Kenyon College Offers Straussian Oasis

Kenyon College’s PSCI 220 looks like any other college political science class complete with a blackboard, uncomfortable chairs and a professor in a tweed jacket. But this class sounds different. Instead of denouncing John Locke as a “dead white male,” students are respectfully taught the key works of Western Civilization—without the liberal bias. How did conservatives come to dominate the Political Science department at Kenyon?

An obscure scholar named Robert Horwitz reformed the department in the mid-1960s, with an emphasis on teaching political theory like his teacher, Leo Strauss. Strauss never made it to Gambier, Ohio, but his ideas did, thanks to Prof. Horwitz. He emphasized reading texts slowly in order for the reader to understand the work as the author did and recognizing philosophers had a political purpose for writing. Students of Strauss, who were shunned by the rest of left-leaning academia, found an intellectual oasis at Kenyon. In so doing, they created an alternative universe where conservative scholars get tenure, multiculturalism is not taught and “dead white guys” are cool.

Kenyon’s political science faculty is presently stacked with academic all-stars. Prof. (and Gambier mayor) Kirk Emmert and department Chairwoman Pamela Jenson each studied under Strauss. Professors Fred Baumann and Timothy Spiekerman studied under Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, another Straussian. The most recent addition is David Leibowitz, who completed his Ph.D. under Professor Harvey Mansfield at Harvard.

One reason for conservative success is lack of influence by the college administration. One former department member, Kenneth Jensen, who is executive director of the American Committees on Foreign Relations, says the faculty drives the department. “I think the answer is the quality of the faculty over the years. Quality faculty tends to recruit quality faculty to replace themselves with. This can go on indefinitely if the college administration doesn’t intervene to disrupt the process and backs faculty decisions.”

Kenyon departments have not had much turnover, a rarity in academia for such ideological longevity and cohesion. Jensen said, “Kenyon support for the department has been pretty constant—although there have been some rough patches from time to time. It’s also in the nature of colleges and universities that there are occasional general upheavals. On such occasions, faculty members get fed up and leave. I don’t know that Kenyon has ever suffered such an upheaval.”

No Historicism Bias

The introductory political science class called “Quest for Justice” is a yearlong course in which freshmen read the great works of Western Civilization slowly and carefully. Students are introduced to the ancients, the moderns and everything in between. Each text is read with the purpose of teaching students to think critically about the political nature of the world without the typical bias of historicism—a Marxist view of history.

Political Science majors are required to take two political theory courses—Classical and Modern Quest for Justice. In Classical Quest, students read Plato’s Apology and the Republic, and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics. In Modern Quest, students are required to read Machivelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’ The Leviathan and Second Treatise of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life.

Christopher Nadon, political science professor at Trinity College who interviewed at Kenyon for a tenure-track position says there still is a stigma. “Straussians still face a lot of prejudice within the Academy,” he said. But he sees progress: “Twenty years ago the received wisdom in the profession was that Strauss would soon be forgotten and his books unread. Now Strauss is given grudging respect and the venom saved for his students and students’ students—Strauss is smart and interesting, but Straussians are narrow-minded fanatics. So 20 years from now, perhaps this too will pass.”