Civilization and the Spirit of Scholarship: On the Continuing Need for the National Association of Scholars Part II: A Dissenting Voice

Peter Wood

        The National Association of Scholars, which turns twenty-two this year, is in the midst of generational change. Steve Balch, its founding president, has stepped down from that position to become chairman of the board. I became the new president on January 1. While the NAS remains committed to its original mission, in the last two years we have been expanding both the range of issues we address and the strategies we pursue.

                This is the second of a multi-part series surveying the past, present, and future of the NAS. In Part I, I contrasted the NAS’s position on academic freedom to the changing stand of the AAUP. In Part II, I review the circumstances that led to the founding of the NAS in 1987 and how the organization was shaped by two of its ensuing battles.


                The NAS was founded by faculty members who, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, became alarmed at the growing displacement of academic standards by radical ideology, the rise of the notion of “moral equivalence” between the Soviet Union and the United States and an increasing disdain among academics for free institutions, and the emergence of a dismissive attitude in the humanities and social sciences towards rational inquiry and Western civilization. While these were somewhat separate developments, they were frequently found in the same intellectual ambiance. As they became more salient, an opposition emerged mostly among politically liberal faculty members who were disquieted by what they saw as the distortion of the basic principles of the university. 


                By the time the NAS was formally created, the broader intellectual movement out of which it had arisen had come to be called neo-conservatism, and it is fair to say that the NAS’s formative impulses were neo-conservative. The founders of the NAS, however, were determined from the start to create a broad-based organization that was not tied to any particular political movement. The NAS took a robustly positive view of the value of free intellectual inquiry, Constitutional liberties, republican government, the general advantages of free markets, the rule of law, and rationality.  But it supported these as principles and took no stand on concrete issues outside the academy itself. The NAS didn’t have (and has never subsequently taken) positions on foreign policy, federal and state fiscal measures, or domestic matters except where they these directly involve American education. 


                It was not an easy line to draw. People actively concerned about the university in a free society and the role of education in sustaining our civilization naturally have opinions on many other issues in public debate.   It testifies to the self-discipline of the NAS’s founders that they stayed within the organization’s declared limits.  The NAS took some of its spirit from neo-conservatism, but it had no stake in older strains of conservatism that sometimes harbored doubt about the larger horizons of civilization, science, and the university, and that attempted to preserve culture and custom from the disruptive force of disciplined inquiry. In any other era, NAS would have been seen plainly as a liberal-centrist group of scholars: which it was and what it remains. 

                The NAS’s founders were intent on creating a non-partisan organization that would speak for all academics concerned about maintaining the core principles of disinterested rational inquiry in the university. They played down the neo-conservative connection and insisted on the non-partisan character of the enterprise. The liberal press, however, wasn’t buying. From the moment it emerged, the NAS was branded by journalists as “conservative.” Seemingly, by the mid-1980s, to oppose “political correctness” and to uphold the traditional standards of disciplined intellectual inquiry had become a “conservative” stand.

Eclectic Dissenters

Though the NAS resisted the label, it did in fact bring some conservatives of various types into the organization. But the more important development was the decision to resist the pressures to politicize. The NAS could have but did not take positions on foreign policy or domestic issues. Instead it focused squarely on the academy. The first issue of the NAS journal, Academic Questions, featured articles on feminist scholarship, the Modern Language Association annual conference, student evaluations, and a review of a controversial tenure case. The next included pieces on affirmative action, academic feminism, student journalism, “ideology in the library,” and college costs. Subsequent issues dealt with “peace studies,” political science, sociology, teaching foreign policy, “critical legal studies,” the core curriculum,” the SATs, and speech codes. 

