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It’s Time to Krauthammer the Curriculum
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It’s Time to Krauthammer the Curriculum

One solution for fixing the anti-intellectualism of the nationalist right.

Students on the William & Mary campus, October 25, 2021, in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Photo by Julia Rendleman/Washington Post/Getty Images)

What do we owe our adversaries in the battle of ideas?

We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about what is disqualifying in the discourse or debate of others—determining what is ugly, rude, bigoted, facile, sneering, hypocritical, etc.

We’re all cancel culture commissars when it comes to our own little dachas. I know I am always ready to lay claim to a valid reason why I should not have to listen to this particular twaddle or respond to that obvious canard. Sloth is my shield against engagement with obvious rottenness. Who has the time or energy?

As we know too well, millions of Americans make time for it. And the more rotten, the better. My colleague David French coined the term “nutpicking” for the negative version of cherry picking in which the nuttiest nut from a political or cultural group is picked out by one of its adversaries to say that this is how allll Republicans, or Democrats, or Methodists, or people who make pie crust with vegetable shortening are.

This kind of fallacious part-to-whole argumentation isn’t anything new, but social media has made nutpicking very lazy work indeed. A few minutes cruising the ranty holes of online argument will always yield someone calling for the death penalty for Crisco crustmakers or whatever suits one’s immediate need for outrage. 

We’ve known about the human weakness for straw man arguments and similar sophistries since at least the time of Aristotle and the “defect of definition.” But what about the obverse?

Five years ago, when my friend Charles Krauthammer announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and would soon be leaving us to sort life out without his help, Bret Stephens of the New York Times joined the river of mournful celebration of Dr. K’s life and work. “Since I’m not aware of any precise antonym to the term ‘straw man,’” Stephens wrote. “I hereby nominate the noun ‘krauthammer’ to serve the function.”

And well it could. Charles wrote and argued without relying on disagreeable nuts to make his case for him, nor did he publicly revel (much) in the frequent flailing of his adversaries. Charles could often make the counterargument better than his opponent could and still dispatch it. He did this with good humor and his love for the absurd, but also through elevation. As Stephens put it, “by getting his readers to raise their sights above the parapets of momentary passion and parochial interest.”

It is one of my core beliefs that no one has ever won an argument. If we define victory as changing the opinion of one’s adversary, arguing doesn’t just fail to convince, it actively pushes the other side away. Never has a person in an argument said, “Wait a second, that part you said about my ignorance and hypocrisy—I’d never seen it that way, friend-o. You’ve shown me that I really am obtuse and morally blinkered. I hereby agree with you.”

But that doesn’t mean we cannot persuade. And to persuade, we must first identify the shared values we have in common—to get our heads above those parapets. 

Jon Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, has a bold suggestion for a way to “krauthammer” the worsening problem of the anti-intellectualism, indeed anti-idea-ism of the nationalist right in America.

In a thought-provoking op-ed in the New York Times, Shields argues that “every American university should offer a course on what is best in conservatism. That means teaching conservative intellectuals, not just the history of the G.O.P. or right-wing populism.”

The overwhelmingly progressive-left slant of college faculties, especially at selective and elite institutions, means that right-of-center students have to look hard to find mentors and instruction. And very often, that comes in the areas of the shoddy argumentation useful for political organization, e.g. “own the libs,” not in the rich, varied, nourishing world of political and moral philosophy. Turning Point USA and CPAC are no substitutes for David Hume and James Madison. 

Shields argues that the “squalid education” offered by these right-wing groups that fill the void created by the left-wing groupthink of the typical faculty and curriculum is itself a danger to academia. If the current trend among members of the nationalist right is to tear down the academy, what will the second or third generation of enthusiastic know-nothings be like? 

Left-leaning professors may not want to give conservative ideas any creedence at all, and some are no doubt afraid of the backlash that might follow if they tried. But trying to seal off higher education so completely has been a disaster.

“As late as the mid-1980s, about one-third of American professors were still right of center,” Shields writes. “But by 1999, one survey found that Republicans accounted for just 2 percent of English professors, 0 percent of sociologists, 4 percent of historians and 8 percent of political scientists.”

That’s how you get Charlie Kirk but no Edmund Burke.

We owe our adversaries our best arguments, but also to make theirs for them. That even means instructing the next generation how to engage successfully in the battle of ideas.

Because it is through that battle, properly contested, that good ideas are discovered, tested, and preserved.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.