It was morning in America—or so in 1982 we thought. The Gipper had arrived in the White House, our campuses seemed restful, and the sixties were a fading memory. Better yet, a new intellectual wave was coming ashore, neoconservatism, not yet a reproach but a label denoting the refreshing synthesis of New Deal liberalism, Cold War anti-communism, and capitalism twice cheered. Largely a New York product, it allowed some of the red-diapered to finally swim mainstream, schooling happily among Catholic traditionalists, muscular hardhats, sons of the South, prairie farmers, and even, mirabile dictu, a Reaganite GOP. I was one of those sporting minnows, and could almost believe, whenever the waters most glistened with sunlight, that the future held nothing but promise.
But never quite completely, and thus came the National Association of Scholars. Never quite completely because many of my colleagues at John Jay College of Criminal Justice persistently believed the institution’s name adjectively wanting—lacking the “social” that would make justice whole. Never quite completely because, though dismayed at the republic’s rightward turn, they appeared wholly undeterred in their political crusade. Never quite completely because much of what they had already wrought—identity scholarship, identity teaching, and identity admissions—was deeply engrained. And never quite completely because many of the unskilled students admitted in large numbers were patently there to facilitate cash flows and political recruitment. The university that I had known as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the early sixties, and even as a graduate in the classrooms of Berkeley during the later ones, was assuming a sectarian pallor through the hemorrhage of authentic purpose. There was a need to staunch the flow.
I was hardly the only academic to feel this way. Without retelling in detail a story already elsewhere told, I managed to find other worriers who became the NAS’s founding core: Herb London, Carol Iannone, and Nelson Ong, still very much at its heart; and the late Barry Gross and Peter Shaw, each originally indispensable and still sorely missed. They were augmented by those who gave inspiration and advice from outside: Paul Hollander, whose 1981 Political Pilgrims served as my motivational catalyst; Midge Decter, whose Committee for the Free World proved a treasure trove of allies, and whose mentorship opened many doors; and the late Irving Louis Horowitz, a social science giant, alternatively avuncular and fearsome, but without whom this journal wouldn’t exist. And let me also mention three dedicated long-term staff members at my side in our Princeton office through thick and thin: Felicia Chernesky, Barbara Gregory, and Glenn Ricketts.
There are, however, several things about the NAS’s founding that thirty years of subsequent experience and reflection have rendered clearer than they were at the time. These are worth some space.
First, the problem the NAS was called forth to address wasn’t primarily about academic or even intellectual freedom. Nor was it just about the canons of conscientious teaching and scholarship. Rather, it ultimately pertained to an intellectual pathology, in the 1980s largely confined to campuses, that has since infected, nay, pretty much consumed our entire culture. The NAS’s original name—Campus Coalition for Democracy—embodied a proto-recognition of the phenomenon’s broader nature, but in a manner that still imagined its academic component could be addressed purely in intellectual terms: truth’s unaided force driving error from the stage. Without gainsaying truth’s power, we might have remembered that such innocence had been mocked in The Clouds twenty-five centuries earlier.
The nascent NAS was not alone in this error. Earlier efforts to combat campus radicalism had also been almost entirely cerebral—in light of the brain power at the disposal of its champions, most notably the legendary Sidney Hook, a fact not altogether surprising. Hook and his colleagues, operating through an organization called University Centers for Rational Alternatives (UCRA), worked on the assumption that they were dealing with a bout of student (and some faculty) political enthusiasm brought on by overindulgence in inebriating, if worthy, movements for civil rights or (more arguably) against the war in Vietnam. Through letters, a news sheet, and occasional book-length publications such as Hook’s Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy (1970), they sought to persuade, or shame, academics and institutional fiduciaries back into principled opposition against disruptive protest. They were confident that most faculty could be rallied to the banner of reason and civility, since they were, after all, men and women of mind like themselves—not raucous, callow youngsters. Solutions might also be found through such contrivances as allowing students to let off steam via special breaks tied to the campaign season or, more substantively, by tightening up the curriculum to ensure they were put on a reliable track to wisdom.