                The NAS’s effort to declare political non-partisanship had limited success in shaping its public image. While many of its members were and are registered Democrats, the NAS became known as an organization for “academic conservatives.” This label is accurate only if “academic conservative” means anyone who dissents from the core positions of the academic Left. But that sort of definition sweeps into one category old-style American liberals, centrists, libertarians, neo-conservatives, Burkeans, social conservatives, and apolitical scholars concerned about the integrity of their disciplines—lumping together people who disagree about many important matters. This, however, has had a practical benefit for the NAS in the sense that it has helped to crystallize a common cause. But it also testifies to the extraordinary power of the academic Left in being able to brush all of its academic critics into one bin neatly labeled “academic conservatives.”

                That label, and its even more pejorative variants, is not meant as a neutral description. Rather, it is an attempt to stigmatize critics as relics of an outmoded regime who espouse arguments and points of view that can safely be ignored. The label is a way of evading responsible debate. It has also proven, over time, to be a way to organize sentiment to discriminate against scholars who dissent from leftist orthodoxy. The NAS founders never imagined that they were establishing an organization that would encompass most of the political Left’s “out groups”—but as the Left’s domination of campus discourse grew, that is what happened. The NAS eventually became a Diaspora organization taking in dissenters of many kinds.

                Some of these dissenters look with uneasiness upon each other, but the result is a body that has a remarkable degree of intellectual diversity and pluralism. Our members include academics who are on the opposite sides of many key intellectual debates. Occasionally someone up and quits over our willingness to abide these unresolved tensions, and there are indeed purist associations that scholars can join if they wish to associate solely with those who share their particular form of intellectual dissent or political credo. The NAS, however, remains the many-threaded center of resistance to the soft totalitarianism that now controls most of American higher education.

The apt symbol of our many-threaded position is our journal, Academic Questions, which takes its title very seriously. In its statement of editorial purpose it asks:

What are the central principles of academic life? What are the obligations of the university? How can they be preserved in an era of mass access and politicized higher education? How can we most fruitfully improve the quality of teaching and scholarship and remain open to a plurality of voices and contending views? Can higher education revitalize the disciplined pursuit of knowledge? How do we recenter liberal education on the enduring questions of the human condition and once again prepare students for civilized living and civic responsibility?

These are some of the academic questions behind the title of this journal. Academic Questions seeks to restore the intellectual conditions in which these questions can be seriously asked, and their answers a weighed on their merits. We believe we can best advance the traditions of humanism and intellectual freedom by remaining open to good argument and solid evidence wherever it may be found. Academic Questions is above all the journal where scholars are invited to speak freely about the academy itself. 

The questions in this statement of purpose are not, of course, neutral. They assume the possibility of “central principles,” in an era where various anti-foundationalist philosophies say that such principles are impossible or illusory. The questions also assume that such a thing as the “human condition” exists, a proposition rejected by various forms of relativism and post-modernism. We can leave it to others, however, to finish the deconstruction of Academic Questions’ purpose. The point is that it is a wide and welcoming invitation to a great many scholars who do not find their resting place in anti-foundationalism, post-modernism, deconstruction, and other such doctrines.


Core Issues: Diversity

                In its early days, the NAS addressed a great many topics that can be loosely characterized as the defense of academic standards against the rising tide of campus ideology. No single topic stands out in Academic Questions as a “signature issue” for the new organization, but over time two issues—racial preferences and academic feminism—seem to gain something of that standing. This may have had less to do with the preoccupations of NAS members than with the preoccupations of the university itself. Racial preferences and academic feminism marked the points where the university diverged most dramatically from popular sentiment in the United States. Rather than minimize this friction, the academic Left chose the two topics as boundary markers for its vision of the university. To dissent on either one was to risk both personal calumny and professional setback.

                Because the NAS’s dissenting position on these matters came to define the organization in the eyes of many, it may be worth tracing how that came to be. The NAS wasn’t founded with either concern in mind, but not long afterwards racial preferences and academic feminism began to attract the attention of contributors to Academic Questions.


