The Insidiousness of Kenyon’s Political Philosophers
By Conrad Jacober
The very first class I took at Kenyon was “Quest for Justice,” both as a prospective student and during my first semester. The course I took is a common one for many first-year students; as the recent article on the front page of the Kenyon website entitled “Quest for Knowledge” recently stated, “The College usually offers seven sections of ‘Quest,’ with a quarter to a third of all first-years opting to take a course.” For an introductory course that is a year long, that is an astounding statistic. One may wonder why so many students are drawn to take “Quest,” and the answer may lie in how it has historically been advertised to first-year students.
The Political Science department has historically advertised “Quest for Justice” as quintessential to first-year students before they even arrive on campus. Indeed, the same article on the Kenyon website boasts that, “If there is one class that epitomizes Kenyon, it may well be PSCI 101Y, otherwise known as ‘Quest For Justice.’” This is how the course was sold to me when I arrived at Kenyon. But why does “Quest” epitomize Kenyon? Why not introductory courses to IPHS, Anthropology, Sociology, or any of the other Social Sciences and Humanities? What is so nonessential about them?
“It’s a crock of shit, nothing but self-promotion and an offense to other professors and departments,” said a professor anonymously in response to the Kenyon website’s article. Although some may find this response extreme, I find it perfectly appropriate. When Kenyon consistently advertises the introductory course to one of its departments as quintessential, what is it saying to other departments whose excellent introductory courses and the efforts of their professors go unnoted? Obviously they’re not quintessential; there’s nothing that “epitomizes Kenyon” about them that is so acclaimed of “Quest for Justice.” These grievances, however, go beyond this fetishization of “Quest.”
In the same article, Professor Spiekerman states, “It’s the model we like to advertise: Asking serious questions in the company of students without the agenda of what the answers to the questions are” (my emphasis). Although this unbiased model is what the department advertises to first-year students fresh onto campus, “Quest for Justice” certainly has an agenda. In a 2006 article praising the department and the course, Kenyon alumnus Ben Van Horrick ‘07 states that, “they created an alternative universe where conservative scholars get tenure, multiculturalism is not taught and ‘dead white guys’ are cool” (Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices). Critics of the course have long noted an agenda, but even those who praise “Quest” recognize the conservative bias.
However, the advertisement that “Quest” is “without an agenda” enters into the course itself. Unlike many professors in other courses, the political philosophers of “Quest” do not declare their theoretical bias. Most first-year students are unaware of the Straussian lens through which the so-called great books are being read. In my first-year “Quest” course, Professor Baumann refused to tell students what his bias was until the very last class, in which he announced that he was a neoconservative. Students gasped; they had no idea.
The problem is that most first-year students do not know the philosophical agenda through which the course readings are being skewed.
In his March 26 opinion piece for the Collegian, Professor Baumann states, “The philosopher Leo Strauss and those of us influenced by him here at Kenyon have been smeared.” The problem, however, is not with the existence of Straussian and neoconservative professors at Kenyon. The problem is that most first-year students do not know the philosophical agenda through which the course readings are being skewed. Furthermore, as Professor Baumann notes in the article on the Kenyon website, “Quest” students “don’t read secondary sources.” Not only does the Straussian interpretation of the course readings go unnoted, but also students are discouraged from engaging with alternative interpretations from the text. Kenyon students are thus left to believe that the Straussian skew on the text is the original meaning of the author. Although some of the political philosophers at Kenyon may believe that such teaching practice is a noble lie – in the Straussian twist on Plato’s original presentation – but I believe it is plainly dishonest and a disservice to Kenyon students.
Professor Baumann states in his Collegian piece that the “point of all this rather shameful name-calling” is “ to intimidate anyone (and here mostly students) who might want to keep an open mind.” On the contrary, the critique of “Quest” and its Straussian agenda is precisely that it discourages open mindedness while claiming to do exactly that. Students should be exposed to conservative ideas, but the way to do that is not by presenting conservative interpretations as the original intent of an author, hiding your conservative bias, claiming that your course is “without an agenda,” and then discouraging your students from consulting alternative interpretations. Such lies are ignoble; their myths distort the truth rather than conveying it.
If the goal of “Quest for Justice” is for students to keep an open mind – and that is a serious if – then the professors who teach the course need to make a few changes. First, you should declare the particular theoretical lens through which you interpret the text. Second, you should encourage students to read secondary interpretations of the text, such that they keep their minds open to alternative understandings and keep you honest in class with defending your particular interpretations. Third, you should actually teach Leo Strauss, so that students can understand and perhaps even appreciate the framework you bring to bear on the so-called great books of the Western canon.
In addition to this, the political science department ought to hire theorists of alternative theoretical perspectives. Though I applaud the department’s focus on the theoretical side of Political Science rather than the typical emphasis on the applied side, such a mono-paradigmatic approach in the social sciences is dangerous and leads only to dogmatism and close-mindedness. Students can still be exposed to conservative political philosophy without that being their only choice. If the department really wants students to have an open mind, creating an environment for debate and contrary theories is the best approach. Though I believe the reasons that the political science department has done none of this and the administration has failed to intervene towards such theoretical diversity are dubious, I do not believe it is too late for the department to change its disposition going forward.
Kenyon needs to stop fetishizing certain courses, such as “Quest,” and give fair dues to the efforts of all its professors in their introductory courses. Repeatedly calling one course quintessential is an insult to other professors and departments, and it is one that ought to stop. Students should decide on courses based on their interests, not because of some quintessence they are sold through advertising; indeed, this quintessence becomes all the more insidious in light of the many shortcomings and interpretive biases that “Quest for Justice” purports, which by no means “epitomizes Kenyon” as a whole. Going forward, I hope that both the College and the political science department become more honest to Kenyon students. The so-called noble lies need to end.