Though UCRA’s leaders, Hook first and foremost, had long careers of fighting communist efforts to subvert labor unions and advocacy groups, they didn’t believe academe might also have structural weaknesses that left it open to forms of assault that didn’t play by the rules of rational discourse. Preserving a robust concept of academic freedom would thus eventually carry the day. And since by the late 1970s America’s campuses were again fairly quiet, it seemed, on the surface, that this would be the case. But rumblings of revolution nonetheless continued, disturbingly now more from faculty and campus administration rather than the student body.
The NAS’s strategic departure lay in an attempt to cover the lengthening front of radical activism position for position. For this, more than just persuasion was required. To match the resources an increasingly institutionalized radicalism was coming to possess, a greater mobilization of the forces on our side had to be undertaken. Initially, this meant the creation of an affiliate system designed to reinforce the organization’s national leadership with grassroots faculty energies, eventually producing forty-eight state groups. While this effort yielded some big successes—the California Civil Rights Initiative being the most consequential—as well as a significant number of lesser ones, it proved hard to sustain in all but a few locations. The underlying problem, inevitable when defending the common good, was lack of professional payoff for participation. To be sure, there were some dedicated citizen-scholars for whom the vindication of principle, or the sheer joy of battle, were motivators enough. But with an academic incentive system increasingly contrived to reward narrow scholarly preoccupations, or activism of a perverse kind, such persons were few and far between—a difficulty that generational passage, and socialization into the new zeitgeist, rendered progressively more acute.
An even more ambitious step consisted in the establishment of standalone organizations parallel to the NAS—again the idea being to enlist additional constituencies as allies. A seemingly promising one was senior university and college leaders, as of the early 1990s still a largely sensible bunch whose intellectual molding had occurred in saner times. And what type of organization might form a rallying point for such people? Perhaps an accrediting association certifying colleges with solidly structured curricula, and shielding them from ideological demands existing accreditors were beginning to make in the name of “diversity.” So appeared the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), its first president Dr. Jeffrey Wallin, a former section chief of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recruited in 1991 by a committee made up of St. John’s College president John Agresto, education reformer Chester Finn, and the first vice-president of the AALE, myself.
The AALE’s progress was, at first, heartening. While its membership didn’t exactly explode, its growth, which included secondary schools as well as colleges, mostly small but nonetheless good, was steady. Better yet, after a few years AALE received from the Clinton Department of Education federally recognized accreditor status, which represented the vaulting of a rather considerable political hurdle. AALE also succeeded in becoming financially self-supporting, partly through an initial set of grants from the NAS totaling $100,000, partly through NAS door-opening, and most substantially through the determined efforts of Jeff Wallin.
But smooth sailing could only continue so long—the shoals of activism having already become extensive and treacherous. The first reef was struck during efforts to bring Claremont McKenna College into the AALE, which by any measure would have counted as a major coup. Faculty radicals who regarded ideological neutrality as the worst form of politics fiercely resisted, leading Claremont’s administration, though headed by a former Marine captain, to withdraw its application. Worse yet, the contretemps stigmatized the AALE as “controversial” in the minds of increasingly risk-adverse administrators elsewhere. The organization’s trajectory now began to plateau, though it maintained its progress as an accreditor of private schools.
Ironically, it was under the George W. Bush administration that the AALE’s life was nearly snuffed out. The AALE stood at the center of the opposition to the checklist assessment philosophy of Margaret Spellings, Bush’s secretary of education, and thus evoked her ire. After an exquisitely protracted process of bureaucratic torture, federal recognition of the AALE was withdrawn—an unheard-of action against a general-purpose accreditor like the Academy. “The stupid party” had once more demonstrated that it was at the top of its game, making an example of a higher education organization uniquely opposed to political correctness.
But the AALE refused to die, eventually passing under the leadership of former assistant secretary of education Diane Auer Jones, who had defended the organization within the Bush administration. Most current AALE higher education accreditations are of foreign institutions, but the possibility of doing useful work especially at the K–12 level, and perhaps regaining federal recognition, remains.