                Racial preferences had been woven into college admissions policies with increasing frequency since the 1960s, but the US Supreme Court decision in Bakke v. The Regents of the University of California in 1978 dramatically altered the rationale for these policies. Prior to Bakke, colleges and universities had justified admitting black students who did not meet ordinary admissions criteria by claiming that this step was necessary to help the nation overcome its history of racial discrimination. The majority of the Supreme Court in Bakke ruled that this was impermissible. The swing vote that created the five-member majority belonged to Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote an opinion saying that the University of California Davis Medical School had wrongly denied admission to a highly qualified white student (Alan Bakke) in order to admit a less qualified black student. But, Powell added, if the university had justified its racial preference as a step towards creating intellectual diversity in the classroom, he would have approved it.

                Though none of the other justices agreed with Powell on this point, the concept of classroom racial diversity as a justification for racial preferences in college admissions went from an obscure legal theory to a whole new way of thinking about race and education almost overnight. I’ve recounted this transition in detail in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (Encounter Books, 2003). One of the most interesting aspects of the transition is how “diversity,” born as a legal justification for racial preferences in college admissions, began to acquire more and more scope. College advocates of “diversity” soon saw in it a mandate for changes in the curriculum, creating racially segregated dorms, setting up identity groups as the basis for student life, and more. By 1988 the diversity doctrine slipped the leash of higher education and was adopted by corporate America, and by the mid-1990s, the imperative, “celebrate diversity,” had become nearly pervasive in American life.

                The rapid rise, elaboration, and popularization of “diversity,” however, left many faculty members perplexed. Powell’s Bakke opinion was itself poorly argued and not backed by any evidence. Moreover , “diversity” was gaining extraordinary standing in campus debate, where it was often treated as so important that its pursuit could and must override other values that just a moment before had seemed indispensible. The pursuit of diversity, for example, justified racial stereotyping. The need to treat people as individuals and not as representatives of their race fell by the wayside. Likewise, the need to weigh ideas on their merits and not on their advocates was ill-suited to the new diversity-inspired demand to treat each person as the bearer of his racial identity group’s “perspective.” At a deeper level, the diversity doctrine demoted the ideals of individual equality and personal liberty (to define one’s own identity) in favor of a system of group rights and privileges.

                Aggressive efforts to expand the diversity concept in higher education coincidentally hit their stride at nearly the exact moment that the NAS was being organized. I don’t see a direct cause and effect, or even an awareness among the NAS founders that “diversity” was about to emerge as the central organizing idea of the campus Left, but they were clearly alert to the change in the academic Zeitgeist.  

                 The lead article in the Summer 1988 Academic Questions was titled “’Diversity’ and ‘Breaking the Disciplines’: Two New Assaults on the Curriculum,” by Kenyon College professor of philosophy Thomas Short. He begins:

“Cultural diversity” in higher education, toward which there is now a nationwide movement, means three things: increased recruitment of minority students and minority faculty, a great number of “minority studies” or “multicultural studies,” and opposition to the alleged hegemony of Western civilization. It is supported by three arguments: the need to combat racism, the injustice of imposing alien cultural norms on minority students, and the purely educational benefit to all students of being exposed to diverse perspectives. In fact, it is felt that the case hardly needs to be argues, for how could “cultural diversity” be anything but good?

Short registered the new concept of “diversity,” and recognized that it was a trans-disciplinary and all-institutional doctrine. He was enunciating what would slowly emerge as an NAS central concern. 

                The term next appears two years later, when Academic Questions reprinted (under the title “A Dissent on Diversity”) an excerpt from a letter to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents by Gerard Flynn, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and excerpts from some related letters also by Flynn. Flynn was protesting the imposition on his campus of a rule requiring every undergraduate student “to complete three credits pertaining to the study of the life experiences of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and/or Asian Americans as condition of graduation.” These credits made up his campus’s “cultural diversity requirement,” in fulfillment of a mandate from the Wisconsin Board of Regents. Flynn responded that “‘Cultural diversity’ [as conceived by his University] is nothing of the sort; it is not even a generous intellectual effort, but a dogma, imposed on us by the regents and enforced by the administration.”

