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Wilfred M. McClay: Teacher, Scholar, Mentor

Wilfred M. McClay

Teacher, Scholar, Mentor


Wilfred M. McClay is a distinguished ISI ­professor. He holds the University of Oklahoma’s ­Blankenship Chair in the ­History of Liberty and is the award-winning author of several books, including A Student’s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books) and The Master­less: Self and Society in Modern America. A popular speaker at ISI conferences, Dr. McClay serves as the ­faculty adviser for OU’s ISI Society. He agreed to answer students’ questions about a range of issues.



At a conservative college like mine, a conservative’s biggest enemy is apathy. What is the best way to motivate college conservatives?

—Aaron Mitchell, Texas A&M University


There is a lot of truth in what you say. A uniformly conservative college environment can be too comfortable. Some of the leading conservative intellectuals are people whose thinking was refined and deepened through their struggles against liberal orthodoxy.

But if by apathy you mean political apathy—not being engaged in political organizing, working for political candidates, etc.—I’m not so concerned about that. Political activism is often not the best use of your time in college. If, however, by apathy you mean mindless indifference to ideas and policies, then that is a different matter. Education is about awakening to the world. People need to be awakened to the ways that their prospects in life are being undermined by the influence of bad or pernicious ideas and by public policies that pile up public debt, prevent healthy economic growth, inhibit the formation of young families, suppress intellectual and religious freedoms, and promote an ever more intrusive state. And then they need to learn how to formulate the most effective arguments to defeat such ideas and policies.


Who do you believe are the preeminent conservative public intellectuals today?

—Michael Beato, University of Florida


There are a great many people I could name, and I fear that in keeping the list short, I will leave out some I ought to include. But some of the present-day conservatives I invariably find rewarding to read are Roger Scruton, Yuval Levin, Leon Kass, Robert George, and Thomas Sowell. One of the finest conservative magazines on the scene is Roger Kimball’s New Criterion, which, along with Modern Age, is required reading for those who want to engage conservative thought at a high level. American conservatives should read the British politician and journalist Daniel Hannan (see page 12), who is perhaps the world’s most effective spokesman for the distinctive qualities and virtues of Anglosphere liberty.


For a college student, where does the balance lie between promoting freedom of thought in the classroom and protecting his or her grade against retaliation by the professor?

—Ryan Bullard, University of Texas at Austin


I generally advise students against making quixotic crusades against idiotic or dictatorial or deranged professors. Surprisingly few professors actually believe in freedom of thought in their classrooms, I’m sorry to say. But I would never, ever advise a student to tell a professor “what he wants to hear” just to get a good grade. (On most campuses, you have plenty of time to drop a course when you find that your instructor is to the left of Lenin.)

You want to find a middle ground, in which you sustain your own integrity without taking up pointless battles that you almost certainly cannot “win.” And when you resist, try to do so with civility and respect, and to build your own skills of persuasion in the process, so that you will be an effective debater later, when the outcome really matters. Even idiotic professors can be charmed, and even idiotic professors are likely to have something to teach you. So make the most of it. Don’t make yourself into a martyr; save your sacrificial valor for a cause more worthwhile.


How do you respond to students who say they find history tedious or irrelevant?

—Jill Jones, University of Michigan


Well, they have to know something about history before it can become interesting to them, just as they have to know something about baseball or any other sport before watching it can become interesting. But I also think that such students suffer, through no fault of their own, from being taught history in a way that is boring, tendentious, and unedifying. Most academic history is written for other academic historians, and it shows—in soggy, jargon-laden prose, about subjects that are mind-numbingly obscure, in accounts lacking in anything like narrative verve. To get a better example of history at its best, students should sample great writers like Winston Churchill or, more recently, David McCullough, Bernard Lewis, Paul Johnson, and Samuel Huntington, who combine literary merit with a profound sense of history’s sweep and grandeur.


What do you think young conservatives can do to show their peers that conservatism is a viable way of life?

—Felix Miller, College of St. Mary Magdalen


The best proof of conservatism’s truth is in the balance, order, decency, productivity, and love that one finds in a well-lived life. So embody that fact in your own life. You may not always know it, but your peers are watching you; they are constantly looking around at ­others for cues as to how to behave, what to esteem, and where to place their deepest hopes. The Sermon on the Mount exhorts us to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works.” The most thoughtful young people today are looking not just for appealing ideas but also for a way to live, and for precepts to live by and for, in a fractured society where so much has become unstable or uncertain. You may be able to point them in the right direction by the attractiveness of your own example.


Is philosophy essential to solving today’s problems or just preliminary groundwork to the “actual” work of economic and political movements?

—Peter Atkinson, Ava Maria University


Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” But Marx had it backwards. In modern times, we have accumulated immense power to effect change and yet near-total uncertainty about the proper ends toward which change should be directed. So the “groundwork” of philosophy—of restoring the meaning of right reason, understanding the true sources of human dignity, and recovering a robust understanding of life’s proper ends—is extremely important. Nothing worthwhile will be accomplished in the years ahead until we have done that groundwork. We have to recover the real foundations upon which everything we value is supported.


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