It is now beyond imagining that a significant number of prestigious colleges would sign up with a high-aspiring, politically incorrect accreditor, although growing dissatisfaction among parents and educators with the meager intellectual returns most colleges provide continues to suggest that a market for upscale branding exists. What wasn’t anticipated at the AALE’s launch was how strong the current running against it had already grown, and the degree to which virtually all colleges and universities, to say nothing of a Republican Department of Education, would be swept along.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni
Trustees and donors turned out to provide richer soil for reformist organizing. Unlike a university executive, a donor or trustee need not persuade an entire institution to back his personal decisions. Both groups are also of considerable size; there are many more trustees than colleges and universities, and far more donors than trustees. Each group thus has immense internal variety, as well as significant numbers of individuals whose up-close experience of academic life has given them a strong disdain for radical ideology. This made of them a mission field in many ways more promising than academic faculties. We decided to cultivate it by creating an entirely new organization.
In the waning days of the first Bush administration I began conversations with Jerry Martin, who had long served as assistant chairman and briefly, after Lynne Cheney’s departure, as acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. A fully credentialed academic, Jerry had a thorough understanding of the university’s plight and, because of his senior Washington status, knew how the political world operated. Starting a new nonprofit is always risky, so I was delighted by his ready interest when I first proposed the project.
Key to its success was the involvement of prestigious figures, something that through Jerry’s good offices we quickly secured. When Lynne Cheney was told about the idea she quickly signed on, becoming national chairman. Using their contacts on the Hill, Jerry and Lynne brought in Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) to serve on the organization’s national council, giving it a bipartisan cast. (I took a seat on the board of directors.)
All this took consultation and maneuver. Indeed, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), originally called the National Alumni Forum, didn’t officially open its doors until 1995. Once more the NAS helped with entrée to foundations and $46,000 in seed money. But ACTA’s subsequent success was mainly attributable to the enormous talents of those who took the helm (Jerry Martin, and after him Anne Neal), the distinction of its prestigious sponsors, and the very real yearning among many of the “laity” for a voice in academic reform.
Twenty years later ACTA is a formidable presence in debates over good governance, intellectual freedom, and curriculum enrichment. With a budget of over $2 million per year and its Washington location, a staff of thirteen, and valuable public databases, ACTA represents the greatest of NAS’s external organization building successes. Now under the captaincy of its third president, longtime friend and NAS member Michael Poliakoff, its prospects for continuing influence are excellent.
This doesn’t exhaust the NAS’s organizing achievements. We were the hidden hand behind the formation during the 1990s of two new scholarly societies, The Historical Society (THS) and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), both meant to be alternatives to establishment counterparts such as the American Historical Society and the Modern Language Association. THS, alas, folded after a twenty-year run, but ALSCW is still in the field. In 2004, a third group, the Association for the Study of Free Institutions (ASFI) was born. Originally headquartered in the NAS’s Princeton offices, ASFI, an organization of academic programs devoted to the study of freedom and the Western heritage, has followed me to Texas Tech, where as chairman I play the role of operational head. A recent grant from the Charles Koch Foundation has given ASFI the capacity to make modest grants to its member programs.
Perhaps the NAS’s most enduring organization-building contribution has been the creation of new centers, institutes, and other innovative academic programs at colleges and universities around the country. In launching them the NAS kicked off what has become a burgeoning movement.
It was a project that emerged from the growing recognition that (1) the NAS needed to offer positive alternatives as well as criticism, and (2) reviving genuine intellectual pluralism within academe would require institutional platforms capable of, and willing to, hire and retain dissidents. A few such programs already existed as models: for example, the John M. Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, and the Henry Salvatori Center at Claremont-McKenna College. We took on the mission of multiplying them, in part by quietly talking up the idea among friendly scholars and distinguished opinion leaders who might endorse it and then, behind the scenes, providing advice to the professors willing to risk the hazards of becoming program architects.
