On Re-Civilizing Higher Education

Peter Wood

On Saturday, July 27, NAS president Peter Wood gave the following remarks as a speaker on a panel with other higher education reformers on the topic of “Self-Government or Serfdom? Education in Crisis” at the Western Conservative Summit 2013.

Introduction – John Andrews, Centennial Institute: Dr. Wood, I think of your work at the National Association of Scholars in the context of the bravery, the indomitable spirit, the unwillingness to accept that something can’t be changed and turned around—in the same spirit as Wilberforce saying the slave trade must end. How lonely it must feel sometimes. Tell us about the view from the National Association of Scholars about the crisis in American education.

Peter Wood, National Association of Scholars: Well, coming to Colorado I guess I don’t need to make the case that higher education is a mess—the state that gave us Ward Churchill knows that. But it’s a more complicated mess than Ward Churchill. There are these questions of, “Does it matter?” “What can we do about it?” I’m going to answer all those questions in their entirety in the next three minutes. [Laughter]

But first let me tell you a little bit more about who I am and what NAS is. As mentioned, I’m an anthropologist, the kind of guy who studies savage tribes; right now I’m studying a particularly savage tribe, the only known tribe of cannibals so fierce they want to devour their own civilization. I’m of course talking about the American progressive academics. I head the National Association of Scholars, an organization that, in its own words, “seeks to foster intellectual freedom, and to sustain the tradition of reasoned scholarship and civil debate in American colleges and universities.” Those are fighting words to the leftist professoriate. I’ll give you an example. The outgoing head of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, recently said of us that we engage in “sclerotic wailing about Western civilization” and “maniacal opposition to politics in the classroom”—as though being opposed to politics in the classroom is a bad thing.

Another historian writes of us, as “seeking to restructure and privatize higher education” and being “relentlessly derogatory towards the hardworking and underpaid professors.”

To simplify, you might say that there are two different views, represented by Prof. Nelson and his colleagues on the one hand, and by the NAS on the other. One is that American higher education is the best in the world, that it’s only getting better, that its achievements in bringing critical thinking to students are unsurpassed. The other, which I represent, is that American higher education is in rapid decline, that it’s coasting on its civilizational capital and not replenishing that capital.

Well, does any of this matter? This really goes to the question, “Are our best days still ahead of us?”

And the answer, if we take higher education seriously, is that the “best days ahead” idea is a doubtful proposition. Our best days depend on us being more than a civilization that has prosperity, material wealth, abundance. We can have all the cheap energy in the world and jobs for everybody but still be unworthy and profoundly miserable at a certain level. What doth it profit us to have the world and lose our soul?

Well, Mia Love [Mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and a previous speaker at the Summit] mentioned that our goals should not be making life easier for the short-term, but making life better for generations. The only way to do that is to take higher education seriously, and that’s something that the conservative movement has singularly failed to do in the last couple generations.

To truly thrive, American higher education has to uphold virtue. Think of what Victor Davis Hanson [the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a previous speaker at the Summit] was telling us: prosperity and abundance without virtue is Imperial Rome at its worst. It’s decadence; it’s Hollywood. And it bears a certain resemblance to the contemporary average American college campus. Now, conservatives like to say that colleges indoctrinate—and a few of them do—but mainly what they do is shape students in more subtle ways. They make whole subjects disappear. They make some important ideas seem irrelevant or out-of-date. They marginalize and ridicule. Think of what Jenny Beth Martin [co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and a previous speaker at the Summit] was telling us earlier about the marginalized, the mocked, and maligned. The ideas that are subject to this treatment on American campuses are, unfortunately, often the ideas that deserve close attention. The treatment they receive on campus, however, goes beyond mere derogation. The faculty establish an order of approbation: some things are good, some things are bad, and the bad ones are ignored or put down as embarrassingly silly. The campus rewards intellectual conformity and celebrates identity politics over everything else.

If American conservatives hope to save our civilization, they’ve got to take hold of the issues in higher education. We all know what those are. The racial preference regime, the higher education bubble, the rise of a new form of flattening American K-12 education called the Common Core, the use of the sustainability movement as a way of indoctrinating students—there’s that word—and a hatred of capitalism and free markets, the use of our student loan fiasco to create even more dependency among American students, the rise of a soft disdain towards America, a kind of new form of anti-Americanism—that’s just the briefest of lists of the maladies that we have ahead of us.

What do we do about these? Conservatives need to make them part of the political discussion. Right now, they have just the most tenuous hold on the interests of politicians who think that the way to fix American higher education is to shovel money at it. That’s the worst way to reform it.


Question: If shoveling money at higher education is the worst way to fix our system, what are some of the best ways to fix our higher education system? Give us one sentence or one thought: what is something you should urge your college or university to do, something practical?

Peter Wood: Set real admissions standards that show the students that you care about the content of their education and are not just picking their pockets for tuition dollars.

Question: Is there a potential for lower cost and better quality college education that also teaches American values, using more internet and less brick and mortar?

Peter Wood: I’m conflicted on this one. I think that 10-15 years from now, there may be as few as half as many colleges and universities that we have right now. A great wave of creative destruction is going to come through and we will find ourselves faced with the task of figuring out how to do college education that preserves and transmits values and civilization in a medium that is not really friendly to that. Eliminating the personal relationship between a well-educated teacher who cares individually about his students and replacing that with the mechanisms that online education provides seems to me to be both inevitable and somewhat scary.

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