Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Jan 06, 2009 | 

Peter Wood, Steve Balch

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Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Jan 06, 2009 | 

Peter Wood, Steve Balch



New Year’s Eve was bitterly cold in Vermont, and I spent most of it by my woodstove, re-reading John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty,” and occasionally dropping new logs on the embers.  At midnight, officially, I became president of the National Association of Scholars.

Looking Back

NAS from its founding in 1987 has had only one president. Steve Balch left a tenured position as a professor of Government and Public Policy at John Jay College to create the new organization.   He and a handful of colleagues saw the need to summon the good will of faculty members around the country to resist the growing politicization of the university.    The time was right. Many Americans sensed that something was wrong in higher education—indeed wrong in America generally. The National Commission on Excellence in Education had issued its breathtakingly dire report on K-12 education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, in April 1983: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” In April 1987, the surprise best-seller, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, gave an equally dire picture of higher education. 

These were what economists call lagging indicators. The mischief had been building since the end of the 1960s when many colleges and universities began to appoint radical—and often anti-intellectual—individuals to their faculties. In a way, the spirit of liberalism required this appointment of its own enemies. Mill had argued back in 1859 that true intellectual freedom required openness to ideas and opinions that a society considers profoundly mistaken.   And there were a great many faculty members who took this to heart.   Some perhaps were atoning for the repression of the McCarthy era when Marxists were often drummed out of the academy. In any case, it became a point of pride for a while for academic departments to appoint junior faculty members who professed disdain for the core ideas of the discipline; or who held that “so-called academic standards” should be subordinated to the need to advance revolutionary politics; or that, “objectivity” being an “illusion,” it was more “honest” to align oneself openly with a progressive “point of view;” or that the American society offered so much intellectual freedom (and even academic appointments!) only as a trick—a way of draining the energy of radicalism through “repressive tolerance.” 

These are bye-gone arguments, and I wouldn’t expect a reader who first went to college in the 1980s to recognize them. But for a decade or so, they were a large part of the chatter of a rising class of academics, roughly defined as the assistant professors who owed their appointments to the old liberal establishment’s willingness to open the university to scholars (or should that be “scholars”?) who disdained the very principles on which the university was built.  This cohort of younger faculty members was in a psychologically awkward situation, since by accepting their academic appointments they seemed to betray the radical antagonism to liberal society they professed. Within that contradiction was born a new academic spirit that made a virtue of necessity. It reveled in irony and contradiction, and eventually named itself postmodernism

How do I know this? In part, I lived it. I started college in 1971. My first semester at Haverford was marked by a strike organized by the Black Students Association complaining about the “implicit racism” of the Quaker college—“implicit” being the operative word, since the college unctuously catered to even the most absurd of their demands.   A large majority of the white majority on campus, including the faculty, however, took the occasion to bask in self-recrimination. The event culminated in a campus-wide meeting that gave to me a life-long referent to Tocqueville’s notion of “the tyranny of the majority.” We were packed into a hot auditorium and told we had to reach “consensus,” which amounted to everyone agreeing to the justice of the Black Students Association’s critique. 

I have no doubt that a lot of my classmates from that year got past the strike, but I never did, and I know now that it made similar impressions on several others. Stanley Kurtz at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, were freshmen like me in that Haverford auditorium, and witnessed old liberalism on the cusp of collapse, as it embraced a willingness to become illiberal indoctrination. 

That fall, for my Philosophy 101 course, I benefited from another manifestation of the new illiberalism. I was assigned to a section taught by a recent graduate of the New School whose idea of introducing freshmen to Western philosophy consisted of jumping from the Pre-Socratics to Claude Levi-Strauss’s impenetrable The Savage Mind.    It was a wildly prodigal tour. The only Plato we met was the maddeningly eccentric dialogue, The Parmenides. The only Aristotle, the quasi-linguistic Categories.   Only many years later could I figure out what the professor had been trying to do. He was, as we would now say, de-constructing philosophy. In the liberal view of things, an introductory philosophy course would acquaint students with the perennial debates on justice, mind, matter, truth, logic, and knowledge. By contrast, my freshman course seemed aimed at provoking skepticism about the mere possibility of philosophical inquiry. 

