That the University of Colorado is raising $9 million to endow a professor of conservative studies is rather delicious in its ironies. It smacks of affirmative action and casts conservatism in the syntax of departments decried by conservatives for decades: women's studies, gay studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, and so on.
Furthermore, the idea of affirmative action for conservatives seems gratuitous. These other groups may be oppressed, but conservatives run whole wars, black-site prisons, sprawling multinational corporations.
But as an academic who is neither a liberal nor a conservative (anarchism has its privileges), let me tell you why I think a "professor of conservative thought and policy" is not such a bad idea.
Within the academy, conservatives really are an oppressed minority. At the University of Colorado, for instance, one professor found that, of 800 or so on the faculty, only 32 are registered Republicans. This strikes me as high, and I assume they all teach business or physical education.
I teach political philosophy. Like most professors I know, I bend over backward to sympathetically teach texts I hate. I try to show my students why people have found Plato and Karl Marx - both of whom I regard as totalitarians - compelling.
I don't deceive myself into thinking that I teach these texts in the same way as a professor who found them plausible. Even as I try to be neutral, my personal opinions affect every aspect of what I do and think.
But it can be true in academia, where everything is affected by the opinions of professors, from the configuration of departments to the courses on offer to the texts taught. Because there's consensus, there is little self-examination.
Academic consensus is a particularly irritating variety of groupthink. The fact that everyone agrees and everyone has a doctorate leads to the occasionally explicit idea that all intelligent people think the same thing - that no one could disagree with, say, Obama-ism, without being an idiot. This attitude is continually expressed, for example, in attacks on Presidents Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not for their political positions but for their grades and IQs.
That the American professoriate is near-unanimous for Barack Obama is a problem on many levels, but certainly pedagogically. Ideological uniformity does a disservice to students and makes a mockery of the pious commitment of these professors simply to convey knowledge.
Every new generation of professors has been steeped in an atmosphere in which the authorities all agree and in which they associate agreement with intelligence.
That this smog of consensus is incompatible with the supposedly high-minded educational mission of colleges and universities is obvious. But academics are massively self-deceived about this, which makes it all the more disgusting and effective.
So as my liberal old professor Richard Rorty said, referring to Allan Bloom, conservative Platonist: "Let a thousand Blooms flower." And if they take root in endowed chairs of conservative thought and policy, that's at least pretty funny.