Common Ground

R. H. Winnick

Full disclosure: I’m an Obama Democrat.  I not only voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but supported his candidacy as a donor and spent hundreds of hours volunteering for him in that year’s state primaries and in the general election campaign.  I plan to do so again in 2012.

So what, you may ask, am I doing on the board of the National Association of Scholars, an organization known among educators and others—to the extent that it is known at all—for its conservative views on many of the educational issues of the day?

In a word, because since I first heard about the NAS from the horse’s mouth some twenty years ago—Steve Balch’s son and my son were childhood playmates, I’ve long been an NAS member, and Steve and I have long been personal friends—I have believed passionately, and have told Steve (and more recently Peter Wood) often, that in my view he, they, and the NAS generally are doing vitally important work in seeking to preserve, and often (lamentably) to restore, the quality of higher education in America.

Moreover, because I believe equally strongly—as do Steve, Peter, and (I gather) NAS members generally—that unless higher education is rescued from the doctrinaire, ideologically skewed, politically correct mindset that has taken hold of academe since I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, not only the quality of higher education in America but, without exaggeration, the survival of Western civilization as we know it will be at grave risk.

Let me be clear: I believe there is no question that American society still has a long way to go before issues related to race, gender, and class cease to impose arbitrary and unfair limits on economic, social, and other opportunities and progress. 

I believe deeply in the importance of social justice.

I also believe that sustainability matters—which is to say, that it’s important that we as a country, a society, and a planet not make our air and water unbreathable and undrinkable, or run out of the natural resources on which our high standard of living depends, or knowingly and avoidably waste or (immeasurably worse) wipe out any portion of the abundance of animal and plant life that nature (or God, if you prefer) has bestowed upon and entrusted to humanity.

I just don’t believe that shoehorning race, gender, class, social justice, sustainability, and/or any other social or political issue into every classroom discussion and aspect of college life is either the way to achieve meaningful progress on those issues or to fulfill the educational mission for which our colleges and universities were created.

As NAS research over the past quarter century has repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated, freedom of thought and expression—including freedom from constant exposure to ideological cant—is as much an endangered species on the college and university campuses of America as any creature currently at risk of extinction. 

The lowering of academic standards and the dumbing-down of the curriculum—both while the cost of a college education continues to skyrocket—are equally disturbing long-term trends.

To insist that all that really matters in the study of literature are issues related to race, gender, and class is not to centralize, but to marginalize, literature as a subject worthy of serious thought and a source of meaningful knowledge about and understanding of the human experience—including but not limited to what it means to be black, female, gay, and/or poor.  It can only result, over time, in the abandonment of any study of literature at all.

To make it optional for an English major to study Shakespeare, or for a history major to gain a broad knowledge and understanding of the major events and trends of human history, or for a humanities major to know something about science, or for a science major to know something about the humanities, or for anyone to know any foreign language, is to institutionalize ignorance, and to put at risk the breadth and depth of knowledge on which not just the value of higher education but the viability of our political system, society, and civilization depend.

I joined the NAS two decades ago, and recently agreed to serve on its Board, because as an organization it cares as deeply as I do about all of these matters—and is doing as much as any organization I’m aware of to address them in a thoughtful, meaningful, and effective way.

Releasing higher education, and educators, from the political and ideological bondage by which it and they have been confined in recent decades is something in which all of us, professional educators and “civilians” alike, have an enormous stake—and which all of us, regardless of what lever we pull in the voting booth, should be working together to achieve.

Whether we define ourselves as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, independents or moderates, we should all be able to agree that colleges and universities have a duty to produce graduates who know how to think critically, evaluate complex evidence, ask difficult questions, and seek answers from books or other credible sources and not just blogs.

We should all be able to agree that every college graduate, regardless of major, should emerge from his or her undergraduate years not just with theoretical job skills and actual debt but with a greater understanding of and (we may hope) appreciation for our political system (both its genius and its imperfections), history (both proud and sometimes shameful), and cultural legacy (including the great books, music, and art our civilization has produced).

We should be able to agree that even in a stronger economy than prevails today, an education which fails to produce those results—be the student’s major English, History, Business Administration, or Physics—is not worth its cost.

We should be able to agree that the imposition of any doctrine or point of view, of any political, social, economic, environmental, or other agenda on any student or faculty member as a condition of matriculation, academic success, employment, or tenure is unacceptable—and should be prohibited or purged from every institution of higher education worthy of the name.

Although there are no doubt many educators at every college and university who hold these truths to be self-evident, it must be recognized that in most such institutions they are badly outnumbered, under constant attack, or forced to keep their views and concerns on these issues to themselves.

The NAS may be regarded by some as a conservative organization, which may have limited its membership and support among people like me, who deem themselves politically liberal, moderate, or independent.

It deserves to be more widely recognized, however, that what the NAS exists to advocate—and is very nearly alone in advocating—is not a conservative political agenda but the conservation—and, increasingly, the restoration—of liberal education as defined and practiced since the days of the Enlightenment.

To accomplish that enormously important educational mission, it needs all the help it can get. 

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