 And it succeeded, at least with me. I wanted to understand Levi-Strauss, so I switched to anthropology and dove deep into French structuralism.  The rest of my undergraduate education was of a piece with that philosophy course in the sense that I received a deep immersion in a kind of intellectual chaos. There were no requirements to speak of and no curriculum in the sense of an organized set of courses that led anywhere. There were very bright, sometimes charismatic professors, and very smart students, and seemingly all of them, professors and students alike, would line up like iron-filings on a magnet whenever a matter of real world urgency arose.    At one point, nearly the whole college got on buses to go to Washington to protest the Vietnam War. (I didn’t go—mostly out of a growing distaste for being herded.)

Steve Balch had come to all this a decade earlier. He was at Berkeley from 1964 to 1971, and thus began his college career during one of the benchmark events of the 1960s: the Free Speech Movement. The October 1, 1964 protest where activist Mario Savio climbed atop a police car and roused the crowd to a frenzy with his anti-establishment speech, struck Steve as mere intimidation.   He characterized his own views as liberal, but was appalled at how “coarse and crude” the proponents of a new kind of freedom had become. He saw the leaders of the movements engaged in “vitriolic denunciation, broad-brush characterizations, and caricaturing” of views they disliked.   The matters at hand seemed more complex than the protesters could allow. Their actions “had nothing to do with academic discourse; it was simply the incitement of mobs.”   And as the movement grew, it grew more menacing. The leaders, like Savio and his soon to be wife Suzanne Goldberg, “avowed non-violence, but in fact had mastered a clever way to use force to gain their ends. “  

At Haverford in the early 1970s, I encountered a version of how higher education had transformed itself in response to the criticisms that Steve saw in their first formulation at Berkeley. Haverford in 1971 was a fulfillment of Berkeley in 1964. It was a place saturated in the rhetoric of personal autonomy and individualism, but where life was dominated by excruciating conformity, radical chic was on the rise and college presidents like Haverford’s John Coleman were infatuated with it.Savio had denounced the university as run by an “autocracy,” that tried to treat students as “raw materials” instead of “human beings.”    That was an unsavory way of pointing out that universities assumed the intellectual authority to decide what and to what ends they should teach.   What’s the alternative? The basic answer, as documented in NAS’s indispensable study The Dissolution of General Education 1914-1993 (1996), is the radical curtailment of prerequisites and intellectual hierarchy.   Of course, the elimination of requirements doesn’t sit particularly well with the idea of a college major or the need to marshal students into ongoing enrollments, so there is usually a compromise. Even the colleges that have taken the de-construction of the curriculum to the furthest, such as Brown, where each student has a custom-built major, feel some countervailing pressure for intellectual coherence. 

In Savio’s most famous jeremiad, he conjured up a picture of the university that seems drawn from the first reel of Modern Times, with Charlie Chaplin trapped in the mechanical workings of a giant set of gears:   “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

This seems to reverse Marx’s famous opening of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,   “All the events and characters in history occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."   Perhaps Savio’s rendition was farce too, except that so many students at the time took him seriously. But let me not put too much significance on Savio or any of these particular events. They are just shadows of a large change that was creeping across American higher education over a period of decades. Those of us in college or graduate school during that time registered it in a variety of ways. And some of us felt in it both a betrayal and a tremendous sense of loss. The basic principles of disciplined, fair-minded, and principled intellectual inquiry were betrayed. Hard-won knowledge and disciplined understanding of the world were disappearing and were likely to be lost.

Looking Forward

Needless to say, the National Association of Scholars did not prevail against the tide of politicization in the universities. A case can be made that the sciences have enjoyed a relative immunity from ideological colonization, but it is only relative. The rise of the more doctrinaire forms of global warming alarmism (the kind that brooks no dissent); the promulgation of a doctrine that combines ardent atheism with biological reductionism; and the move to apply Title IX quotas to the appointment of women scientists testify that science is not invulnerable to the ideological fads that now hold most of the humanities and social sciences captive.   Perhaps the National Association of Scholars came along too late to make much of a difference.   By 1987, the die was cast. Roger Kimball’s explanation in Tenured Radicals still seems to me the most adequate. Those antinomian, deconstructing, civilization-hating radicals of the 1970s who went in for graduate degrees eventually surfaced as department majorities and chairmen. And they were not about to make the same mistake as the liberals that felt duty-bound to appoint them.   They never believed in a marketplace of ideas in the first place—or any kind of market, for that matter. Thus once ensconced in academic power, they appointed none but their own. 