Our pilot effort was at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where in early 1994 classicist and NAS board member David Mulroy, with twenty-two colleagues, designed an enriched curriculum that would provide an alternate route to completing the institution’s general education requirement. Naturally it faced stiff opposition, suffering defeat in a university curriculum committee vote in November 2014, but prevailing in a second the following year. Almost simultaneously, an October 1994 essay, “What to Do about Education—The Universities,” by famed historian and NAS advisory board member Gertrude Himmelfarb, appeared in Commentary. It presented the first public argument for an “oasis strategy” of academic reform whereby dissident faculty, working with knowledgeable donors and a hoped-for national alumni association (by then well in gestation), would develop new programming in “Western Civilization” and “Great Books.” It drew considerable attention, and “oasis strategy” became a widely quoted phrase.
In 1997 the NAS sponsored a two-day conference at a resort hotel near Lake Tahoe (the California-Nevada state line ran through its dining room) that brought together about thirty aspiring program architects to talk tactics. Mulroy’s experience was discussed at length, as was that of small colleges, like Thomas Aquinas College in California, which had made their name in Great Books education. A second meeting with a larger attendance—by then a good many additional programs had come into existence—took place in 2000 at the Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin. Although the program-creation movement now has a life of its own, the NAS can take pride in the seminal role it played in launching programs at such institutions as the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado–Boulder, the University of Mississippi, the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, UCLA, Colgate, Cornell, and Villanova. We also discovered opportunities at the community college level, starting with a Great Books program at Wright College in Chicago and thereafter, through the work of its sparkplug director, Bruce Gans, at similar institutions in Illinois, Michigan, and Colorado.
Other organizations now began pitching in, bringing resources beyond those the NAS could muster. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) was a particularly valuable partner with which we shared all of the information we had collected over years of work about new and incipient programs and aspiring program-builders. When the Jack Miller Center hived off from ISI, it carried these contacts with it and added—through the great generosity of Mr. Miller and others—the funding needed to develop many more. While all this was going on the NAS was turning its efforts in a new, but complementary, direction.
A host of opportunities opened with the 2001 appointment by President George W. Bush of NAS member Bruce Cole, a distinguished art historian from Indiana University, to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). During its opening days the administration had invited the NAS’s views on whom to choose. They clearly indicated they wanted someone who was both tough-minded and a scholar of unimpeachable eminence, and during a key Washington huddle I expressed my very high opinion of Bruce. After he got the post, the NAS scoured the country for potential NEH council nominees, many of whom got seats. We were also able to place numerous volunteers onto the NEH’s grant review panels.
Bruce proved an outstanding chairman who focused on results more than rhetoric. Through his “We the People” initiative, the NEH provided support for academic projects aimed at recovering national memory of America’s founding principles, a development about which we couldn’t have been happier. Taking the long view, Bruce used his appointment powers strategically, placing in permanent positions individuals who would continue to act as forces for reason in the agency’s deliberations after his departure. And he cared greatly about the quality of all grants made, sitting personally on panels and studying proposals in detail. Rarely had the NEH been so well run.
In another pleasing development, Losing America’s Memory, a 2000 ACTA study documenting scandalous levels of student historical ignorance, prompted then Senate Appropriations chairman Robert C. Byrd to sponsor a new grant program designed, as he put it, to enhance teachers’ knowledge of “traditional American history,” meaning, basically, the Founding and subsequent constitutional development. Enacted in 2001, the “Teaching American History Program” (TAH) was initially funded at $50 million per year, soon raised to $100 million, and then continued at this higher level until its termination in 2012.
TAH Grants went to school districts, or consortia of school districts, partnering with colleges and universities, as well as with nonprofit organizations pledging to work with them to enrich the “traditional American history” knowledge of their teachers—largely via summer seminars. As with most federal programs, many grant recipients found ways of turning the money to their own purposes, but in the case of the NAS the purpose of the organization was truly also that of the program. We quickly became a major school district partner, running first-class programs in New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. We also got the word out to our members, some of whom won grants as well. Finally, we spurred NAS members to volunteer to serve on the panels that awarded the grants. A great many did, no doubt improving the program’s quality across the board.
We then went a step further. Why not have an equivalent law supporting the higher education programs the NAS was laboring so earnestly to inspire? What would come to be called the “American History for Freedom Program,” ensconced in Part E, Section 806 of Public Law 110-315—a.k.a. “The Higher Education Opportunity Act of2008”—was thus born. Representative Tom Petri of Wisconsin and Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire would be its stalwart sponsors.
