Monday, Mon Ami

Peter Wood

The Sultan’s Retainer Speaks

            Joseph Nye, the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations at Harvard and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, complains on the op-ed page of today’s Washington Post that international relations scholars have been sidelined by the Obama administration.   Few “top-ranked” IR scholars are being tapped, but Nye says the blame falls not on Obama but on the academics themselves. That’s because they are, “paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world.” 

            Nye wags his finger at his colleagues, whom he says “might be considered to have an obligation to help improve policy ideas.”   Might? But “too often scholars teach theory and methods” that are of no real use to practitioners. He notes that the nation’s 1,200 or so think tanks tend to step into the breach left by the overly theoretical academics, but the think tanks are troubling because “many add a bias” to their recommendations.  “Universities generally offer a more neutral viewpoint,” declares the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations. 


Old Noise from The New School

            The New School in Manhattan continues to provide a certain something, a je ne sais quoi, in American higher education. Guffaws? Mordant amusement? 

            Over the weekend, some 200 students rioted in pursuit of their demand that The New School president Bob Kerrey step down. Perhaps “rioted” overstates it. They rallied; they fought with police; they broke into a building and waved anarchist flags from the rooftop; 24 were arrested. No, rioted about covers it. 

            What occasioned the riot? Pull up a chair. Let’s see if we can catch up on the story. 

            The New School was founded in 1919 as a progressive enterprise. The Marxist (or should we say “progressive economic determinist?”) historian Charles Beard teamed up with Thorstein Veblen (The Theory of the Leisure Class) and John Dewey to found the enterprise in Greenwich Village. They were moved in part by Columbia University’s 1917 imposition of a loyalty oath on the faculty and students, and subsequent firings and resignations.  

            Side query: will the re-institution of loyalty oaths in American universities in the guise of “diversity commitments” demanded of all faculty members prompt similar outrage among progressive defenders of free speech? So far, the AAUP is dead silent on this.

            But back to our story. The New School started as a kind of open university, with no matriculation requirements. In 1933, however, it performed a service of deep and lasting intellectual significance: it created “the University in Exile” for academics fleeing the rise of fascist governments in Europe. Thanks to The New School, in the next decade, America became home to figures such as Jacques Maritain, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erich Fromm, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt.   The New School consequently became the port of entry in the United States for continental philosophy, social science, and—less happily—for the spiffed up versions of Marxism such as “critical theory,” that had taken shape in Europe.   The popularization of Freudian psychology in the U.S. after World War II no doubt owes something to The New School’s émigrés as well. 

            It is doubtful that The New School—then known as The New School for Social Research—ever attained anything like that cultural and intellectual prominence again. Rather, it spent the last six decades reveling in its idea of itself as cutting edge while sinking into general mediocrity. The New School became a magnet for suburban kids who imagine themselves revolutionaries-in-the-making.   To be sure, The New School has eight divisions, including the Parsons School for Design (or as it is now cumbersomely called, Parsons, The New School for Design), and some of them attract students who seek an actual education. 

            In 2000, former Nebraska senator and sometime U.S. presidential candidate Bob Kerrey was appointed the University’s president.   He has had a bumpy ride, not least because he came out in 2003 in support of the invasion of Iraq. But Kerrey had also told the press in 2001 about a raid he led in 1969 on the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong in which the Navy SEAL team under his command killed some innocent civilians. In 2006 Kerrey invited John McCain to give a graduation speech.   McCain was heckled at the Madison Square Garden Event; the student speaker, Jean Sara Rohe, insulted him; and when he spoke, numerous students and professors turned their backs. 

            Kerrey responded by chastising the protestors as cowards for “heckling from the audience where no bravery is required."

            As president of The New School, he has ruffled feathers in other ways too. A popular provost, Arjun Appanduri, resigned in 2006.   Kerrey’s attempts to streamline the institution and “rebrand” it raised umbrage. His decision, since discarded, to act as temporary provost after Joseph Westphal left for an appointment in the Obama administration, irritated faculty members as well. In December 2008, the senior faculty voted “no confidence” in Kerrey, and within a week a mob of students took over the cafeteria in a New School building on Fifth Avenue. Kerrey largely capitulated to their demands. As The New York Times put it, he made a four-point offer that “included a promise not to penalize students involved in the occupation and agreements to give students a voice in selecting a provost and investing school funds.”

            The riot this weekend centered on the same building.   The Leisure Class strikes again. Thus the legacy of Charles Beard, Thorstein Veblen, John Dewey, Jacques Maritain, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erich Fromm, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt.               


Got Guilt?

