Making Contact with the Truth

Carol Iannone*

One heartening element in our battle to save civilization is human nature itself, with its tendency to prevail even against ideological deformations. First Contact: Lost Tribes of the Amazon (2016) is a short documentary featuring José Carlos dos Reis Meirelles, an expert working with FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation, which deals with issues concerning the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. For over twenty years Meirelles has been observing various isolated tribes on the border of Peru and Brazil from afar, in keeping with the anthropological directive that they must be left undisturbed to preserve their culture.

But more recently the heroic Meirelles has risked his life to make contact, as small groups have been emerging from the jungle often in need of one kind of thing or another. This contact carries danger, since these indigenous people are thought to be remnants of tribes that had been exploited for their labor decades ago by various companies working in the Amazon and have evidently absorbed their forebears’ well-warranted mistrust of outsiders. Their habitats are now being threatened by drug dealers, smugglers, and loggers, but also, fascinatingly, their tribal ways seem no longer to be sufficient for them. They are tired of being naked and cold and want to wear clothes! They also want to eat with plates, cups, and spoons, and to get a good night’s sleep, not possible in a jungle filled with menaces, both animal and human.

I am no anthropologist, but as a longtime member of the human race I make three observations. One: “Cultural appropriation” is an unstoppable and ongoing process in which humans seek out the best of what is available regardless of its origin. Two: The moral sense is innate. With only a handful of people, a love triangle emerges in one group, complete with infidelity. The betrayed young husband not only deplores what his former friend has done, but goes on to state a general principle: that a friend should not so behave. Three: Discernment and the critical faculty are part of human nature. When the FUNAI workers try crooning songs to the natives in order to display their friendliness, the young men respond by telling them bluntly, “Your singing is s***.”

And so in our never-ending search for truth we segue to the first special feature of this issue, “Equality of Educational Opportunity: Coleman’s Report and His Legacy.” Equality of Educational Opportunity, the formal title of what has come to be known as the Coleman Report, was mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and, as NAS’s public affairs director Glenn M. Ricketts recounts in his introduction, “The Academic Travails of an Honest Man,” it “was an unprecedented empirical survey of the instructional resources of American public schools and stands as the signature achievement of its principal author, sociologist James S. Coleman (1926–1995).”

In the first of two articles in this feature, “Challenging Conventional Wisdom: Four Moments in the Research Career of James S. Coleman,” Russell K. Nieli explains that the groundbreaking 1966 study is significant not only because of its unexpected findings about the factors that make for successful schools and productive students, but in the nature of its large-scale, data-driven methods of research, which launched an era of highly quantitative social science. According to Nieli, “Coleman’s study would set the pattern for future influence by prominent policy analysts, including Christopher Jencks, Charles Murray, William Julius Wilson, Eric Hanushek, and many more.”

In the second of the two articles, “The Charge of Racism against James S. Coleman,” sociologist Jackson Toby explains why Coleman became the object of racist smears in the 1970s, arising from his own profession via the American Sociological Association. Toby also refutes the recent criticism of distinguished Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby, who attempts to discredit the Coleman Report for methodological shortcomings.

The racial aspect of Coleman’s story affords a glimpse into the dawn of the National Association of Scholars as well. When further evidence showed that busing students to achieve greater integration in the public schools was causing more harm than good by generating “white flight,” Coleman reversed his support for the policy. This became front-page news. More significantly, Coleman began to be met at speaking engagements by outraged fellow sociologists holding signs adorned with swastikas and denouncing him as a racist.

The accumulation of such occurrences and experiences like it led many scholars, often liberals and life-long Democrats, to found the Campus Coalition for Democracy (CCD), with its zesty motto “Reasoned Scholarship in a Free Society.” In 1987 the CCD became the National Association of Scholars, which is still upholding truth and resisting barbarians with their literal and metaphorical swastikas, feverishly determined to squelch any scholarship that fails to conform to their ideological agenda.

A second special section in this issue is “Countering the Counterculture,” and Walter Bruno leads off in “Campus Discourse and the Silence Track” by recounting a dinner with two McGill M.A. recipients that prompted thoughts on the pernicious ways “conversation” and “silence” are being redefined on North American campuses. To be countercultural on the American campus nowadays, according to Peter Augustine Lawler, “Higher Education as an American Counterculture,” is to resist demands for college as job training in favor of cultivating students to ask the questions “that demand lifelong attention.” In “Too Much and Too Little: Campus Demonstrations in the 1960s and Today,” J. Martin Rochester compares the two eras of campus upheavals and argues that today’s arise not from grievance but from entitlement. And for Mark Zunac, “Radicalism’s Yield: Politics and the Illiberal Academy,” despite sporadic handwringing on the part of administrators and faculty targeted by contemporary student activism, such furious intolerance of dissent ultimately serves the perennial political ends of the Left.

