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Political thought
July 12, 2019+Bruce Gilley
+Teaching+Viewpoint Diversity

My (Banned) Course on Conservative Political Thought

Since news went round that my institution, Portland State University, had denied my course on conservatism a place in the course catalog, I have been asked by many colleagues for a copy of the syllabus.

Some are curious about how it could have fallen afoul of the requirement that all new courses advance diversity. In brief: PSU, like many other higher ed institutions, defines diversity primarily with regards to race, gender and sexuality. Ideological diversity is, apparently, not considered important or valuable in this regard.

My syllabus includes a section comparing and contrasting contemporary strains of conservativism in the U.S., U.K. and E.U.; it has a section on black Americans, conservativism and public policy. However, these were not added to check ‘diversity’ boxes (i.e. international perspectives, minority issues), but because they advanced the course’s primary pedagogical aim: considering the main theories of conservatism and how they have been applied to political practice.

As I explained in the course application:

“Conservative political thought generally contends that fixed group-based identities are both logically and empirically problematic for political communities. By challenging the ‘diversity perspective’ of group-based identity and victimization/entitlement approaches to political community, it creates a more universal and inclusive citizenry. It pays particular attention to the diversity of ideas in a pluralistic society and the variety of voices and learning perspectives that come with this. This is a major emphasis of the classroom pedagogy in this course. The class will enable students to be culturally competent in understanding why the “diversity” and “cultural responsiveness” agendas often face determined opposition from groups for whom this is an alleged benefit, including critiques from black conservatives in the U.S.”

In short, asking how a course on conservative political thought advances the contemporary diversity ‘agenda’ is like asking how a class on feminism advances patriarchy, or how a class on Marxism advances capitalism. The honest response is: It does not, and students interested in those perspectives can, and should, find them elsewhere on campus.

Many others reached out because they want to know more about conservativism and are eager for a place to start. Others are interested in possibly offering a course on conservative thought themselves and are looking for models to build from. For these, I offer my modest attempt to cover the field in 10 weeks.

As a good conservative, I honor the canon and the past. This means I devote 3 of the precious 10 weeks to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), the undisputed creation moment of modern conservatism. Prior to Burke, I offer two weeks of overviews, which allow the students to digest the main themes of conservatism before settling down at the feet of the master. The second half of the course takes up major conservative statements in Britain, Europe, and the U.S. Finally, we consider conservative thinking on public policy, including a section on black American conservatism. I added Heather MacDonald’s new book The Diversity Delusion to the syllabus just as the course was banned.

Some of my students are disappointed that I do not teach classical liberal (Locke) or libertarian (Ayn Rand) greats, although Robert Nozick comes close. Others wish I would reach back to Plato and the classics, while still others would prefer some exposure to the purely philosophical conservatives like Christopher Lasch or Alasdair MacIntyre.

To them all, I proclaim: me too, but it is now moot. I will be able to teach the course without a permanent course number only one more time until it is permanently banished. Its syllabus, at least, will live on:

Conservative Political Thought

Professor Bruce Gilley

Conservatism is an approach to political life that emphasizes prudence, responsibility, tradition, and incremental change. For that reason, it is sometimes described as a practice of politics without a theory. Yet there is a large body of normative and analytical political theory in the conservative tradition. This course will introduce students to both classical and contemporary works of conservative political thought. The purpose is to consider the main theories of conservatism and how they have been applied to political practice. An emphasis will be placed on understanding the internal logic and the different strands of conservative political thought and the ways that it has responded to contemporary challenges.


There is one required book: Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). We will read from the Oxford World Classics edition but any edition will suffice.

Course Requirements:

All students will present readings from the class 2 times during two different weeks of the quarter. Each presentation is worth 5% (total 10%).

Undergraduates will write 5 reading reviews and responses of 5-8 pages each (14% each or total 70%).

Graduate students will write 5 review essays of 8-10 pages each (14% each or total 70%).

