The Academy Ovoids

Peter Wood

We've begun receiving nominations for the Ovoids. Among the most interesting:

For Category D, I nominate the book History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. My reasons for selection:

The authors refer to themselves in 3rd person while rating their own work.

The authors use 24 abbreviations to designate various organizations.

The authors claim that Americans were so divided about the legacy of the Revolution they they had to organize SEPARATE PARADES and eat DIFFERENT FOODS! (19)

The History of  "white protestant male elite" is given 12 pages.

The book is filled with enlightening words such as:


chronological thinking


multiple perspectives

passive memorization

pattern recognition


reevaluation least according to the authors: 

This book explores the extraordinary blossoming of historical research, writing, and teaching that has taken place in this country in the twentieth century as the history profession has become more diverse, more methodologically sophisticated, and more committed to an inclusive American history and a genuinely globe-encircling world history. (xxii)


 Original Posting

                Today is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.   The religion-averse American Humanist Association celebrates it as Darwin Day and is hoping for a global party. But Darwin’s birthday is also an occasion to remember Wendy Northcutt’s aptly named Darwin Awards, “honoring those who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it.”   These awards go to people who had what seemed like good ideas at the time—such as the Brazilian priest who last year lofted himself into the sky with the help of a large number of party balloons—but which proved to have unexpectedly grim results. Father Adelir Antonio was wafted out to sea and drowned. 

                I am not sure that Darwin, who was a kindly man, would have shared Ms. Northcutt’s grim sense of irony. But it is refreshing to have a few awards reserved for those whose who make memorably bad decisions.   The actor Richard Blackwell, who died last fall at the age of 86, achieved fame for his annual “Worst Dressed” celebrity list. Closer to home for NAS, Radar magazine last year offered a rating of “Worst Colleges in America.”    The winners: UC Santa Cruz in the category “Most Stoned.” Harvard University took top honors in “Most Overrated.” (Cornell was the runner-up.) Swarthmore College beat out Reed College to take the “Most Insufferable” award.   The University of Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut, took overall first place as “Worst College in America.” 

                 These are not judgments we would care to dispute. Radar was a briefly lived popular entertainment magazine—it folded in October—that completely lacked the august self-importance of U.S. News and World Report.   Its ratings, nonetheless, may have captured some realities that slipped past the news magazine’s vaunted metrics. Too bad that Radar has gone dark. Who will have the courage this year to depict Swarthmore by quoting whiney letters in the student newspaper complaining of “blatantly heteronormative” bias in an article about boys that girls like? Who will dare quote an alumnus inveighing against smug, “sickeningly pretentious” students at Mike Dukakis’ alma mater?

                Not us. We at NAS are scrupulously fair-minded observers of the passing scene from the Cambrian explosion through the Permian extinction and on to the closing of Antioch College.   Our task is to read the Burgess Shale of American education, in search of clues about the odd ruptures in the continuity of the university.   Who, looking on the vast expanse of asphalt parking lot that makes up today’s dumbed-down PC curriculum could imagine that where those white lines and “handicapped only” signs are painted there once were mountains full of intellectual diversity? 

                But natural selection is a tough business. If it prefers uniform parking lots of the mind to the risky chasms and precipices of real ideas, so be it. Getting rid of heteronormativity, however, may be a problem. Can you Swatties spell e-x-t-i-n-c-t-i-o-n? Didn’t think so.

                In any case, while we don’t think NAS is able to fill Radar’s shoes, we see a responsibility to carry on the work of rating the stuff in American higher education that the official guide books and rating services tend to overlook.   To this end we announce today the creation of the Academy Ovoids: the goose eggs of academic pretension. To win an Ovie, it is insufficient to be merely incompetent, callow, inattentive, self-serving, dull, or mediocre.   Ovies go to those who have edged up to the brink of awfulness and then, with all their might, leaped into the abyss. Do you know a person or an institution that has left behind the slippery slope of moral and intellectual compromise for a free fall into the Grand Canyon of folly? If so, let us know. We are starting with four categories of competition:

A.       Who are the top ten weathervane college presidents in the U.S.—the ones that most reliably and consistently shape their policies to follow the trends? 

B.      Who are higher education’s top ten braggarts?  

C.      What are the top ten colleges and universities rated by degree of misrepresentation? 

D.      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. 

                We’re accepting nominations in all categories. And we will have more categories as we think of them.

                To make a nomination, you must supply at least one paragraph supporting your choice. We will print the nominations if we can, though we may engage in some copyediting.  We'll post the lists of winners on April 1. 


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