Is NAS Conservative?

Mar 27, 2008 | 

Peter Wood

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Is NAS Conservative?

Mar 27, 2008 | 

Peter Wood



People for the American Way maintains a weblist of Right Wing Organizations, which includes an entry for the National Association on Scholars.   This is noise and it is annoying—a condition for which the portmanteau word is “annoising.”  

PAW’s characterization of NAS, though sparse, is misleading—in some places false; in some, out-of-date.   Accurate accounts are available on the NAS website and elsewhere, but annoising mischaracterizations hang around on the Web, and I have more than once come across PAW prints on other mentions of the NAS.  

PAW labels its efforts, “Fighting the Right,” but is NAS really part of “the Right?”   My answer is no.   But there is enough conservative flavor to NAS to warrant a fuller explanation.  If NAS is not conservative, how did it come by its reputation as a conservative organization?
 
The simple answer is that groups like PAW tend towards an If-you-are-not-for-us-you’re-against-us logic.  The NAS from its inception has advocated for traditional academic values, including a robust conception of academic freedom rooted in the pursuit of truth.   To advocate for something implies that you think it is imperiled, so yes, from the start, NAS put itself in opposition to various intellectual and institutional developments that we thought posed a danger to genuine academic freedom.  Among those developments were the rise of campus speech codes, the increased use of racial and ethnic preferences in admitting students and recruiting faculty members and administrators, and the politicization of the liberal arts.  
 
Skepticism about these developments and worry that they erode genuine academic freedom are not “conservative” positions in any ordinary sense of the term.  They could as easily be called “liberal” positions:  they reflect a view of the academy that was congenial to John Stuart Mill, John Dewey,  Sidney Hook and numerous other icons of the liberal tradition.  But, in fact, the founding members of the NAS didn’t issue a political prolegomena to its efforts.  It opened itself to scholars who took their bearings from both conservative and liberal traditions.  
 
But in saying this, I well recognize that part of what happened in the 1980s is that the political Left launched a campaign to narrow the range of legitimate discussion.  The popular shorthand for that campaign was “political correctness,” and as the shorthand caught on, the proponents of PC developed a novel tactic:  they denied that the phenomenon even existed.  We saw a spate of polemics with titles such as The Myth of Political Correctness.  PC, it was said, was a term of abuse invented by Right Wing critics of liberal thought on campus.
 
This move was a squeeze play on critics such as those who comprised the NAS.  No matter their personal politics or beliefs, and no matter their commitment to classic liberal values of free and disinterested intellectual inquiry, they would be labeled “Right Wing” if they spoke against the radical narrowing of legitimate discussion.  This indeed was the defining move of “political correctness.” If you were not visibly in favor of the new agenda, you stood at risk of being stigmatized as an extremist so far from the intellectual mainstream that your views could be ignored.  
 
It was an ugly time.  Political correctness did ascend to power in American colleges and universities with gentle persuasion.  It ruined careers, stained reputations, and frightened many into silence.   It came with its own enforcers, since to raise even mild objections to its agenda was to risk being labeled racist, sexist, or some other term of opprobrium for which there was no appeal.  The label “conservative” headed the list.
 
So early on, for the crime of standing against the tide of political correctness, the NAS was convicted of being “conservative.”  It was a false label bestowed in an effort to marginalize critics who spoke not the language of William F. Buckley, but the language of Bacon, Locke, and Montesquieu, and who took their bearings not from Barry Goldwater but from figures such as Jefferson, de Tocqueville,  and Weber.    As political correctness moved from an expansion movement to a settled fact, the term “conservative” expanded to include anything whatever outside the charmed circle of campus identity politics.  It is an odd way to define “conservatism” let alone “right wing organizations,” and the charmed circle is a very cramped place.  
 
It is also a place that is rife with self-delusions.  It pretends to “academic freedom” while continuing to stigmatize and exclude all but a narrow slice of the actual intellectual discussion that takes place in our society.  Students can now go through a four-year liberal arts curriculum at an elite college without reading a single page of actual conservative thought.  Thomas Tritton, the former president of my alma mater, Haverford College, recently mentioned in an article about “Teaching Social Justice in Higher Ed,” that “it is difficult to find serious work from rightward perspectives.”   NAS member Mark Bauerlein responded first by noting the dismissiveness of Tritton’s word “serious”--

“Tritton doesn't say rightward approaches are wrong or faulty. Rather, they are not "serious," and unseriousness is the most damning judgment for a professor to make. It means that such work doesn't merit opposition, or even attention. Tritton doesn't need to introduce conservative or libertarian thinking about social justice at all. It's already in such poor condition that it doesn't pass the legitimacy test.”

Bauerlein nails this shut by wondering about the texts that Tritton apparently doesn’t think meet the threshold of seriousness in his subject:  “Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia; several works by Thomas Sowell; and essays by Irving Kristol and Michael Novak.”  
 
