On Teaching Conservatism
By Jonathan B. Imber
One consistent challenge in teaching is remembering how little students really know and how much they think they know. This is not a putdown of students. On the contrary, it is a celebration of optimism in the best sense of the word, the same optimism that was supposed to have inspired Winston Churchill to observe: “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has not heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” Apparently Churchill may have never said this, the original formulation about youth and optimism, and age and realism, being attributed to one of Alexis de Tocqueville’s mentors, the historian and political intellectual, Francois Guizot (1787-1874) who concluded that “Not to be a republican at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.” French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), is said to have restated Guizot’s aphorism: “Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”
I cannot verify any of these aphorisms attributed to these important figures, but in one way it does not matter because all three speak to a common wisdom about youth and maturity with which most are familiar both in theory and in practice. One of the first lessons of conservatism is to observe how so much of what is familiar to us is not learned in school but rather in growing up in the worlds we live in day to day. Teaching students about the great intellectual tradition of conservatism in a liberal arts college in the northeast has been a personal and pedagogic mission for me for the past decade. If you ask me whether I am “a conservative” or whether I am “conservative” I will insist on at least an hour to explain myself. I ask students whether or not it matters that I profess a conviction about being conservative or being a conservative in order to understand conservatism. By professing to be conservative, does it mean that you automatically assume to know my opinions on everything from abortion to welfare policy, if I even have such opinions? Does it mean my teaching of the subject must inevitably be “biased,” a term that has been wielded by both left and right against each other?