A third special feature, “Four Hundred Years and Counting: The Genius of Shakespeare and Cervantes,” commemorates two major authors of the Western canon on the four hundredth anniversary of their deaths with Duke Pesta’s “Shakespeare’s Second Life” and Wight Martindale Jr.’s “Miguel de Cervantes—An Appreciation.”

Martindale’s genial suggestion that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were the forerunners of such comic duos as Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello reminds us that some works of literature create a visual iconography. In a feature on the Great Books in our Spring 1989 issue, then AQ board member Leo Raditsa, who passed away in 2001, remembers his own Harvard education and vividly recalls a mesmerizing morning lecture by I.A. Richards, “where he did nothing but show slides of paintings and drawings of Don Quixote by Delacroix, Daumier, and so on, with the inevitable Picasso looking not entirely self-respecting in that procession….Richards was fascinated that Cervantes had been able to bring artists to see Sancho and the Don, not a common achievement.”

Likewise, in his essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell takes on Tolstoy’s unintentionally amusing takedown of the play for its supposed outlandishness. Part of Orwell’s answer is to evoke the indelible visual image of the ravaged king on the heath, rushing about in fury and grief, attended by his faithful and motley band of followers—“a majestic old man in a long black robe, with flowing white hair and beard, a figure out of Blake’s drawings (but also, curiously enough, rather like Tolstoy), wandering through a storm and cursing the heavens, in company with a Fool and a lunatic.”

Also suggesting the resonance of great literature, as well as of the writing about great literature, is our poem for this issue, something very different, a “found poem” by managing editor Felicia Sanzari Chernesky, “The Mysticism of Happiness,” a poem “found” in the words of Martindale’s essay.

On a less enchanting note, if there was ever an example of the danger of giving power to the federal government, Title IX has got to be it. Fewer than forty words—“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”—the 1972 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 has generated injustices arguably the equal of the injustices it supposedly addressed. Robert Carle illumines the whole sorry picture in “The Strange Career of Title IX,” which complements “Assault by the DOE,” his Spring 2015 AQ essay on the effects of Title IX’s star chamber application to sexual misconduct procedures on campuses today.

As if to warn us not to give more power to the federal government, NAS’s director of communications David Randall details the burgeoning literary genre arising from overwrought environmental fears in “The Apocalyptic Imagination: Climate Nonfiction and the Dream of Marxist Utopia.”

Mark Bauerlein gets a rare glimpse of the sausage-making that goes on behind the closed doors of graduate admissions committees in “Discrimination at Work,” a review essay of Inside Graduate Admissions: Merit, Diversity, and Faculty Gatekeeping, by Julie R. Posselt; and Bruce S. Thornton deflates the seeming good news of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., in his review essay, “The Worst That’s Been Thought and Said.”

Daniel Asia is happy to be surprised as he reviews Surprised by Beauty: A Listeners Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music, revised and expanded, by Robert R. Reilly, with Jens F. Laurson; Michael I. Krauss relishes John Agresto’s Rediscovering America: Liberty, Equality, and the Crisis of Democracy; and Peter Wood contributes another annotated Books, Articles, and Items of Academic Interest.

In the Editor’s Introduction to the Winter 2015 AQ I told of how a friend alerted me to what he saw as nihilism at the heart of Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind at the time of its publication, and how some time later a second friend informed me of the exact page where he claimed this nihilism was undeniably revealed. I invited readers to guess which page.

Several people wrote to agree that the book is nihilistic but did not venture to name a page. One reader suggested page 253, where Bloom writes that the university must “maintain the permanent questions front and center.…Hence, without having the answers, the university knows what openness is and knows the questions.” The reader astutely remarks:

The phrase “without having the answers” actually indicates a vast, possibly total, intellectual darkness. If, after nine centuries of questing, universities cannot claim some knowable insight, some scintilla of metaphysical or moral understanding, the quest has failed. Bloom seems content with endless, meaningless, fruitless conversation. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” So I submit page 253 as a candidate for our quest.

That page is indeed a good candidate, but not the one commended to me by my friend, which is… page 279, where Bloom writes:

The ancients had no tenure to protect them and wanted to avoid the prostitution to which those who have to live off their wits are prone. There is no moral order protecting philosophers or ensuring that truth will win out in the long, or the short, run. (emphasis added)

“So,” Bloom continues, “philosophers are engaged in the gentle art of deception.”

Hmmm.

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