David Linker has a new column on the absence of conservatives in academia, and has a couple of new ideas about why universities might not attract as many conservatives as liberals. Both of his ideas stem from the origins of universities.

First, he notes that the modern university has inherited its purpose from the medieval university–been to expand the boundaries of knowledge rather than to preserve traditions:

The deepest source of the liberal arts is the medieval university, which was divided into distinct disciplines (or departments) of learning: theology, law, and medicine. This model was expanded into the rudiments of the modern university in the early 19th century by the Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who championed academic freedom for scholars to conduct specialized research in a wide range of discrete fields. The aim of this research was both to expand the boundaries of knowledge and to disseminate it among the citizenry to create well-rounded, autonomous individuals.

Second, he brings up the influence of the Enlightenment on academic research:

[As] the university developed, it also absorbed ideas from more radical streams of the French Enlightenment, which defined the pursuit of knowledge in terms of a sharp break from the prejudices of the present and past.

In Linker’s view, these two traditions have intertwined in modern American universities to create a campus where you are expected to produce research and publish ideas that challenge conventional wisdom or expand the breadth of conventional knowledge. Even when the object of your research is old, your ideas are expected to be new.

The result is that academics usually end up pursuing scholarly agendas that are the furthest thing from anything that could be described as “conservative.” The imperative to advance knowledge demands that research contributes something new. Meanwhile, the tendency to relegate all received truth claims to the category of prejudice leads to suspicion even of the established findings of the previous generation of scholars.

Linker’s ideas remind me of the points that Larry McEnerney makes in his course on academic writing. One of these points is that academic works aren’t published for a general audience. To the contrary, they’re published for a specific set of academic readers, and your work will only garner their interest if you understand what that community of readers cares about. If, as Linker suggests, certain academic communities only care about challenges to convention, people who try to preserve conventional wisdom are unlikely to succeed there.