Join or Die

Peter Wood

            “Join or Die,” as every schoolboy once knew, was the political cartoon drawn by Benjamin Franklin showing the colonies as segments of a snake that had had an unfortunate encounter with a Ginsu knife.


Franklin published his cartoon in May 1754 in the Pennsylvania Gazette, making him an early investor in the idea of colonial unity. Why exactly he omitted Delaware and Georgia is unclear. 

            When as a child I first saw this cartoon, I wondered at Mr. Franklin’s apparent ignorance of zoology. It was clear to me that snakes in the sorry condition of this reptile were not destined to be reassembled.   It took me some time to figure out that politics is a different order of reality—one in which serpents are common, and are indeed modular. 

            Still later I encountered the killjoy explanation that, “The drawing was based on the popular superstition that a snake that had been cut in two would come to life if the pieces were joined before sunset.” This hardly explains the perennial popularity of the cartoon, or its memorable character, to those who never heard the superstition.   Moreover, having spent part of my youth in rural Pennsylvania, I can attest that the prevailing attitude towards large snakes was unfriendly. Most people preferred disassembly over reattachment.

            All this, I suppose testifies to Ben’s genius. He somehow recognized that an image that would seem on purely logical grounds repellant would, in a political context, seem compelling. 

            Well, Ben, we need your help. The National Association of Scholars is slowly but surely running through the generation of scholars who founded it and brought it to national prominence. All too many have passed away; others have retired; and a few have just wandered off in discouragement.   The great power that moved in and colonized the university a generation ago seems now like a perpetual monarchy, its origins lost in the mists of time. Who would risk the folly of challenging it? 

            Some do. Several hundred new members joined last year. Thirty more since January.   We’re gaining a new reputation for breaking important stories, venturing into new territory, and—when we must—sassing the man. Ben would understand. And so too does a new kind of NAS member. The new recruits realize that NAS has little role left to play defending institutions that uphold the older academic traditions. Though we value those traditions, we know that in mainstream American higher education they have been so thoroughly Ginsu-ized that there is no hope of stitching them back together even as a zombie snake.   The task now is to create a nimble resistance to the near total dominance of the university by those who see it as a tool for their political ends.

            Case in point: two weeks ago we broke the story of Virginia Tech University cementing into place the last few pieces of a “diversity” plan that makes tenure and promotion (to say nothing of initial appointment)  contingent on a faculty member’s ability to “demonstrate” loyalty to the shibboleth of “diversity.” So-called “diversity contributions” add up like Frequent Flyer miles, for a free trip anywhere that Ideological Conformity flies.    We aren’t fighting this alone. FIRE and ACTA have joined in. And our affiliate, the Virginia Association of Scholars—nearly 300 strong—has weighed in. Three hundred was just enough Spartans to slow down Xerxes, but probably not enough scholars to stop this ideological horde. 

            NAS is more Athenian than Spartan in temperament, but Athenians too knew how to fight. We will await our own Salamis. 

            In the meantime, we need to reach all those faculty members who tell us quietly they support the principles we stand for but cannot risk being identified with the National Association of Scholars.  Get ye off the fence. The academic Left is feeling a surge of power. It views the time as right for carrying its agenda to the next stage. The Virginia Tech plan is a foretaste of what it has in mind. 

            Conservative? Traditionalist? Cussedly independent? Libertarian? Neo-Con? Classically liberal? Evangelical? Catholic? Mormon? Orthodox? Skeptical in any way about the agenda of the Left?   If you are any of these things, the university is rapidly closing its doors on you. You might find a sanctuary somewhere, but even so, you are being marginalized by a system of higher education that more and more demands political and ideological conformity. Hiding behind a mask of bland acceptance won’t protect you for long. The Left’s new strategy is to demand that you demonstrate your acceptance of its agenda in every aspect of your professional activity. 

            You have an alternative. You can fight the academic Left’s campus hegemony.   But if you fight it alone, you don’t stand much of a chance. This is a Ben Franklin moment for those who don’t want to be bullied into submission.    Join NAS or…

            Well, even though this is a hard sell proposition, the alternative is not death. It is merely conformity.   Which is like death but less interesting. 

            The NAS has certainly attracted critics who like to portray it as a stalwart of the academic Right. This is merely a caricature. We have a 22-year history of public advocacy that stands against it. We stand for robust intellectual diversity; for a university founded on free inquiry; for making academic appointments based on academic merit; for resisting the lure of ideology no matter its source; for an intellectually coherent curriculum; for principled and civil debate on important issues; for wide-ranging exploration of ideas, not an ever-narrowing funnel of conformity.   We stand for the integrity of higher education in an era in which it has all too often been traded away for political gain or, just as bad, a calculus of utilitarian ends. 

            NAS is for scholars who think the primary purpose of higher education is education—not therapy, not social justice, not “the whole person,” not leadership, not job training, not diversity, not sustainability, not any of a hundred other substitute ends. To be sure, higher education is capacious and can subsume many subsidiary purposes. The problem we face is that advocates of these subsidiary purposes often succeed in displacing education as the primary goal.   They do that, typically, by an act of substitution. “Real education,” they say, “is ________.” Or, “Properly understood, education centers on __________.”   This seems to mean that education itself is too vague, too weak, too uninspiring, too impractical, too insipid, or too abstract to be worth pursuing in its own right. 

            We’re in the camp that thinks the opposite: that intellectual inquiry is good in itself, that learning and discovery are intrinsically worthwhile, that preserving and transmitting knowledge and adding to the store of human understanding are primary values.   Moreover, all the other practical things one might want to do with one’s own education depend on getting this first part right. 

            This is an invitation to join principled resistance to the commandeering of higher education by other interests.   In dollar terms, it costs next to nothing to join. ($42 for a full year’s membership.) In terms that really matter, however, it may be expensive. It means taking a stand. 

            Now’s the time. 

            With Easter upon us, we say, “Join or dye.”



Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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