Shut Up, They Explained

Peter Wood

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the new NAS study, Beach Books: What Do Colleges Want Students to Read Outside Class? We are grateful for the attention, even though The Chronicle decided that what was most newsworthy about our analysis of the extra-curricular reading assignments of 290 colleges was our finding that a large majority (70 percent) of the books reflected liberal political and cultural themes. In our own view, our most important observation is the lightweight intellectual and literary quality of the readings. But the Chronicle reported that too, so we’re not complaining.

The Chronicle’s news account summoned forth a small army of comment-makers, among them some readers who got right to our point. Someone writing as “amnirov,” for example, expresses heartfelt disdain for our organization (“I cannot stand the NAS”) but is captured by the facts we reported: “Let’s all thank them for exposing the absolute banality of bridge readings.” Amnirov uses more vivid language than we did: “This I Believe? God almighty! I'd rather drink a cup of battery acid. Outliers? The Last Lecture? Neither of those titles is even remotely worth read[ing] by any stretch of the imagination.”  We merely pointed out that the readings seldom pose even a modest intellectual challenge to students and that quality of the works is generally thin.

The comments section as whole, however, is dominated by folks who didn’t like our report and who really don’t like NAS.   Some of them have pretty colorful opinions. “wequals” calls us “a well-known Right Wing lobbying group.” “Mike Caulfield” goes further. He chastises the newspaper for failing at “journalistic conventions” by even mentioning our study since in his view NAS is “one of a number of right wing false-fronts.” He tells the editors, “You should have never run a story like this, period.”

A “false front” for what?  My colleagues and I try very hard to find clear and compelling ways to express our critiques of higher education. I can’t imagine what Mr. Caulfield thinks we are “fronting” for. But his odd claim resonates with some other comment-leavers. “raymond_j_ritchie” likewise labels us a “right-wing front organization.” “mjohnso9” declares that we are not only a “right-wing false-front” but also “covert!” Wow.

I admit to feeling a bit flattered.   I don’t look much like James Bond. But that is part of my covert charm.

Mr. Caulfield seems to believe that any organization that has received grants from the likes of Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation should automatically be excluded from mention in respectable journalistic precincts. What can we say? I am happy that the Bradley Foundation has supported NAS over the years.

But our report on summer reading programs stands or falls on its own merits. Readers may disagree with some of our judgments, but the methodology is transparent and even those who do disagree with the analysis can make constructive use of the work.   It provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date list of college extra-curricular book programs available anywhere, and is full of links to the actual programs.

Mr. Caulfield and some of the other comment-makers seem to be mesmerized by some of the web-based hit jobs on NAS. There isn’t much we can do about such “sources.” The People for the American Way has been exercised by our mere existence for a long time, and entertains itself with a caricature that includes patently false statements. Wikipedia repeats this incontinence as fact, and whenever we challenge it, some Wikipedia stalwart just confidently reinstates the falsehoods.

We have made peace with this reality. The hard core academic left has demonized the NAS and relies on its cartoon version of things to avoid dealing with the substance of our work. When this blanket dismissal doesn’t quite work, we get the spectacle of indignant guardians of political correctness rushing in to repair the breach. Someone named “tachuris” is “very disappointed in the Chronicle” for failing to heed Wikipedia’s smear. “Tommyd” thinks that for mentioning NAS the Chronicle reduces itself to the level of “a grocery-store tabloid publication.”

Enough of this. The National Association of Scholars is an independent group. We receive a modest level of support from a variety of foundations, some of them professedly conservative. But our membership is politically diverse; we stay out of issues beyond higher education; and we remain open to a wide variety of ideas about how to make American colleges and universities better.   We have taken a handful of core positions, such as rejecting racial preferences in higher education and our defense of academic freedom. On most issues, however, we conceive our role as furthering reasoned debate, rather than advocating for a single position.

That’s not to say that we are just a blotter for random opinions. The National Association of Scholars is rightly seen as counter to the prevailing leftist orthodoxy on campus. We stand for traditional academic values and a concern for sustaining the best parts of the Western tradition. If that makes us “conservative,” so be it, but the application of that term to us more accurately represents the narrowness of the intellectual spectrum on campus than our actual views.

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