In fact, for some of us entering academia, the lack of common ground with Columbia’s English Department (or Duke’s, for that matter) is worth a moan as well as a groan. Even a harmlessly failed department at our proudest institutions of elite learning hurts the culture at large. And I don’t mean conservative culture, or that only — I mean western culture, which, again, has been big enough to contain multitudes certainly since Jerusalem met Athens. A proper intellectual conservative ought to not just stomach this but savor it. I think it’s Thomas Sowell who drives his students up a wall by leaving them stumped by semester’s end as to how he “really feels” about Marx.
Of course the agnostic pose can be taken, like all poses, too far. At a certain point even the thinker has to do something. But the doing, in the face of an antagonistic culture, is a behavioral dilemma that reaches right down to the roots of a thinking conservative’s life, academician or no. How to negotiate the proper distance between self and family and community and society is a complex puzzle, and humans must learn from culture both the ground rules and finer points. That our culture now seems therapeutically committed to breaking the boundaries and smashing the categorical slashes of all those things — society, community, family, and self itself — is a trauma so acute that we can even learn from intellectuals on the left about how the monster of liberalism has gained a taste for eating itself.