Hayek, Nozick, Sowell, Kristol, and Novak would be rightly classified as various kinds of conservatives—and therefore among the least likely writers to find a hearing in today’s liberal arts curriculum.  
 
But acknowledged conservatives aren’t the only thinkers who are excluded.  A kind of amnesic neglect has taken hold in the humanities and social sciences.  Some major figures are transformed into bogeymen, who names are known but whose work is taught only in caricature.  In my own field, anthropology, the whole nineteenth century in which the discipline formulated its basic questions and came to life can be banished with the epithet, “social evolutionists.”  And much of the twentieth-century can likewise be banished with the epithet, “functionalists.”  What’s left is a jubilant tale about the triumph of cultural relativism, feminism, post-modernism, and post-colonialism.  
 
The disappearance of the intellectual past into a zone that is partly forbidden, partly mocked has occurred not just in anthropology but across many disciplines.  The humanities and the social sciences, in other words, live under not only the reign of political correctness writ large, but each has its own microcosm—or micro-prison—of political correctness.  
 
Now if it is “conservative” to point this out in a spirit of disappointment, the National Association of Scholars is indeed conservative.  But to use the word “conservative that way is misleading, and to call such criticisms “right wing” is outrageous.  These criticisms are, to the contrary, rooted in the mainstream of intellectual debate that extends from fifth century Athens to eighteenth century Philadelphia, and from the founding of the American research university to its present floundering.  
 
Labeling the NAS “conservative” is thus itself a political act:  an attempt to blunt the force of the criticisms we make of abuses within the academy by creating the pretense that the criticism arise from an animus against the rightful purposes of higher education.   It is, in that sense, a smear.  
 
But the world is complicated:  for there is at least one sense in which NAS is conservative, though it is not the sense intended by PAW.  Clearly we have reached a divide in higher education in which two basic educational impulses are at odds.  Education has always offered a path for students to liberate themselves from intellectual narrowness, parochialism, and mere bias.   But education has also always offered a path in which students take deep possession of what civilization has to offer.  In principle the liberation from narrow prejudice and the acquisition of a worthy cultural inheritance proceed together.   I am willing to call that the conservative core of higher education.  
 
But we have reached a moment in which the liberationist impulse has so radicalized itself that it treats civilization itself as a prejudice, to be spoken of sneeringly as ‘civilization.’  To be educated by the current lights of liberal learning is often to come to the dead-end discovery that civilization is nothing but a tissue of oppression, and the real work lies in creating a whole new “sustainable” order—as though the order that has sustained us this far is based on false premises.  
 
Again, I don’t think it wise to caricature all criticisms of the unleashed ideologies on campus as “conservative.”  Acknowledged conservatives—and I am one of them—ought to be welcome to make their case about what has gone wrong in higher education without having their views blurred into the generality in which any and all dissent from the charmed circle of political correctness is labeled “conservative” too.
 
Part of PAW’s caricature of NAS rests on characterizing the organization’s members and donors as conservative.  Some are and some aren’t.  Let me conclude by speaking for myself.  It would be helpful to have a distinction between individuals associated with the NAS and the NAS as an organization.  I don’t look for or expect congruity.   The National Association of Scholars does not adhere to any party or political ideology.  It is open to scholars across the actual political spectrum, and its actual membership reflects that.    NAS is proudly eclectic in that sense—although it obviously attracts most of its members from the ranks of faculty who agree that something is amiss in the current state of American higher education.
 
I have no hesitation about calling myself a conservative.  I write with some frequency for The National Review Online, occasionally for The American Conservative, and every now and then for the Claremont Review of Books.   These represent different flavors of conservatism that are often hostile to one another.  I take it as a measure of my own non-ideological conservative outlook that I don’t take part in these sectarian feuds.   Rather, I consider myself conservative in the sense that I respect our cultural inheritance and regard it as an obligation of the present generation to act as a good steward of that inheritance for future generations.  I am skeptical of grand schemes of reform that ignore human nature; I regard individual liberty and freedom of conscience as core values of our society, along with individual restraint.   And though I could elaborate this into an NPR “This I Believe” essay, the only point that really matters here is that my cultural stance favors genuine open-mindedness in the search for the truest accounts.   I look to the NAS not as a vehicle for promoting conservative political views—it doesn’t—but as a powerful voice in defense of serious intellectual inquiry.  
 
There’s that word again.  The problem is, pace President Tritton, the charmed circle of PC or “diversity” or “social justice studies” or “sustainability” or whatever it will be called next, is based on pretense, exclusion, and ultimately ignorance.  The contemporary university, though it wraps itself in ponderous thoughts about its own importance, has become an intellectually shallow enterprise—one fundamentally lacking in seriousness.   Is it “conservative” to point that out? 

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