After this, the twin issues of diversity and racial preferences in admissions become fairly frequent in the pages of Academic Questions:

“The Institutionalism of Racism at the University of California at Berkeley” (vol. 4, no. 1, Winter 1990–91), reprints a letter and essay by Vincent Sarich, a UC Berkeley professor of anthropology, who took exception to Berkeley’s racial preferences in admissions.

“Merit: A Debate” (vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1991), takes place between Ralph Raimi, a professor of mathematics at University of Rochester, and a pseudonymous “Louis Settembrini,” who is identified only as “a former chairman of one of the social science departments at the University of Rochester.” Raimi defends merit as “individual, not collective and derides curricular innovations meant in the spirit of “diversity” to bolster ethnic pride.

 “Affirmative Action: The Muddied Middle Ground” (vol. 4, no. 3, Summer 1991), is an essay by Mitchell Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experience, arguing that colleges and universities will have to “accept some lowering of academic standards to meet what have become widespread and deep-seated public expectation,” but should avoid “grievous mismatches between prospective students and programs, as well as between prospective faculty and assignments.”

 “Higher Education Confronts the ‘New Demographics’” (vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 1991–92), is an essay by Terrance Dunford, an instructor at Cuyahoga Community College, who punctures a widely circulated myth about the “skyrocketing population figures of blacks and Hispanic youth,” and then walks us through how this myth has been exploited by educators to advance their diversity agenda.

 “Managing Diversity: Multiculturalism Enters the Workplace” (vol. 5, no. 2, Spring 1992), is an essay by Frederick R. Lynch, then a visiting professor of sociology at Claremont McKenna College, in which he observes the emergence of a new profession of “diversity” management.

This list of articles is striking more for its moderation than for enunciating a root and branch opposition to “diversity,” but subsequent articles over two decades trace a hardening view:

John M. Ellis, “On Discarding Affirmative Action” (vol. 8, no. 4, Fall 1995)

Thomas E. Wood, Jeffrey Rosen, Rita J. Simon, and Michael Meyers, “Civil Rights and the University,” Symposium (vol. 9, no. 4, Fall 1996)

Carl Cohen, “The Corruption That Is Group Preference” (vol. 11, no. 3, Summer 1998)

Peter N. Warren, “Lobbying for Diversity” (vol. 10, no. 4, Fall 1997)

Gerald Early, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Cary Nelson, and Clifford Orwin, “Multiculturalism and the Curriculum,” Symposium (vol. 11, no. 4, Fall 1998)

Terence J. Pell, “Racial Preferences and Racial Progress” (vol. 11, no. 4, Fall 1998)

Robert Lerner and Althea K. Nagai, “Reverse Discrimination by the Numbers” (vol. 13, no. 3, Summer 2000)

Thomas E. Wood, “Who Speaks for Higher Education on Group Preferences?” (vol. 14, no. 2, Spring 2001)

Curtis Crawford, “Rescuing the Concept of Discrimination” (vol. 14, no. 3, Summer 2001)

Thomas W. Wood and Malcolm J. Sherman, “Is Campus Racial Diversity Correlated with Educational Benefits?” (vol. 14, no. 3, Summer 2001)

Stanley Rothman, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Neil Nevitte, “Diversity and Affirmative Action: The State of Campus Opinion” (vol. 15, no. 4, Fall 2002)

Carol Iannone, “Diversity and the Abolition of Learning” (vol. 16, no. 1, Winter 2002–03)

Carol Iannone, “The Unhappy Difference Diversity Makes” (vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 2003)

In summer 2008, on the eve of racial-preference-ending ballot initiatives in Nebraska and Colorado, Academic Questions devoted an entire issue to the topic (vol. 21, no. 3, Summer 2008).

