Jonathon Imber, a professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, gave a keynote address last Tuesday “On Teaching Conservatism,” about a class he has offered for a decade.
Imber, who since 1998 has been the editor-in-chief of “Society,” a scientific journal publishing research on social science and public policy, said it can take an hour to explain the difference between him being conservative and not a conservative.
“Identity politics” are an oversimplification, Imber told the crowd, and it is biased to assume to know a person’s political views because of one label.
Just because someone might identify as a conservative, it is impossible to know their stance on abortion or welfare, or even if they have a finite opinion, Imber said.
Years of studying sociology has shown Imber that the ambition to get ahead requires conformity, he said.
But, Imber has a history of going against the grain, including his push to teach a course on conservatism in an effort to have conservatives taken more seriously, especially in the liberal hotbed of New England.
While Imber said his views were never shouted down, he was shunned for being a lone voice, or self-described activist, for expressing conservative ideals.
When asked by an anonymous student at the forum what a “closeted conservative should do on a liberal campus,” Imber said, “Come out.”
Political extremes coming together
Dean Robin Dorff of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences said he challenges KSU students to think critically and work together to solve world problems.
KSU is the third-largest university in Georgia, offering 90 graduate and undergraduate degrees, including doctorates in education, business and nursing, and a doctorate in international conflict management.
Dorff was asked at the forum if Imber is teaching academic acceptance of conservatism in a liberal-leaning state, will KSU offer a class on accepting liberalism, and perhaps even socialism, for students studying in the conservative-minded South?
Dorff asked for Imber’s advice, who responded that he teaches about Karl Marx, especially in his classical sociological theory course.
“It is irresponsible for people not to understand what was at stake in Marx’s mind,” Imber said about the German philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist from the 1800s.
Imber said democracy is not a perfect system of government, but after being tested numerous times, it still stands. It is authoritarianism that rejects the principles of academic freedom, Imber added.
Disagreements are unavoidable in a society that has banded together for a collective will, Imber said. He added everything is a calibration of how far in one direction the country will go before turning back.
“Divided government has been a story in American government for a very long time,” Imber said.
The youth changing society
Imber, who has taught a “Social Problems of Youth” class, told the mostly young crowd Tuesday night that higher education is more liberal, especially in the sociology field.
He added that conservatism might be changing in younger generations to focus on fiscal responsibility and limited government, instead of moral stances on family values, like the defense of marriage.
Imber said he has been mistaken as a missionary for challenging contemporary sensitivities, and there should not be ideological rigidness.
“You can’t have a marketplace of ideas if you blow it up,” Imber said. Debate is about calm deliberation, but “not without enthusiasm, not without passion,” he added.
Khalfani Lawson, who graduated from KSU in May with degrees in political science and African studies, said there is an “academic lens on conservatism” in the South, and conservative students have a common thread not shared by liberal students like himself.
Lawson said, in his major, “I have been in classes where I have been on the lesser side.”
In those classes, Lawson said he tried to assert his position from a place of personal experience and “engage in a healthy discourse.”
Imber said personal convictions and principles, or even facts, point people in different directions based on past experiences. What is important is what someone continues to learn, Imber said.
“Experience is the foundation, not the end point,” Imber said.