Once upon a time, conservatism was about deference to history. Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism, said that history teaches the lessons of wisdom acquired through experience.
According to Russell Kirk, the pre-eminent historian of conservatism, “the essence of conservatism is the preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity. Conservatives respect the wisdom of their ancestors.”
Conservatism was about preserving the traditional institutions and social norms that embodied that wisdom. One can preserve traditions and respect ancestors only if one learns about them through the study of history.
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton recently said that students shouldn’t study history, but should, instead, study those subjects that will most likely land them a job after graduation. The statement was widely ridiculed and misinterpreted. It was presented as if she said that history wasn’t important. That’s not exactly what she said, or likely meant. But she didn’t defend the value of history either.
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If you need any evidence that modern Republican politicians who call themselves conservative are no such thing, look no further than Hampton. For her, history is merely one of the humanities, one of those squishy subjects that create liberal thinkers. As Stephen Colbert once said, “facts have a well-known liberal bias.” History does as well.
And so, along with denigrating all forms of knowledge, and academia in general, conservatives have turned on history. Burke is rolling in his grave.
Here’s the real problem with Hampton’s statement. She said students would be better served by studying subjects that are most likely to lead to post-graduation employment. She suggested studying technical fields like science and engineering instead of history. It’s possible that this will help them get jobs after graduation. But is society better served when academia focuses on teaching technical skills?
We can actually test this theory. Ironically, we need to understand history to do it.
The British and American model of education has always focused on producing students with broad learning. Some students study history, others study business and others science and engineering. There are other countries, most notably Russia and Germany, that favor the teaching of technical subjects.
How has this worked out? Russia and Germany have produced impressive advances in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, metallurgy and related technical fields.
How have England and America fared, with their mix of scientists and engineers, economists and archeologists, and history and French majors? Not bad, actually. In fact, England and America invented the modern world. The polymath English scientists of the 17th through 19th centuries created the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution that followed.
And the American scientists and engineers of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries developed the modern world. We created mass production, the telephone, the airplane, television (not radio; that was the Italian Marconi), nuclear power and weapons, space travel, the computer and the Internet.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a narrowly focused education. It can serve a person well. (My undergraduate degree is in engineering.) But societies need a mix. History shows that those societies with a vibrant culture are also, far and away, the most scientifically inventive.
The Italy of de Vinci and Michelangelo also produced Galileo. The Holland of the artists Hieronymus Bosch and Johannes Vermeer gave us the philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the scientists Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Christian Huygens. The England of Shakespeare and Gainsborough produced Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. The list goes on and on.
That is a lesson of history. That is wisdom acquired through experience. And that is something that a true conservative would understand.
Mike Coblenz, an intellectual property attorney in Lexington, holds a master’s degree in U.S. history.
At issue: April 9 Associated Press article, “Kentucky Lt. Gov. says colleges should focus on jobs-producing programs”