism, there are a plurality of different variants of conservative political thought.

Indeed, someone like Burke would contest the suggestion that they even have a political "ideology". Burke was really a political practitioner rather than "theoretician". Having students read Burke can help them develop a more sophisticated understanding of the diverse principles and perspectives people can embrace and contribute to politics.

Before we delved into Burke and the historical concerns of his day, I played the following video clip, from an interview with Harvard's Harvey Mansfield, to give them a sense of what a contemporary conservative political theorist thinks:

For their tutorials my students read this piece entitled "What is Conservatism?". Kekes argues that “the fundamental aim of conservatism is to conserve the political arrangements that have shown themselves to be conducive to good lives”. And, he continues, "the conservative view is that history is the best guide to understanding the present and planning for the future because it indicates what political arrangements are likely to make lives good or bad".

Why is the week on Burke one of my favourites to teach? Well, let's say I teach the week in a rather unorthodox manner. Not to get into all the details here, but it involves a debate with myself, between the characters of Rousseau and Burke. So we debate political theory, private property, equality and religion.

During the class I get the students to fill out a handout which asks them to summarize what they take conservatism to mean. I also ask them to come up with some questions they would like to ask either Rousseau or Burke.

Most questions are for Burke. In particular, most students (understandably) contest Burke's defence of social and economic inequality. Inequality, argued Burke, is both natural and beneficial. For democrats living in the 21st century the claims about social inequality will be rejected. Though of course we have to remember that Burke was living at a time when a very small percentage of the population were literate, and the experiment of "rule by the people" had, at that stage in human history, no proven track record as a stable and prosperous form of government.

To conclude the lecture on Burke I thought I would give Burke the opportunity to respond to some of my student's questions, especially to their questions about global inequality and poverty. Burke was a genuine political thinker (rather than an abstract theorist), immersed in the pressing issues of his day (e.g. French revolution, religion, political economy, etc.). So to get a real flavour of what Burke might offer us today I stipulated that Burke had to respond to my student's questions as a 21st (rather than 19th) century conservative. So he had to answer the questions with the benefit of the knowledge of how things unfolded in the two centuries after his death.

Speculating on what Burke might say if he were alive today can help illustrate the importance of the conservative's judgement that history is the best guide to understanding the present and planning for the future. History provides us with important insights into the social arrangements that improve or worsen human lives.

The video below is my attempt to make Burke come "alive", by providing him with a venue to offer some reflections on the current situation of global inequality. The goal is to provoke you to consider the value of the conservative perspective. This is not to say I agree with everything Burke might argue (in fact I don't). But I think it is useful to consider what insights he might make into the contemporary state-of-affairs of humanity.

So here is the video:


After my lecture on Burke a student asked me what my own political views were. The student noted that he couldn't tell what my personal views were from the way I teach (which I take as a compliment, as I don't think the classroom should be used as a pulpit for ideologues). I told him that I myself was partial to JS Mill, but left it at that. The truth is I don't identify myself with any one particular doctrine or political theorist. Those who read my published work will see I can be partial to virtue ethics and democracy, and have an interest in Marx's theory of history.

I do however have this poster (below) hanging in my office, which might lead one (reasonably) to assume I am in fact a Burkean conservative.

While I do believe there are elements of Burke's theory that are very important to study, indeed, perhaps even correct (e.g. the importance he places on history) I am not a Burkean conservative. For starters I am an atheist. And I think my arguments for de-criminalizing incest and tackling biological aging mean I am too radical too qualify as a "true" conservative thinker.

So to wrap this long post up, I want to conclude by emphasizing how important it is that we, as teachers, expose our students to a wide variety of political theories and perspectives. And that we provide a balanced account of the potential pros and cons of these different ways to think about politics (so our students can sort out for themselves what they think). The world does not need (more) narrow-minded zealots who reduce the complexities of human life to a simple battle between "good folks [i.e. the smart and noble] and bad folks [i.e. the stupid and dishonest]". Things are infinitely more complex than this.

What humanity needs is more intellectual humility, and a diverse cognitive toolbox.

I thus end by encouraging you to watch this excellent Ted Talk on the roots of our moral psychology and the importance of balancing different political perspectives: