VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Q&A with Dr. Wilfred McClay

Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is a monthly e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.  Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will  prove illuminating to readers everywhere. In the spotlight this month is Dr. Wilfred McClay.  Dr. McClay is a professor of history, distinguished intellectual historian, and the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee (Chattanooga).  On Wednesday, October 4, the Department of History and The Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College will present Dr. McClay, whose
lecture will be held at Sticht auditorium at 7:00 pm. He will be speaking on “Red Republicans and Evangelical Conservatives: The Changing Map of American Politics.” Dr. McClay recently sat for an interview with fellow historian, Professor Gillis Harp of Grove City College.

Q: How did you get interested in studying American intellectual history? I had very little interest in American history as a high-school student. It was when I was teaching a sophomore American literature course at St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis, Maryland that my interest was kindled. To put it very simply, teaching that course made me see the extent to which our American society cannot be understood without reference to the animating power of ideas.

Dr. Wilfred McClay:

Q: How did the great books program at St. John’s College (Annapolis) shape your education? In many, many positive ways. Above all, it gave me a great respect for the insights of the thinkers of the past, and for the power of ideas, specifically as embodied in the great texts of the Western tradition. This is something that I don’t think most historians are taught. In fact, they are conditioned to think in precisely opposite ways. They are trained to think first and always of contexts, and to explain texts by reference to them. This often amounts in practice to little more than a very crude and unsophisticated form of reductionism, in which subtle and powerful ideas are whittled down into simplistic and obvious ones, which can in turn be seen as expressions of particular material or social forces. My St. John’s-bred intellectual conscience can never allow me to do that.


There was a signal moment in my graduate-school education at Johns Hopkins when I realized that my outlook was destined to be different: A very distinguished professor of Spanish history was presenting a paper on El Greco’s Toledo; it was a fairly typical example of the genre, but the discussion afterward was unusually lively and memorable. At one point, the professor said, as if it were the most axiomatic point imaginable, that the only reason to be interested in El Greco was for what he could tell us about the Toledo of his day. To which my response was: Well, why could one not say the exact opposite? Why should one have an interest in sixteenth and seventeenth century Toledo, except for the sake of better understanding El Greco? After all, how many people would there have been at this exceptionally well-attended presentation if the name of El Greco weren’t present in the title?

There is a whole other stream of questions that flow from these, questions about painting and other visual art, about the expressive and signifying capacity of “elite culture,” about why we study the past, about the value in looking for the “pastness” of the past, about how and why the artifacts of the past are able to speak to us today, and so on, and all those questions have been very present and lively for me ever since …

I think I owe this sense of intellectual conscience to St. John’s. There is much else I owe to St. John’s, which is the only truly radical college in America.

Q: In your first book, The Masterless, you wrote of the tension between “a reflexive, unvanquished individualism” and “a perpetual yearning for unrealizable forms of community.”  How do we see those themes at work within American conservatism since the 1980s? That would take a book in itself to answer, but the short version is that the intellectual provenance of modern American conservatism is part Barry Goldwater and part Russell Kirk, part libertarian and part traditionalist, and the two elements jostle against one another. There are bridges between them—both have a strong anti-totalitarian, anti-statist thrust, for example—but certain issues tend to drive them apart. Libertarians tend to be anti-authoritarian and individualist in all things, while traditionalist conservatives are deeply concerned about the loss of authority and community in modern American culture ….


I think American conservatives are a bit less prone to the wild vacillation described in the quote, less prone than liberals, that is. Yes, extreme libertarians tend to write as if we all emerge from the womb fully armed and ready for battle as competent individuals—a ridiculous and self-serving myth if there ever was one. And there are some social conservatives who dream of a static, ordered, devout, unplugged, homogeneous and autarkic agrarian world that they probably would not want to inhabit for more than a few days. But I think they are exceptions. Most conservatives, Christian or secular, are prepared to live in an imperfect world, and confine their incursions to the issues and instances when it really matters.

Q: How do scholars who are conservatives and Christians get along in the academy these days? Christians should know better than to expect the world to treat them justly. They should regard such setbacks not with bitterness, but as occasions to rely more fully upon the other kinds of bread that have been given them.


But there are many people … who do have legitimate complaints, particularly younger scholars of my acquaintance who are shocked at the arrogant closedness of the academy when they encounter it, and are terrified of the job market, the tenuring process, and all the rest. The two categories, conservatism and Christianity, have to be dealt with separately, but each is toxic in its own way, and the combination of the two can be lethal to one’s career prospects.

The moral dilemmas faced by these young people are considerable. I have numerous younger friends who are in graduate school at leading graduate institutions, and who feel the intense pressures of professional deformation from very early on. They come to me for advice about how to balance their concerns. There is a lot of talk in such discussions about “what hill you want to die on,” but I encourage them to think more positively about the challenges they are facing, to think of them as opportunities. But they need good solid advice about how to negotiate these waters, about where to think like serpents and where to think like doves. I don’t think that their churches, or the people they’ve looked to as spiritual leaders, are much help, alas.

Just as an empirical matter, I think politics generally trumps religion in the academy, by which I mean that Christians who make it very clear that they are not politically conservative but who are outspoken about their faith may fare a little better than, say, outspoken conservatives who are committed secularists. But only a little. In fact, you could populate a small college faculty with all the brilliant younger scholars who are on the left politically, but who have gone unemployed or underemployed for years because they are “too religious.” Such people may make it clear that they aren’t conservatives, but in the end it makes little difference. In general, all it takes is for them to hint that they might be opposed to unrestricted abortion rights, and they are in trouble. Though they may never hear about it in any direct way.

This general state of affairs could change, though I am not particularly optimistic about it happening soon. Contrary to all the media clichés about religious anti-intellectualism, there seems to be a growing and disproportionate number of the most dedicated and promising graduate students in the humanities who come from an evangelical Protestant (or orthodox Roman Catholic, or Mormon) background. It is interesting to speculate as to why this is so. But such students often encounter a problem in finding capable and fair-minded graduate advisors who are willing to work with them (which means not merely supervising them but also actively promoting their careers). When the composition of graduate faculties starts to change, then you may see real changes in the academy, but probably not before then.

Q: How can conservatives contribute to a more serious, thoughtful and civil discourse in American society today?By exemplifying virtues of civility, groundedness, high principle, reasonableness, and respect for the opposition, both in their arguments and in the way that they live their lives. Not virtues that many of our most visible media conservatives exemplify, alas.


About Wilfred McClay

Dr. Wilfred McClay is a professor of history, distinguished intellectual historian, and the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee (Chattanooga).

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