Students will be graded 10% for attendance (one percentage point deduction for each class missed) and 10% for participation. For participation, students are expected to have read one of the readings in preparation for class in each of the 8 weeks in which they are not presenting a reading to the class.


Week 1: Early Overviews

  • Bernard Kronick, “Conservatism: A Definition”, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly (1947)
  • Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics (1956)
  • Kenneth Minogue, “Conservatism,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967)

Week 2: Recent Overviews

  • Anthony O’ Hear, “Conservatism” in Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2005)
  • Lincoln Allison, “Conservatism” in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics (2009)
  • Mark Garnett, “Conservatism” in Sage Encyclopedia of Political Theory (2010)
  • Arthur Aughey, “Conservatism” in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas (2005)
  • John Kekes, “Conservatism” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007)
  • Jan-Werner Müller, “Comprehending Conservatism”, Journal of Political Ideologies (2006)


Week 3

  • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (Oxford World Classics edition), pp.3-80 (up to “Why do I feel so differently from the Reverend Dr. Price…”)

Week 4

  • Burke, Reflections, pp. 80-164 (up to “This letter is grown to a great length…”)

Week 5

  • Burke, Reflections, pp. 164-292.
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb talk on Burke’s universalism (2008)


Week 6: European Conservatism

  • Leo Strauss, “Natural Right and the Historical Approach”, Review of Politics (1950)
  • Friedrich Hayek, “Why I am Not a Conservative” in The Constitution of Liberty (1960) and “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice,” in The Mirage of Social Justice (1976)
  • Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (1961)
  • Raymond Aron, “The Myth of the Revolution” in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955)

Week 7: British Conservatism

  • Roger Scruton, “The Conservative Attitude” in The Meaning of Conservatism (1980)
  • John Kekes, “What is Conservatism?”, Philosophy (1997)
  • Margaret Thatcher, “The Value of American Studies”, Society (1997)

Week 8: American Conservatism

  • Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, pp. 457-490 (1953)
  • Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 149-182 (1974)
  • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, pp. 25-43 (1987)
  • Christopher DeMuth, “Trumpism, Nationalism, and Conservatism,” Claremont Review of Books (2019)
  • Video: “Donald Trump and the Conservative Intellectuals”, Uncommon Knowledge (Hoover Institution), 2017


Week 9: Public Policy and Black Americans

  • Shelby Steele, “How Liberals Debase Black Achievement,” Policy Review (1998) and “Black Protest Has Lost Its Power”, Wall Street Journal (2018)
  • John McWhorter, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, pp. 212-262 (2000)
  • Thomas Sowell, “A World View of Cultural Diversity” (1991); and William Voegeli, “Thomas Sowell’s Inconvenient Truths”, Claremont Review (2018)
  • Glenn Loury, “Individualism before Multiculturalism”, Public Interest (1995)
  • Jason Riley, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, pp. 1-5, 35-58, 169-74 (2014)
  • William Allen, “Education as Metier: Finding the Fabulous in the Universal”, Academic Questions (1999)

Week 10: Conservatism and Public Policy

  • Geoffrey Brennan and Alan Hamlin, “Analytic Conservatism”, British Journal of Political Science (2004)
  • Nathanial Glazer, “The Limits of Social Policy”, Commentary (1971)
  • Matt Delisi, “Conservatism And Common Sense: The Criminological Career Of James Q. Wilson”, Justice Quarterly (2003)
  • Richard Kelly and Robert Crowcroft, “From Burke to Burkha: Conservatism, Multiculturalism and the Big Society”, Political Quarterly (2011)
  • Steven Hayward, “Conservatism and Climate Science”, Issues in Science & Technology (2014)
  • Patrick Garry, “Conservatism and the Real Problems Of Income Inequality”, Modern Age (2016)
  • Heather MacDonald, The Diversity Delusion: How Race & Gender Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture (2018), excerpts

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