Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Oof! Ou! Ouch!

In the few weeks that I have been blogging on the Chronicle of Higher Education’sInnovation site, some readers have greeted me warmly. And several are especially warm to my role as president of the National Association of Scholars.

Chuck Kleinhans, admiring my sense of reciprocity with the gilded class, noted the propriety of the “NAS’s chief administrator going to bat for the rich whose donations keep his organization afloat.” Mr. Kleinhans is, however, not all praise. At one point he gently chided me, “Get to work and do some real research Professor Woods.” (The “s” he adds to my name, like a doctor of humane letters, is purely honorific.) Mr. Kleinhans is occasionally loose with modifiers, as when he writes, “As the chief of the ultra conservative National Association of Scholars, I assume Mr. Woods embraces capitalism.” For the record, Mr. Kleinhans is not the chief of the ultra conservative National Association of Scholars.

“Marktropolis,” who comments on many Chronicle blogs, has urged me to look to mass media as a means of expanding my audience. “So, Peter, when is Fox going to have you on with O’Reilly and Beck to continue disseminating this BS?” I am flattered, but neither gentleman has called me yet. Marktropolis also credits me and my organization with horticultural zeal. He says my message comes down to, “’Hey  you kids get off my lawn.’ Which is pretty much all NAS has been doing since its founding.”

Someone writing as “anonscribe,” however, sees NAS has having a broader mission. We are “a bunch of elitist xenophobes scared by all them illegals.” It is a terrible fear and might prove debilitating in some, but as anonscribe explains, we rise above it in our efforts to “hijack” the humanities “in pursuit of a hollow, paranoid agenda.” I’m not clear what branch of the humanities anonscribe speaks for, but he does offer some genre-analysis of my blog postings: “What misleading tripe!” and some counseling, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” When not busy hijacking the humanities, I spend my time, according to anonscribe, hanging out with my fellow Innovations blogger Professor Richard Vedder. Together we are “popular scam artists trying to capitalize on some people’s fear and lack of understanding.”

Alepretez soberly concurs: “That was a serious case of whoop-ass anonscribe unleashed on you.”

Mr. “12035470” merely casts a withering glance at me. “Who is this remarkable savant?” he asks. Ah, Mr. 12035470, I was one of the lucky ones who was given a name, not a number. His pose of Olympian disdain lasts for only so long before he succumbs to gush, “I’m appalled at Wood’s shoddy manipulations.” And my “ignorant slurs.”

Mr. nweinstein strikes a more plaintive chord. “Some of us have dedicated their lives to scholarship that isn’t based on pretending.” It is not too late, nweinstein.

I take all of this in good humor. Colleagues who express disagreement in this manner are heirs to a long tradition of acerbic humor, sarcasm, and intellectual put-downs in academe. At their best, such jibes can fix an adversary like a roach at the end of a hatpin, wriggling helplessly. Mere logical refutation just doesn’t have the same effect.

While I am grateful for the attention of Mr. Kleinhans, Marktropolis, anonscribe, and the others, I do rather wish they would step it up. Of course, the gift of spleen is not given to every writer in equal measure. The progressive left in higher education today has many Stay-Puff Marshmallow Men, but no Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope to hone indignation to a gleaming edge. My opponents I fear are rusty zippers on a broken suitcase of ideas. Their contents spill out in a jumble of soiled laundry.

But that said, I suppose I should get to the point. Rebuttals that amount to little more than announcements that, “He states views that our kind don’t like,” are feeble at the level of logic but sometimes hefty as ways of policing public opinion. They are attempts to warn people off. Are they warranted?

Much of the warning focuses on the supposed character of the National Association of Scholars. NAS is a membership group that has been around since 1987. It is by no stretch of ordinary definitions “ultraconservative.” The last time we surveyed our members, well more than half were registered Democrats, and certainly even more than that hold positions that most Americans would describe as socially and politically liberal.

Not that I would run away from the word “conservative” either. Many of the NAS’s founding members were neoconservatives (e.g. former liberals who grew disenchanted as liberalism took a hard turn to the left). Our membership today includes a substantial number of Republicans and traditionalists, and even a handful of Tea Party activists. One of our members, Jim Summerville, the president of our Tennessee affiliate, was just elected to Congress as a Republican representative of the 25th District.

Confusing? From time to time I am approached by someone who hopes that NAS will offer a view that represents “the conservative side” of some issue in higher education. I can’t. The issues which the NAS takes up don’t neatly align with the dominant political polarity of the country. And we take no position at all on the vast majority of political issues. We have no foreign policy; no position on health care, abortion, guns, illegal immigration; not even on “climate change,” although we have written and said much about the sustainability movement on campus. How this translates into Mr. Kleinhans’s self-assured declaration that NAS is “ultra conservative” is hard to say.

Well maybe not that hard. One doesn’t have to be conservative to think that the history of the West should be a standard part of the curriculum, but increasingly that issue has been handed to the Right by an academy that is nervous about any theme that runs athwart the pieties of multiculturalism. One doesn’t have to be conservative to believe that American students should have a secure and unbiased knowledge of American history, but that ground has been ceded to the Right as well by an academy that takes it as axiomatic that perspectival bias is everywhere and that only “revisionist” history can be trusted.

One certainly doesn’t have to be conservative to believe that racial preferences in college admissions are harmful; or that higher education has become politicized to its detriment; or that the appointments process has been undermined by de facto ideological filters; or that the sustainability doctrine has so far escaped the ordinary level of skeptical interrogation from the academic community. But of course all these things too register as “conservative” themes for a large segment of the academy.

That labeling is itself a significant index of how narrow American higher education has become. Its willingness to block off whole domains of inquiry as illegitimate by calling them “conservative” isn’t even good polemic. It feeds the broader public perception of the academy as a closed shop run for the convenience of an elite that can’t even bother to take seriously matters of principle that a great many Americans regard as deeply important.

“Hey you kids, get off my lawn” was never what the NAS was about. We’d like the kids to be all over the lawn, and to know it from the roots in the subsoil to the birds in the canopy. But we don’t own the lawn and we aren’t the ones laying out the restricted paths of what can and cannot be taught. The great irony of political correctness is that, after all these years, it still clings to the pretense that it liberates the young from oppressive illusions, while it imprisons them in walls higher than any Matthew Arnold ever dreamed of.

American higher education needs the National Association of Scholars and groups like it that persist in pointing out the fatuities of the higher education establishment; that demand intellectual and moral accountability; that upset the happy complacency of a system founded on low-quality mass production of degree candidates; and that pose real alternatives. NAS for nearly a quarter of a century has been founding campus centers to promote learning in key areas that have fallen by the curricular wayside. We have been organizing challenges to the racial spoils system on campus and helping to win referenda in half a dozen states. We have been producing deeply documented studies of how the curriculum has changed over the decades; submitting amicus briefs in crucial court cases; and bringing to light abuses that somehow escaped the attention of the hundred or so official bodies that represent higher education in Washington, DC. We do this on a shoestring budget with the help of members who volunteer their time and energy, and we supply in return not much more than the sense that the great aspirations of higher learning are still alive.

That’s the elitist, xenophobic, capitalist, BS, hollow paranoid agenda that Mr. Kleinhans, Marktropolis, anonscribe, and the others are worried about.  It is the plan through which I and my scheming cohort hope to hijack the humanities and scam the public. Now you know.  If only they could get that zipper fixed.

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