A Short Guide to Stanford’s Classes on Conservatism

A quick look through Stanford’s Explore Courses website can leave students daunted by the sheer mass of classes the university has to offer.  Students can find courses on thousands of subjects, ranging from nihilism to John Wayne to neuroelectrical engineering.

However, in an institution that prides itself as a self-proclaimed “liberal arts university,” there are many conservative-leaning students on campus who find that there aren’t many classes that actually teach and explore the conservative side of politics and philosophy.

While the options are limited, some courses do exist. One of those classes, a Comparative Literature class entitled “Conservative Revolution” (COMPLIT 234/GERGEN 201) explores the rise of conservatism in Germany in the early 20th century, taking a close look at nationalism, anti-liberalism, and cultural pessimism in Germany.

According to Professor Russell Berman, “The thinkers examined in this course inquire into [the potential instability of a democratic society].  They proposed variously conservative solutions, but they lost out to the radicalism of the Nazis.”

Berman suggests that this is not a conservative class, but rather a class on conservatism in literature and politics.

“Some readings veer more toward one side than the other, but the discussion will flow across this sometimes artificial dividing line,” he said. “Weimar’s conservative revolution is also of interest because it sheds light on what, in the U.S., often becomes a blurred distinction between  a free-market conservatism (aka neo-liberal economics) and a values conservatism (traditions, religion, culture).”

Berman thinks that students who enroll in the class will take away a “more complex understanding of twentieth-century European history [and] an insight into German and European variants of conservatism.”

Conservative Revolution is not offered this year but will be in years to come.

Joshua Cohen, a professor in the Political Science department, offers a class each autumn entitled “Justice” (POLISCI 3P).  The class offers an inquiry into the political and philosophical makings of societies that can be considered “just,” and addresses this inquiry from many ideological perspectives, including conservative and classical liberal perspectives.

“It gives a good treatment of different political philosophies,” said Cohen.  The class is divided into lecture and section, where students can discuss the diverse political backgrounds from which philosophies of justice emerge.

A third class, “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” (ETHICSOC 157), taught by Professor John McCaskey, explores capitalism rather than conservatism.  According to McCaskey, the class explores how capitalism is supported and viewed differently by the not-so-always-congruent subcategories of conservative thought.

Students examine justifications of capitalism ranging from the Protestant Ethic to free-market economic theory to Ayn Rand’s theory of the morality of selfishness. McCaskey suggests that the class is by no means “conservative,” but rather offers a multitude of different perspectives on a massive foundation of conservative thought.  Moral Foundations of Capitalism will be offered in the spring of 2011.

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