            Mount Holyoke College has carried the logic of separate orientation sessions for minority freshmen to its logical conclusion: segregated orientation sessions for white students. Don’t worry. It is all wholesomely politically correct. The white students (all volunteers) will spend their time “talking about race,” and then get together with the students in the separate minority orientation. 

            The dean of students naturally explains all this as coming from “our larger institutional commitment to diversity.” Well, indeed. Diversity is the doctrine that elevates group identity over individual aspiration, and nothing could better exemplify its principles than a segregate-before-we-integrate exercise.   We need to be sure, after all, that students get accustomed to seeing themselves and each other as primarily representatives of racial and ethnic groups that are bearers of distinct and in some ways unbridgeable differences. 

            Dean Braun also offers some Delaware-esque hints about what will go on at White Student Orientation. She told Inside Higher Ed that while details are settled, the groups will be "exploring their own racial identity and thinking about power and privilege."  And that the white group will consist of students “with an interest in anti-racism."

            Presumably the summer reading list will not include Shelby Steele’s White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.  


Woe, Woe, Etc.

            Following the links at Robert Jackson’s enlightened blog about liberal arts education, The Propaedeuticist, I came to Anthony Esolen’s three-part essay, “Culture, What Culture?,” from January on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s web journal First Principles. Esolen starts off with an excellent retelling of the scene in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, where the censorious Puritan, Zeal-in-the-Land-of-Plenty is bested by a puppet playing Dionysus.   The essay turns out to be about the uses of leisure, but the presiding spirit is not The New School’s Veblen. Rather, Esolen invokes Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture.   Along the way, Esolen turns out to be a cousin of Zeal-in-the-Land-of-Plenty. Americans have no culture, he says, because we have no sacred cult, no central values, no memory. Not even a low culture of football games and shared references to Nick-at-Night TV shows. “Crowded without community,” as he says at one point. 

            This is the conservative lament in high dudgeon on roller skates, taking in the whole arena. How do we raise our children? Poorly, says Esolen:

We treat them as, at best, pleasant interruptions of what is really important, the treadmill of life. Then we prepare them for that same life. We do not give them the blessed indolence that Keats praised. We do not set them to swing on white birch trees, as Frost did. We warehouse them, shipping them off in yellow packing crates on wheels, from one noisy “learning center” to another, to produce beings so harried, with so thin a spiritual life, so used to being busy, and yet so ill-equipped for either hard work or vigorous play, that they will be proof against culture.

This is a very literate—cultured in the full sense—dirge for American life, in which Esolen’s obvious enjoyment of his material and skill at weaving it together play against the grumpy message. Things can’t be all that bad if we still have writers like this. 


Sinisterly Speaking

Professor David Gordon, president of our New York affiliate, is running for office in the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty and staff union at City University of New York. He is part of a slate that calls itself the CUNY Alliance. We wish him well. The blog called Class Struggle Education Workers seems to have less salutary wishes. It identifies him not by name but as a “president of the New York State branch of the sinister, ultra-rightist National Association of Scholars, which denounces open admissions and affirmative action.”

            Well, for what it is worth, NAS has no position on open admissions. We do oppose racial preferences in college admissions but have long supported affirmative action in the sense of vigorous steps to ensure equal opportunity. “Sinister, ultra-rightist” is pretty amusing. I guess “classically-liberal, moderate” doesn’t carry the same punch.

  • Share

Most Commented

May 7, 2024


Creating Students, Not Activists

The mobs desecrating the American flag, smashing windows, chanting genocidal slogans—this always was the end game of the advocates of the right to protest, action civics, student activ......

March 9, 2024


A Portrait of Claireve Grandjouan

Claireve Grandjouan, when I knew her, was Head of the Classics Department at Hunter College, and that year gave a three-hour Friday evening class in Egyptian archaeology....

April 20, 2024


The Academic's Roadmap

By all means, pursue your noble dream of improving the condition of humanity through your research and teaching. Could I do it all again, I would, but I would do things very differently....

Most Read

May 15, 2015


Where Did We Get the Idea That Only White People Can Be Racist?

A look at the double standard that has arisen regarding racism, illustrated recently by the reaction to a black professor's biased comments on Twitter....

October 12, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What is the True Definition of Latino?

What does it mean to be Latino? Are only Latin American people Latino, or does the term apply to anyone whose language derived from Latin?...

September 21, 2010


Ask a Scholar: What Does YHWH Elohim Mean?

A reader asks, "If Elohim refers to multiple 'gods,' then Yhwh Elohim really means Lord of Gods...the one of many, right?" A Hebrew expert answers....