This is why, incidentally, the problem is now invisible to large numbers of students. Ask them, as the University of Georgia recently did, whether their professors attempt to indoctrinate them, and generally they say, “No.” A whole book has recently been written by researchers at George Mason University on the charming premise that such testimony needs to be taken at face value.    The trouble is that students who have never been exposed to what vigorous academic freedom looks like have no basis to judge. It would take a wrenching awareness of large-scale historical and cultural change that is clearly beyond the capacity of students brought up to think that the sum total of American history is the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s History Month, and the Stonewall riots.

By the mid-1990s, Steve decided not to be a sore loser. Clearly the battle for the soul of the university was lost. The next best thing would be to plant seedlings of Western civilization that might, in the fullness of time, grow into departments and curricula. To that end, he traveled the country seeking out faculty members who were willing to found new “centers” for the study of Western civilization, free institutions, and the American founding. There are nearly forty of them now—enough to have recently captured the attention of The New York Times. Unfortunately, the Times’s front-page story about this initiative appears to have alarmed the academic Left, which has suddenly started to throw up roadblocks. It is not enough that every college and university in the land has to have a women’s studies department devoted to promulgating a particular political ideology; or that area studies is dominated across the country by scholars rooted in Edward Said-ian post-colonial theory; or that American history is everywhere taught through the prism of race-class-gender. The mere possibility of a handful of faculty members upholding traditionally liberal views of Western civilization and American history has raised alarm. 

This is good to know, not because it is a measure of our defeat in the larger “culture wars,” but because it speaks very clearly about the vulnerability of new and now entrenched academic regime. John Stuart Mill (now fresh in my mind) aptly warned about this. An orthodoxy that manages to forbid dissenting opinions and sequester itself from ordinary intellectual critique is an imperiled orthodoxy. It can perpetuate its ideas only as stale doctrine. People can indeed be led to profess its slogans, but they cease to have any real emotive or intellectual power. The proponents built a system that outwardly looks impregnable, but in reality is merely conventional. 

In that sense, I’m an optimist. The radicalization of the humanities and social sciences has been a disaster, but it is a disaster that has a steeply declining capacity to win new adherents. Mostly what is needed is a generation willing to transgress the boundaries enforced by the old guard of tenured radicals. Where will that generation come from?

No betrayal is so complete that we lose sight altogether of the original compact.   Usually we are left with some remnants that have to be—somehow—interpreted. The broken teacups, pressed flowers, and crumbling garden walls—the odd mementos of higher education’s bye-gone epoch of liberal principle—remain on view, for example, in the Museum of Academic Antiquities, otherwise known as the AAUP. Here you can find, for instance, the principle of academic freedom.   In the old days it meant something particular: a social concordat in which faculty members would be granted license to govern their own inquiry without outside interference, provided they stuck faithfully to rigorous (generally scientific) standards of evidence and analysis.   In a university dominated by tenured radicals, that kind of academic freedom would be an insufferable imposition. One does not make peace with the enemy. The whole game is to undermine the enemy. Hence academic freedom in its tenured radical instantiation is the freedom to exempt oneself from any “standards” of argument and evidence other than those of your own choosing.   The AAUP laid out this new doctrine in a report titled, Freedom in the Classroom, September 11, 2007. 

The AAUP’s new doctrine of academic freedom is, as I said, a broken teacup. It wouldn’t hold even the weak tea of today’s ideological maunderings, mainly because few people outside the academy see the university as a locus of any kind of freedom. It is an institution that has become more conspicuously narrow-minded and repressive than the surrounding society, and it is widely seen and mocked for its speech codes, its exclusion of topics and views robustly debated on the Internet and in the public square, and its mistreatment of dissenters. 

So Steve, thanks for the baton. I don’t think I’ll need to toss it in the woodstove to keep the fire burning. We have lots of fuel.  

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