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Student Response to Conservatism and Progressivism in America Lecture Series

Phronesis Fellows attended discussions and lectures with the Conservatism and Progressivism in America speakers. Two of the Fellows have written responses to the visits, shared below.

Spragens  —  Deneen  —  Return to Lecture series

Response To Thomas Spragens

by Catrina Kim, Phronesis Fellow and junior piano performance major

On October 7, Thomas A. Spragens’ visit to the University of Houston kicked off the “Conservatism and Progressivism in America” lecture series, sponsored by the Honors College and the Phronesis program in politics and ethics. Spragens is professor of political science at Duke University and author of Getting the Left Right: the Transformation, Decline, and Reformation of American Liberalism. Entitled “American Liberalism: Recent Problems and Future Challenges,” Spragens’ lecture provided insights on the origins and evolution of progressivism in America, contrasting an older, ideal liberalism with today’s rights-based liberalism.

Emily Zinsitz, a political science major and Phronesis Fellow, found Spragens’ lecture engaging. Having read excerpts from Getting the Left Right through the Fellows program, Zinsitz says, “I have always had a nagging distrust in the ‘liberal’ insistence on correcting social ills though broad, equalizing programs, versus focusing on the citizens themselves. It was fascinating to encounter the idea that this is perhaps not true liberalism, but a distortion of it based on changing social and historical conceptions of the public.” Even so, she remains “somewhat skeptical that this ideology can be implemented in our modern democratic system. I suppose I’d like a bit more clarity on this point.”

While political theory students are often asked to connect the theoretical with the practical, Bruce Hunt, a graduate student in political theory, explained that many political science departments “compartmentalize politics, political science, and political theory.” In laying out two different forms of liberalism and seriously engaging with these models, “Spragens’ lecture presented to us a model for how these things can be put together thoughtfully and responsibly.” Through this “professional approach to political ideology,” Hunt found Spragens’ prescriptive recommendations helpful as a model connecting the ideal with the practical.

Jeffrey Church, assistant professor of political science, explains that the purpose of the lecture series is to “elevate political discourse by turning to history and the basic principles of conservatism and liberalism. The lecture series serves as a counterweight to the shouting matches all too often seen on television and in contemporary politics,” says Church. “All too often, students either grow cynical and apathetic about politics, or else latch onto a certain political viewpoint that they understand. Both the extreme political apathy and dogmatism are symptoms of the same problem: our society doesn’t give the youth a political education. Given this, this lecture series demonstrates that there is a way for us to thoughtfully engage in politics.” The lecture enjoyed a strong turnout, a “testament to people’s desire to have an outlet for these kinds of serious political issues.”

Response to Patrick Deneen

by Sydney Nguyen, Phronesis Fellow and senior political science major

Patrick Deneen at the Honors CollegeDuring Patrick Deneen’s short visit on October 25th, he made a bold statement about his view on progress and diversity in America. He resolutely stated that because the idea of progress has become an ideology and a democratic faith, diversity is dwindling in America.

He explained his idea of progress by referring to John Dewey, who believed in discovering knowledge and human progress as an active member in the Progressive Movement during the nineteenth century. With Dewey’s commitment to discovery and progress laid out, Deneen brought in Alexis de Tocqueville as Dewey’s interlocutor. Contrasting Dewey, Tocqueville urged for a remembrance of the past through the embrace of aristocratic values rather than the present ideology of progress. Tocqueville’s reason was that the idea of progress caused people to strive to perfect their current life without regards neither for the past nor the future.

Furthering his sharp criticism of the modern world and its progressive ideology, Deneen also noted a transformation of campus architectural styles from those that acknowledge the weight of tradition (Romanesque, Gothic, Tudor, etc) to the rise of imitation architecture in the adulterated form of Collegiate Gothic, to the rise of the modernist and post-modernist aesthetic in the form of prefabricated, Brutalist structures. He juxtaposed the original ornate library at Georgetown in Healy Hall (a prime example of Gothic architecture) to that of UH’s clean and modern library as an example. Deneen even described the affect the building has on a person; how one is brought back into an ancient conversation and feels the weight of the past when he walks into the library at Georgetown. In contrast, when a person walks into M.D. Anderson Library, he does not feel this same affect—it is not constricting, it is architecturally open, free, and progressive. It feels like a social space, not a studious place. Concerning the two drastically different libraries, Krystafer Redden, a Phronesis junior fellow who has studied at Georgetown, explained, “Unencumbered by Georgetown’s faith and intellectual tradition, UH’s progressive campus is a reflection and embodiment of the students who choose to attend this school, and by extension the spirit of the city itself. In my mind, this spirit tends to be more about effect [what we do here] than affect [what it looks like].”

Deneen’s concern about the affects showed that he agreed with Tocqueville, since he also clearly expressed the importance of providing reverence for the past. The problem today is that progress has become a democratic faith, and almost everyone accepts it as good without understanding why it is so. This lack of understanding of history presents the danger of losing past aristocratic principles or values that are beneficial. As a result, America is risking losing its wisdom of the past.

The more pervasive the idea of progress becomes, the weaker the presence of the past and diversity becomes; and by diversity, Deneen means intellectual diversity, not ethnic diversity. Diversity has come to be equated with ethnic diversity and has itself become a kind of propaganda. When diversity is thoughtlessly accepted as good, there is a kind of piety involved that remains unexplained. For this reason, there needs to be an intellectual diversity in order for people, and most importantly students, to be able to think for themselves. Our own Dr. Sue Collins, Honors College professor of political science and director of the Phronesis program, acknowledges the weight of Deneen’s view. She observes, “The purpose of higher education is to supply students the tools to think on their own.” However, Dr. Collins also asserts, “Different ethnic groups and different genders do have different experiences—and higher education needs to be able to engage them.” Thus, while agreeing with Deneen on intellectual diversity, Dr. Collins also believes that higher education should teach in a way that will bring everyone into the great conversation.