                To those whose definition of conservative comes down to “someone who does not support racial preferences in college admissions,” the NAS was clearly conservative, no matter what else the organization stood for or did. Of course, the NAS published criticisms of the diversity movement that, like the movement itself, went well beyond college admissions. As noted above, in 1988 in “’Diversity’ and ‘Breaking the Disciplines’: Two New Assaults on the Curriculum,” Thomas Short had succinctly observed that diversity had also become a pitch for minority hiring, curricular novelties, a rhetorical attack on Western civilization, and a reassessment of cultural norms. This agenda was both radical and comprehensive, but it was never really subject to rigorous scrutiny on campus. Zealous advocates in college administrations along with aggressive faculty members generally sidestepped real debate and successfully stigmatized (as racist) the few who resisted. A large majority of faculty members, at least those in disciplines that afforded some refuge, simply fell silent. In this chilly climate, the NAS blazed forth as the voice of the opposition—not because we were especially loud or especially numerous, but because we were there.


Core Issues: Feminists

The lead article in the first issue of Academic Questions was titled “Conflict and Contradiction: Principles of Feminist Scholarship,” by Virginia Hyman, a professor emeritus of English from Rutgers University. The piece was in fact a book review of two tomes (A Feminist Perspective in the Academy, 1981; Feminist Scholarship: Kindling in the Groves of Academe, 1985), both of which lamented that “feminist scholarship has so far failed in its larger purpose, which has been to ‘transform the existing curriculum from within’ by revising the perspective of traditional scholarship.” Hyman suggests that the failure is the result of feminist scholars’ refusal to “engage in real dialogue with the assumptions, methods, and conclusions of traditional scholarship, and develop a critical stance toward their own work.” She argues that “[t]he basic [feminist] belief…that societal relationships between men and women are primarily those of conflict, is at odds with the writers’ expressed goal of integrating feminist scholarship with traditional academic disciplines.” Hyman finds the view that marriage is, as one writer puts it, “the primary basis for women’s subordination,” to be “far removed…from actual social realities,” and wonders why it is that these scholars never examine the “possibility that relationships between the sexes may be complementary and interdependent.”

Twenty-one years later, Hyman’s essay holds up well.  In the intervening decades feminist scholars have certainly escaped the confines of women’s studies departments and created redoubts in almost all the humanities and social sciences (economics perhaps being the exception), and yet they have not “transformed” the curriculum or revised the internal workings of genuine scholarship. They have gained political power and access to more resources, but their level of intellectual authority remains pretty much at the level Hyman observed in 1987: their work is seen as a tissue of assertions that “will continue to be viewed with suspicion by all scholars who attempt to avoid the pitfall of gender-bias.”

The lead article in the second issue of Academic Questions was likewise devoted to feminism. In “Academic Feminism and the ‘Left’” (Spring 1988), Brigitte Berger, then professor of sociology at Wellesley College, took up the question of why academic feminism had allowed itself to become intertwined in both sentiment and intellectual goals with the Left’s “general antagonism toward basic American institutions (i.e., capitalism, bourgeois culture).” In Berger’s view “feminism is not inherently leftist.” To the extent feminism means “dedication to equal rights or a special interest in women’s role on society, feminists could be “ardent advocates of capitalism, or bourgeois virtues” and “patriotism.” Moreover, “in an earlier period feminists were advocates of all these things.” What happened to change that?

