conservative engaged scholarship

For the sake of argument, let’s define “engaged scholarship” as …

The organized production of knowledge by groups that include some professional academic researchers and some people who are not academics and belong to the communities, populations, or organizations being studied.

I don’t have a representative sample of projects of engaged scholarship, but I would venture these generalizations:

  1. Often the topics are issues that are priorities on the left or center-left, such as health disparities, access to government services, or environmental damage.
  2. Often the communities that participate in the research lean left: low-income urban neighborhoods, migrant farmworkers, etc. (In 2004, I met with Penn State faculty interested in community-based research and observed that most did not work in their surrounding communities–conservative central Pennsylvania–but drove to Philadelphia to do their engaged research.)
  3. Yet some of the underlying values of this approach can be seen as conservative: a preference for the local and the nonprofit/voluntary sector over Big Government, deep appreciation for local traditions, and a tendency to do something directly about problems rather than trying to win elections to change laws. I’ve even argued that the most authentically Burkean conservative field in the US today is the field that connects universities with communities through service, community-based research, and other partnerships.

Especially given the third point, you’d expect to see conservative engaged scholarship. The academic researchers might vote Republican instead of Democratic or Green, they would work in and with communities that preferred Trump over Clinton, and they would study issues like taxes, regulation, zoning, and abortion (as problems).

But I am hard pressed to find any examples. There are cases in which conservative adolescents conduct research on issues of their choice and scholars support them. But in those cases, the scholars’ focus is usually on the kids and their learning, not the issue that the students have chosen to address.

Why the dearth of conservative engaged scholarship? I can imagine five answers:

  1. It’s not missing; I just haven’t found it. Here is one program at Ashland University that might qualify, and maybe there are more.
  2. Conservatives are simply scarce in the social sciences and relevant humanities (especially in fields like public health and education, in which applied work is most common), and this scarcity explains why not many conservatives do engaged scholarship.
  3. Conservatives have found other rich veins to mine: quantitative economic modeling, Austrian School economics (which is not at all quantitative but is favorable to libertarian principles), constitutional law, and some domains of intellectual history. They’re busy there.
  4. Despite not liking government as much as (some) liberals do, conservatives are more aware of its power, including at the local level. Therefore, they are skeptical that working with a local nonprofit on a research study will make nearly as much difference as, say, running for office or advocating ideas that win elections.
  5. Principled conservatives haven’t yet figured out that they should embrace engaged scholarship. They should develop experience and exemplary cases that strengthen conservative voices in engaged scholarship.

I hope that the last point is true, because it would be good for the gatherings and networks of engaged scholars if they included more conservative concerns, populations, and thinkers.

See also: America’s authentic conservative movement; the left has become Burkean; ideology in academia and elsewhere; trying to keep myself honest; scholarship on engaged scholarship; engaged political science; loyalty in intellectual work; the state humanities councils, connecting the public to scholarship;

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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