In June 2017, NAS revived its print newsletter, with a new name: IMPERFECTIOn. The title, Peter Wood explains, “is a place holder, but one that bears witness to our anti-utopian attitude.” All NAS members should have received print copies in the mail. Over the next week, we will excerpt a few articles from IMPERFECTIOn, starting below with Peter Wood’s “Word from the President.”
Harebrained. Not hairbrained. Shipshape. Not shipshaped. Tableware. Not tablewear. One can, however, imagine instances in which the non-standard version would make sense.
Comb-overs and toupees are the gentle brush of hairbrained madness on the scalps of many middle-aged men.
Margaret Dumont played the shipshaped foil to Groucho in several Marx Brothers movies.
The Midtown Diner still does a brisk lunch trade despite its aging décor and tablewear.
The National Association of Scholars (not Scowlers) turns thirty this year. Mostly that means thirty years of upholding the principles of good scholarship, but we’ve done our share of scowlership too. In the Winter 1991 issue of Academic Questions, we reprinted Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s remarks to Congress after the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee rejected the nomination of Carol Iannone to the Advisory Council for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Moynihan called the affair—using very temperate language— “discordant” with the “honorable and hopeful” history of NEH. And he said he could not recognize what had been said about the Iannone nomination as “the language of scholarly disputation.”
He was, in a word, scowling. Carol at the time was the book review editor of Academic Questions, and NAS has remained her home ever since.
With thirty years of Academic Questions at my elbow, I could have plucked many other examples of NAS caught in the act of deploring one thing or another. Of course, deploring is risky business. When presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared at a New York fund-raiser on September 9, “You could put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it,” she inadvertently created a rallying cry for her opponent’s supporters.
NAS, even in its infancy, deplored with more finesse. We would not, for example, put all those whom we deplored in the same basket. Perhaps we would put them in the same pannier. A pannier of poseurs: the diversiphiles, genderistas, neo-Marxists, postmodernists, power-mad mezzo-gogues at war with the West.
Not that we ever put it quite that way. NAS has always called out missteps and follies in higher education. This inevitably has meant opposing the academic left’s eagerness to turn college into a political proving ground, but we have been just as concerned with other kinds of follies. Neglect of general education. Credentialism. Overspecialization. Decay of academic and intellectual freedom. Dishonesty.
I should add, lest anyone jump to a conclusion, that NAS didn’t endorse any candidate in the recent election. I’ve received notes from NAS members on both sides, including one today in which a supporter says he can’t contribute at the moment because “I was so scared Hillary was going to win that I donated more than I could afford toward beating her.” But the other day, an NAS member quit on the erroneous assumption that we had supported Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Uneasy lies the non-partisan head on the pillow of public policy.
Our positive project is best seen as restoration. NAS’s mission, as we restated it two years ago, is “to uphold the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.” That emerged from a lot of debate among the members of our board, and each word counts.
It was a carefully meditated decision to put “liberal arts education” as the cornerstone. NAS members include faculty in the hard sciences, applied arts, and graduate and professional schools whose careers are not directly in the “liberal arts” as conventionally understood. But all of us have a stake in making sure that undergraduate education has a vital and coherent center. We could have said “searches for truth,” rather than “searches for the truth.” We put the definite article in because we are subscribers to the idea that, beyond personal insights and culturally conditioned judgments, there is indeed a knowable reality, and that a deep purpose of higher education is to attain accurate knowledge of it. Promoting “virtuous citizenship” embeds two contentious ideas. It commits NAS to the idea that virtue can be distinguished from iniquity or moral indifference, and it commits us to the view that higher education properly has something to do with preparing students for active life in our self-governing republic.
It might be important to add that we came to that formulation well before the discussion of illegal immigration, building a wall, or denying visas became politically salient. We weren’t thinking of green cards and H1B visas, but rather of the responsibility of colleges and universities to give students a good grounding in what our government is, how it works, why it is so constructed, and where they can best take part in public affairs.
Our recent study, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, exhibits this part of our mission, but it was embodied as well in the very first issues of Academic Questions. In the Summer 1988 issue, Herbert London wrote on “Peace Studies in the Academy,” and in the next issue André Ryerson wrote on how colleges teach American foreign policy: “The way students are taught to perceive their country,” Ryerson wrote, “will have consequences for the eventual destiny of the world.”
Scholars, for the most part, are indirect actors in the world. They put words on paper (or pixels on screens); they talk; they read. Sometimes they impart important ideas to students and sometimes they inspire a student to do great things. Sometimes, of course, they get carried away. To what incalculable cost in human lives and happiness did Karl Marx scribble in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
We now have a university crammed full of pseudophilosophers determined to change the world without the aid of any coherent understanding of what the world actually is. One of NAS’s tasks is to flatten the tires of that juggernaut. We may not be able to empty the pannier of all its poseurs, but it doesn’t hurt to shake out a few at a time. We’ve been running a series titled “Verdicts” in Academic Questions in which contributors offer their assessments of figures such as Edward Said and Martha Nussbaum.
This suggests that the NAS has its own strain of activism. We do. Our approach to higher education reform is more than an insistence on high principles. We also advocate for specific changes. We have, for example, put forward a set of far-reaching amendments to the Higher Education Act, which is currently up for reauthorization. Our “Freedom to Learn Amendments” have garnered a lot of attention (you can find them on the NAS website). Regardless of whether they are included in the final bill, they have already begun to shape the public debate over the federal government’s role in higher education.
It is not harebrained of us to think we might make things better. We are after thirty years of vigorous effort a shipshape organization with an excellent staff, a balanced budget, a distinctive public profile, and an important voice. We mind our manners, keep the tableware in order, and distinguish between butter knife and soup spoon. We don’t scowl when the waiter spills the wine. That would be deplorable.
Image: Public Domain