It was not an enterprise naively launched. We knew all the risks of fastening onto the federal teat. It would be fairer to say that it was done out of a calculated desperation, the desire to find nourishment for fragile babes usually treated by their maternal institutions as mere foundlings. Or perhaps we hoped that the status of these infants would rise once it was seen that they could do more than just scramble for loose change. After all, though the ideals of American higher education may have decayed, its pecuniary appetites were as robust as ever.
So we learned how a bill becomes a law.
Lesson One: It can take a very long time, in this case six years—the Capitol’s mills grinding far more slowly than even I, an erstwhile student of the legislative process, could ever have imagined.
Lesson Two: It’s extraordinarily expensive. To gain the necessary access we had to hire Van Scoyoc Associates, practiced Washington wirepullers who greased ways, opened doors, made key introductions, and secured precious face time with solons and top aides. Their cumulative fee approached a cool quarter million (it would have been cheaper had Congress been more expeditious), but as they eventually delivered, it can be reckoned as money well spent.
Lesson Three: The strain on body and soul (especially the shoe leather kind) is also outsized. The corridors of power are long and need a lot of walking, with many appointments to be sought, many waiting rooms to be occupied, many a recitation to be repeated (mainly to youngsters fresh out of college), many a smile to be forced, many a plea to “write, write, and write again” to be made to NAS members, many a trial on one’s patience, many a feeling of disgust and despair, and finally one moment of glorious exhilaration when—unexpectedly—the waning 110th Congress squeezed PL 110-315 through to a late summer passage, making “American History for Freedom” the law of the land.
But legislation authorized is not the same as legislation funded. Funding requires an additional legislative round. The Obama administration didn’t seem an opportune time to make this push; one wants a sympathetic Department of Education to write guidelines and supervise grant competitions. The election of a Republican president and congress has, however, now opened our road. Should we be able to persuade Congress to put something like $100 million per annum into the program’s coffers—just a few bucks in D.C.—we’d have a yearly expenditure equaling that of a private foundation capitalized at two billion dollars. Perhaps the long game has paid off.
Exits and Entries
After mulling these varied attempts, frustrations, and occasional successes, the reader might agree when I paraphrase the Bard by saying that “nothing so became my leadership of the NAS as the leaving of it.” But the real reason was the class act I got to follow me.
All things must have their endings, and choosing one’s own manner of departure, if one is lucky enough to be able to choose, is likely to prove happier than leaving the choice to fate. Or so I have always believed. Even in my earliest days as NAS president I pondered the problem of succession. To the extent that the NAS was but the extension of a single person it was that much less an institution, and an institution is what I devoutly wished it to become. But after two decades—during which a succession of possible heirs came and went—I started to despair of the prospects.
And yet the need for a replacement loomed ever larger. My talents were mainly those of a schemer, working behind the scenes to build stages on which others could perform. But that kind of work, for better or worse, had run its course. Yes, I had done more than that. I had been an advocate as well and often not a half-bad one. The NAS had produced a slew of reports, particularly on curriculum, each of which was thorough and scrupulous, and most of which had some impact. I had also done my share of television, radio, and campus speaking. But my facility as a writer wasn’t sufficient for daily commentary, or for a drumbeat of polemic. And it was precisely this kind of talent that had become indispensable, not only to the NAS’s effectiveness but to its survival.
I could work covertly—the éminence grise of higher education reform as I sometimes fancied myself—so long as there were patient, deep-pocketed philanthropists who could be quietly persuaded of the worth of my ends and my progress toward them. These were fairly plentiful during the first fifteen years or so of the NAS’s existence. But after that the fundraising landscape for “conservative” causes began, with increasing rapidity, to change—and not in ways best suited to my operating style. Some of our major foundation friends declined in wealth. Others closed shop. Still others changed direction, captured by the zeitgeist or pursuing narrower mandates. In this altered setting development activities had to be refocused on the daunting challenge of raising smaller amounts from a much larger number of donors, individuals, or family foundations, whose multitude made the sharing of private confidences impossible. Getting their attention required a high profile operational strategy that kept the NAS constantly in the news. The ideal person to bring such a reorientation about would need talents quite distinct from mine. He’d need to be a fluent writer who enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate and could regularly trounce his foes. Of course, he’d also need a full understanding of what made academe tick as well as the deeper sources of its intellectual disease. A tall order perhaps, but one that fortune obligingly delivered.
