An apology for Robert Novak

By Justin Doran

Many right-leaning critics of higher education have asserted that there is a substantial deficit in the willingness of scholars to entertain conservative vantages in subjects like political science, literature, history and philosophy. Usually this claim has very little value, especially when it is flung under the moniker “liberal bias.” If anything, academics are biased toward well-informed and consistent arguments. If this tends to be “liberal,” then perhaps “conservatives” should reconsider how they argue their point.

So, when I first learned of the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund, I was concerned. According to all reports from the rumor mill, the academy was a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to buy stock in academic futures. It was going to employ professors to churn out little conservative zealots, who would goose-step into the economy on big black boots custom-made to crush communists. Upon further investigation, however, their malignance seems greatly exaggerated.

One source of this fear is undoubtedly the fund’s affiliation with Robert Novak, who spoke at its inaugural conference. Novak is most well-known among college students through his involvement in the Valerie Plame controversy, and the correlative feud with Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.”

Unfortunately, this creates a significant negative bias toward both Novak, who has been cleared by multiple sources as not culpable in the leak, and the academy, which includes many other professionals and academics.

However, there are some skeptics of the academy’s espousal of capitalism and limited government in itself, which is a fairly uncommon focus for public academic funds. The objection is roughly that these ideas, and the others encouraged by the fund, are unnecessarily partisan, and especially conservative. Although these ideas are certainly components of the Republican platform (perhaps only in rhetoric), and of American conservatism in general, this does not make them partisan per se.

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Suspicion of partisan influence in academia is not unfounded. For instance, religious conservatives have attempted, in the past, to revise basic American history. A notable result of this tactic is the common belief that early Americans were more religious than we are today. In actuality, when religiosity is measured in terms of participation in services, modern Americans are much more devout than the their ancestors. It seems reasonable, therefore, that they are doing the same thing again with capitalism and limited government. However, a quick glance at the Constitution and Federalist Papers will reveal that both of these ideals are obviously and literally present (the Commerce Clause being the best example.)

Another, more legitimate concern is that these ideas do not contribute in any unique way to scholarship. They are all simply components of other ideas and frameworks and should not be singled out for emphasis; any attempt to do so is obviously partisan. To this objection, I must sincerely disagree.

Education tends to maintain the status quo. Theories that existed in the past are treated as historical, superseded and obsolete. This discourages us from looking back and considering classical ideas as possible solutions to modern problems.

We tend to view the world as a progression toward this moment, but a perspective like this one is not conducive to an effective accumulation of knowledge.

When students heard from “The Daily Show” that Robert Novak should be in prison, they laughed, and passively filed this opinion into their perspectives.

So if they heard later that he cooperated with Patrick Fitzgerald, that he was no lapdog for the Bush administration, that he was an ethical journalist, they threw it away as propaganda. They remain ignorant of his great contributions to the University, of his generosity and talent, of his sincere affection for our alma mater. So too they regard the academy with suspicion and contempt.

But if the ideals of capitalism and limited government are unworthy of concerted study, then what is? Indeed, very little has contributed so much to our collective experience as Americans, and as students at the University of Illinois, as these.