Never Bored

Peter Wood

                A reader who signed himself HayekFan recently used our comments section to ask:

                Any NAS initiatives for conservative student self-education?  They surely can't rely on their teachers and professors to learn what they need to know.  Even a must-read book list would help them.  I'd include anything by F.A. Hayek.  His work really helped me understand how a free society works.

                Let’s take these one at a time. 

                Does NAS have any initiatives for “conservative student self-education?”

                Hmmm. Should we?   NAS is not a guardian of conservative opinion, even though our opponents and some of our friends like to assign us that role. 

                I’ve addressed the “conservative” label here. The briefest answer is that yes, we have something to offer to students who are interested in the intellectual traditions of the West and in the foundation of free institutions. But we are not exactly conservative. 

                A slightly longer explanation: NAS resists the university's slide from rational intellectual inquiry to a center for political indoctrination but we are not involved in party politics, and our principles are generally in the tradition of an older liberalism. That is, we support intellectual and academic freedom; we think the university has norms and traditions worth preserving because they foster civil discussion of contentious issues; we value the heritage of Western civilization both for its intrinsic merits and because it continues to open the way to scientific advance; and we advocate free institutions as indispensable to the conditions of free inquiry. 

                And our membership includes robust representation of many intellectual outlooks: conservatives and liberals; theists and atheists; strong advocates of free markets and strong advocates of government intervention in markets; scientific rationalists and humanistic intuitivists; ardent supporters of a classical curriculum and ardent supporters of a continually adaptive curriculum; those who take the liberal arts college as the measure of higher education, and those who prefer the research university; and so on. NAS definitely doesn’t gather into its fold every outlook that has a substantial following in the academy. We don’t, for example, appeal to faculty members who elevate “group identity” as the key concern of contemporary higher education. And those who think the “search for truth” is an outmoded conception don’t often apply for membership. 

                Our rejection of identity politics and postmodernism automatically makes us “conservative” in the eyes of some. But in truth, we are just sticking to the core principles of higher education as they have always been. 

                If the writer means by “conservative students” students who define themselves as political conservatives, then no, NAS isn’t going to have any initiatives specifically aimed at such students. A better bet would be the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. But we do have a great deal to say to students who are “conservative” in the same sense that NAS is conservative, i.e. alive to the importance of intellectual traditions within Western civilization, concerned about the rising tide of ideology and irrationalism in the academy, and persuaded that it is important to understand the institutions that make free inquiry possible.

       So what specifically does NAS offer to these “conservative students?” 

                We’re open to suggestions. For over twenty years, we’ve addressed ourselves mainly to faculty members, administrators, academic organizations, and government bodies. We made a decision last year, however, to address ourselves to a broader public, including students. But we are still figuring out how to unbend. This website is a move in that direction. We’ve been including opinion pieces by our summer student intern; we’ve been calling student newspaper editors to discuss items we think the student press should investigate; we’ve been meeting with leaders of student groups; and we have quietly begun to converse with students via Facebook.   

                I’d like to think that an open-minded student could learn a lot about what isn’t being taught on campus by reading our website, and a lot too about the suppressed intellectual controversies. But surely we could do more to connect with students. 

                We aren’t going to duplicate what others are already doing. FIRE, ISI, FrontPage, Campus Watch, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Students for Academic Freedom, and provide students, conservative and otherwise, with a lot to consider. So where should NAS come in? 

                We’d like to extend our conversation, but rather than launch something on the basis of what we’ve seen, we’d like to know what students themselves think would be useful. Email us. But in case you think we are avoiding the issue, here are some possibilities:

       The Bowling-for-Bollinger Initiative. Earn points for each outrageously false and self-serving statement you can document from your college president. The winner receives a tin-foil trophy depicting Columbia University president Lee Bollinger.

      The Never Bored Re-Activity Box. Includes the find-the-hidden kalashnikov in a clever line-drawing of Ward Churchill (here’s a model of this kind of puzzle); a connect-the-dots diversity game, which reveals which faculty members and university staff financially benefit from fostering identity politics on campus; and the Trapped-in-the-PC-University Maze.

      The Because-We-Kerr Poster Competition, named in honor of the University of Delaware’s über-PC head of residence life, Kathleen Kerr. We are looking for the best satire directed at the excesses of the “sustainability” mania. 

                Vote your choice!  

                Should NAS provide a “must read list” of books students should know but are unlikely to be assigned in regular courses? 

                I once answered a similar question in The Boston Globe by recommending Your Chain Saw: A Guide to Use and Maintenance—a practical text for the lumberjack in all of us. It wasn’t an altogether bad suggestion and The Globe printed it, but I sense HayekFan expects something less hands-on and not literally so cutting-edge. 

                There are some difficulties in answering this question. Many “must read” books are obvious. Any American who aspires to be educated should read Plato’s Republic; all the major plays of Shakespeare; Machiavelli’s The Prince; a large swath of the Bible (at a minimum Genesis, I Samuel, the Gospels, and Paul’s letters); Locke’s Two Treatises of Government; a good selection of The Federalist Papers; Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; some Melville (Moby-Dick would be best) and some Hawthorne. There are no surprises to the items on such a list, unless it comes as a surprise that it is so easy these days to get a college degree without reading any of them. (Or, alternatively, reading them only in a class where the professor seeks to diminish their worth and turn them into yet more examples of sexist, racist, elitist, and oppressive thinking.) 

                And then there is the problem of where to leave off. There are more books worth reading than a student will read in college, or for that matter, in a lifetime. Part of the fun of becoming educated is finding your own way through the riches. Homer now, Virgil later? Rousseau or Montesquieu? Hobbes or Ricardo? John Stuart Mill or Ralph Waldo Emerson?   Rather than insist on a “must read” list, NAS would be truer to its spirit to exhort students to plunge into the river of civilization and swim.

                That’s not to say that I find HayekFan’s question uninteresting. Perhaps we can challenge our readers to contribute to several different lists:

                Neglected Masterpieces. What are the books (articles, poems, etc.) that you think wouldn’t ordinarily turn up in a list of great books but you found profoundly instructive, moving, alive with luminous intelligence? HayekFan puts the works of F.A. Hayek in this category. I put Your Chain Saw.  Perhaps you have other suggestions. Tell us, and tell us why, and we may add you to our list of finalists. (Works by L. Ron Hubbard, Mary Wollstonecraft, J. K. Rowling etc. not accepted.)

                Worst Textbooks. What books assigned in actual courses you have taken deserve to be on the list of most biased, worst written, and/or trivial time-wasters? There are many ways for a textbook to be bad. We don’t want to limit the possibilities. Tell us the text, the course, and why you think the book belongs on our list. 

Most Overrated Author. Being a college student in 2008 probably means you’ve had at least 12 years of saccharine, self-righteous, diversiphilic junk crammed into you in the name of “literature.” (We exempt the homeschooled and the fortunate few who attended a school where you wear a uniform.) Somehow you achieved enough independence of mind to suspect that Maya Angelou is a lousy poet and Amy Tan’s novels are insufferable. You survived 15 consecutive readings of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, without loving it.  You doubted that Sheldon “Shel” Silverstein’s The Giving Tree represents the fate of the planet. You didn’t care how many mommies Heather had; she was still a brat. As your friends swooned over Howard Zinn, you somehow kept your composure. So who do you think belongs on our list of the top ten windbags overindulged by academe?  

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