Berger’s answer combines several factors. First, academic feminism reflects the “new class” culture: the lives of the academic women who see themselves primarily as “producers and distributors of knowledge.” The “new class” (a term that by 2009 seems dated) located its tastes and preferences on the left, and the academic feminists followed. Second, academic feminists see themselves as part of a political movement that extends well beyond campus and takes as its founding postulate that women continue to be oppressed by men. Berger distinguishes several feminist factions (liberal feminists, classical Marxist feminists, radical feminists) that hold differing views about how to address this oppression, but the basic point is that academic feminism defined itself as part of a political protest movement. Third, academic feminism became caught up in a self-reflectiveness that led to a “new feminist epistemology” in which “gender is the root factor of existence.” This “restrictive path” of thought deepens academic feminists’ alienation and locks them into a “subjectivistic analysis.” Having declared “war” on the “cognitive rational/analytic tradition,” feminists are left treating “centuries of human knowledge and thought” with scorn. This sets them apart from Marxists as well on a path of “progressive radicalization.” In the end, feminists have become a kind of radical peninsula of the Left, with which they mainly share a disdain for the culture and institutions of the West, and a belief that they can discard “value neutrality in the pursuit of knowledge” in favor of the “politics of movements for emancipatory social change.”

Berger concludes that “a peculiar combination of sociological and cognitive/ideological factors have made for the distinctiveness of contemporary academic feminism: the former have pushed feminists toward the Left, the latter have led to its increasing radicalization.” And she predicts that feminism—this is 1987—is about to make its ideas “firmly institutionalized.”

 Having commenced with this theme, the NAS never let it go. Among the articles published in the early years of Academic Questions were Margarita Levin, “Challenge to Feminist Philosophy” (vol. 1, no. 4, Fall 1988); Lloyd Cohen, “On Harassment” (vol. 3, no. 2, Spring 1990); Robert Lerner, Althea Nagai, and Stanley Rothman, “Filler Feminism in High School History” (vol. 5, no. 1, Winter 1991-92); Paul R. Gross, “On the ‘Gendering’ of Science” (vol. 5, no. 2, Spring 1992); Michael Weiss, “Feminist Pedagogy in the Law Schools” (vol. 5, no. 3, Summer 1992); and John Ellis, “Feminist Theory’s Wrong Turn” (vol. 7, no. 4, Fall 1994.)

 At the recent national conference of the NAS held in Washington, DC, after I debated Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, I was approached by another AAUP person in attendance, a man who wondered why, in my comments on academic freedom, I had not attacked academic feminists. I was perplexed by his question, even more so as he became insistent—I quote approximately—“We know that the NAS’s dislike of feminism is at the root of its positions. Why don’t you just come out and say so?” Then I was not just perplexed but annoyed. I do see academic feminism as among the destructive ideologies on campus, but I would hardly grant it pride of place as the most important, the most pervasive, or the most destructive. Generally, its own extremism makes it a self-limiting phenomenon. Moreover, I don’t read the history of the NAS as suggesting that the organization has had a particular preoccupation with academic feminism. The questions my AAUP interrogator asked, however, demonstrate the Left’s own preoccupation with academic feminism as one of its boundary markers. It is as if I sounded too much like a liberal advocate of intellectual freedom on campus, and he needed reassurance that beneath my protestations of open-mindedness lay a rejection of feminist ideology to which he could securely dock his moral superiority.

                The three issues addressed so far in this series—academic freedom, diversity, and feminism—were defined as part of the NAS agenda from early on, if not in the case of the latter two from the very beginning. They come from the galvanizing moment, when the NAS began to give voice to things no one else was saying. That moment, of course, had to pass. Organizations may begin in a burst of excitement, but they persist in systematic efforts to get something done. Steve Balch and the other NAS founders had dared to hope that something could be done. It was, after all, part of their commitment to the Enlightenment and the power of reason, that exposing institutional follies should prompt people to call a halt to them; and summoning people’s attention to the disrepair of the university would inevitably lead to responsible efforts to set things right.

The articles in Academic Questions, however, did not prompt any widespread reassessment by American faculty members over the direction of the colleges and universities. Recognizing that simply calling people to attention was not enough, the leadership of the NAS soon turned to new tactics, focusing mainly on the creation of new associations. Part III of Civilization and the Spirit of Scholarship will focus on this.

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