I had first met Peter Wood during the early 1990s, when he was chief of staff to Jon Westling, then president of Boston University. In 1996 we had our first chance to talk at length at an NAS conference. He later spoke at an event at Villanova that our Pennsylvania affiliate organized, providing further opportunity to deepen mutual acquaintance. I was immensely impressed by the powers of his mind, his vast fund of knowledge, and his insight into problems he and I in rather different contexts had to battle daily. Shortly afterwards I had the pleasure of reading his book, Diversity:The Invention of a Concept (2003), the definitive dissection of academe’s, and perhaps now America’s, reigning totem.
One might think that his name would have naturally popped into my head as the perfect candidate to give the NAS its needed new look. He clearly had the requisite smarts, the administrative experience, and an ability to write. But I’m a man whose life tends to run in familiar grooves, and not having any formal position within the NAS, Peter wasn’t someone with whom I continuously dealt, a fact that remained true even when in 2005 he became provost of The King’s College, a recently started evangelical venture in nearby Manhattan—though I did eventually learn secondhand that he wasn’t happy with that job.
We are rarely fully aware of how our brain’s synaptic connections get formed, but I rather vividly recall the occasion in 2007 when the neural bundles denoting “Peter Wood” and “successor” finally completed their circuit. It was during a Sunday morning’s paging through my paper of record the New York Post that I came upon a column by George Will devoted to praise of Peter’s second book A Bee in the Mouth:Anger in America Now (2007). On a hunch, I immediately called his King’s College office, and despite its being a Sunday, found Peter at his desk. We agreed to meet, and at a midtown Italian restaurant a pact was soon sealed. Peter accepted my offer to become the NAS’s executive director with the understanding that, if all went smoothly and the NAS board concurred, he would eventually become president. (The board very naturally bristled a bit, feeling their due diligence required a more formalized search procedure, but Peter’s immense talents eventually quelled all doubts.)
In 2009 Peter assumed the NAS presidency (and I the chairmanship). In 2012, with an invitation from Texas Tech—and desirous of trying my own hand at what I had long bid others to attempt—I departed for Lubbock to set up an Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, which I hoped, and still hope, will grow into a full-scale think tank contemplating the nature, origins, and future of the cultural enterprise that has altered human destiny. But whatever the West’s future, or that of my institute, the future of the NAS had been left in splendid hands.
All that’s left to this tale is a closing confession about the last of the things I learned while running the NAS. It counts as a confession because it can only be revealed to an academic readership with some trepidation. (If there are any organizational reverberations to what follows I’m doubly happy I found a successor as resourceful as Peter Wood to handle them.)
I’ve come painfully to the conclusion that the problem that afflicts American academe is a lot deeper than our understanding of it was when we first shifted the NAS’s strategy in the direction of organization building. It is not just a matter of over-insulated governance structures, institutional bloat, and the diminished standards that go with it, or biased admissions and hiring. It’s far more profound. It’s a weakness that cuts to the heart of the intellectual vocation, one that always and everywhere has threatened to turn what should be the pursuit of knowledge into careerist indulgence and cultural mayhem. Pared to its nub, it’s this: Academics as a class, and intellectuals more generally, despite all their professions otherwise, have little natural inclination for truth-seeking. To the contrary, like almost everyone else, their basic instincts are self-serving. For most, only strong worldly constraint will turn the expression of their cleverness from a means of impressing or seducing others into a genuine vehicle for enlightenment. The ultimate constraint, as with all valued professions, is the sanction or disapprobation of others, most keenly felt in market settings wherein those free to choose exchange payment for useful product.
The creation of useful product requires the development of practical technique. Some of this—where the product is material—consists of tools, processes, and the skill sets to employ them. Where the product is conceptual, the techniques are comparable, though more dependent on things invisible, like logical and mathematical reasoning, methods of disciplined analysis, and the capacity to combine synergistically disparate ideas. There is really no single formulation of “scientific method,” but we usually associate it with the most consistent and rigorous application of these techniques, involving observation, experiment, and data processing. Scientific method cashes out in successful scientific theories that, in turn, can sometimes be deployed by engineers, craftsmen, and even artists to solve their everyday problems. It is the regular transition from abstract theory to useful practice that has won society’s support for natural science and the scientist.
The applied sciences possess rigorous methods and market outlets—their creations are the results of highly refined craft and earn income voluntarily paid through the marketplace. They are thus twofold protected against abuse. Natural science also has both protections, but because the practical payoff—though historically immense—is often indirect and delayed, the rewards have generally been bestowed through collective agency, via governmental or philanthropic backing.
How do intellectuals, outside the natural and applied sciences, most readily find followings and generate returns? To a disconcerting extent, through the creation of visionary schemes that sometimes console, but also invent or mobilize grievance, and that justify campaigns of moralistic aggression ideal for intellectuals to lead. To put it bluntly, intellectuals can and have made a great business out of misleading others, with rewards counted in power, status, and income.
What we are pleased to call humane learning lends itself to three basic approaches.
The first, the traditionally humanistic, which places less emphasis on forms of inquiry than on broad learning and judgment, may be the best of the available alternatives—but is too open to argument to bestow anything like unchallengeable scientific authority. What’s worse, to use it successfully, one has to work very hard, sometimes over a lifetime, and be, well, wise—disqualifications for most.
The second, a conspicuously modern enterprise, explicitly bases itself on the natural sciences. Unfortunately, even with the elaborate methodological tools it brandishes, human complexity has thus far prevented the generation of a great deal of useful output. Deemed by many critics as scientism rather than science, it is—outside some branches of economics—not particularly well rewarded.
The third is based on artifice, verbal hocus-pocus masquerading as epistemological sophistication, which either boils down to arid wordplay or, more mischievously, a bafflegab “theoretically” justifying delusive causes and claims to power. Alas, not only is it easier than the two aforesaid, but its practice is generally better rewarded, not only for its real adepts, who can rise to heights of “scholarly” prestige and influence, but for academic mediocrities as well, who through it have found themselves employment more remunerative and secure than that available in options like pizza delivery. Its secret: finding appreciative constituencies among the laity whose discontents it can find the intellectual means to channel. Via its mysteries a burgeoning cohort of intellectual magicians have swamped our culture and politics with febrile fantasy.
In America—and everywhere else throughout the modern Western world—intellectuals and intellectual wannabes have been produced in numbers vastly exceeding anything approached in earlier times. They comprise, after all, a luxury class that only a stupendously wealthy society could afford in sizeable number. And whereas in days of yore, either as clerics or philosophers, intellectuals usually kept (or were kept) out of politics—reserving their opinings for the safely esoteric or otherworldly—in the modern West they are free to descant on just about anything they please. This is our glory, but also, sad to say, a very profound problem.
There is, of course, only a limited amount that any single organization can do about such a problem. The NAS has ample work cut out for itself in simply trying to revive the canons of rigorous scholarship, to say nothing of the studied wisdom that once graced the humanities and social sciences. But perhaps as my parting shot, I can petition its current leadership to add one more item to its advocacy: the inculcation of professional humility and wary self-knowledge.
Academics need to love themselves less, need to realize how small are their critical powers compared to the intractable complexities of the world, need to appreciate how easy it is for an intellect to acquire a savior’s hubris, how little the theorist can know of where “transformation” actually leads, how much knowledge is scattered among the generality of mankind, how easily a preoccupation with abstract principles can distort perspective, and how often an intense concern for justice hides the desire to serve oneself.
So let the NAS not only champion those rights that allow scholars and teachers to be their creative best, but also foster the chastened spirit that recognizes the humility with which these rights should best be exercised.