I’m back from the 13th conference of the National Association of Scholars, a 21-year-old organization dedicated to combating political indoctrination on college campuses and defending the traditional curriculum. While the NAS has no formal political affiliation, it has a decidedly right-of-center bent, and I thought the conference would offer an interesting glimpse into what conservatives and right-of-center moderates are thinking right now, just before the Obama transition. (Not to mention that NAS conferences are always fascinating and offer a welcome diversity of opinions.)
So, here’s Part 1 of my observations from the weekend. The highlight of the conference, no doubt, was the debate on academic freedom between NAS president Peter Wood and American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson. Nelson has criticized “politically correct” speech codes and asserted that he opposes “the destructive power of idenity politics”; however, he is also on record as being highly critical of the NAS’s “war on political correctness,” and his speech boiled down to “Sure, the NAS is right about some things, but you guys really overstate the case and despite some individual cases of PC run amuk, there is no problem of a dissent-stifling liberal orthodoxy on campus.” Much of the anti-PC critique, Nelson argued, is made in “ignorance or bad faith,” and is aimed at discrediting, marginalizing, and demonizing left-wing, proggressive faculty. (As an example, he cited the American Council of Trustees and Alumni 2006 report How Many Ward Churchills?; Nelson argued that Churchill, who referred to the 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns” who had it coming to them, was actually quite atypical both because of his “over the top” rhetoric and because of the peculiarities of his fraud-laced career. True enough; but the real thrust of the ACTA report was that Churchill-type ideological extremism was far from unique.)
Nelson lost me when he asserted that, contrary to conservative critiques, women’s studies is no longer a bastion of orthodoxy. The proposition that “women are universally oppressed by the patriarchy,” he claimed, is no longer the dominant assumption in Women’s Studies and hasn’t been in nearly 20 years. That may be technically true; the problem is, to the extent that male oppression of women is no longer the sole dogma of the field, the dogma has changed only to accommodate other left-wing orthodoxies and “oppressions”: for instance, any critique of the oppression of women in Muslim societies must now be mediated by the understanding that such critiques can be used as a tool of Western imperialist oppression of “brown” men. How many WoSt courses would be receptive to discussing the idea that innate sex differences may partly account for the unequal distribution of women and men in some fields?
Then again, Nelson probably thinks that’s fine; indeed, he took a swipe at those who criticize women’s studies for insisting that all gender differences are socially constructed — as if they should give any weight to the patently ridiculous idea that women may innately have less aptitude for math or music! (I didn’t get a chance to ask Neltson any questions during the Q & A, but I did manage to buttonhole him after the session. Is it right, I asked, to exclude from academic discourse the view that there are some biology-related cognitive and behavioral differences between men and women which may affect the gender composition of some professions? Nelson’s initial response was to dismiss any possible validity of this view; finally, he grudingly conceded that it should not be suppressed, and even, in an aside, that Lawrence Summers probably should not have been fired for voicing such a view. He also noted that the AAUP had, under his leadership, criticized the disinvitation of Summers to speak at a dinner at UCLA.)
Nelson also took the NAS to task for ignoring orthodoxies that don’t fit the “left-wing” mold — for instance, sociology departments that elevate quantitative research to the point of excluding students interested in the qualitative method, or economics departments that fail to teach “very timely” skepticism toward the free market. “But the NAS ignores that and focuses on Women’s Studies,” declared Nelson. “You’re like mullahs who condemn heresy but bow 500 times a day toward Wall Street, or the ruins of Wall Street.”
Think that was snarky? Well, things got really interesting when Peter Wood took the podium and opened his speech with a brief discussion of an essay Nelson had published about an earlier NAS conference, in 1997 in New Orleans, deriding the group as a gathering of old men resentful of change and younger losers anxious to blame their failures on left-wing orthodoxy in academe, all of them consumed by bitterness and fear. (I attended that conference, which featured a great speech by Shelby Steele, and that’s not how I remember it.) Wood cautioned that “behind this affable exterior, there is actually a good deal of malice.” A hit, a very palpable hit, which Nelson took with a great deal of equanimity; it takes some chutzpah to accept an invitation to speak from a group you’ve satirized in this fashion.
During the Q & A, several people cited instances of academic orthodoxy they or members of their family had experienced personally; one of the statements, from a very passionate young woman studying at the University of Arizona, illustrates the complexity of evaluating such complaints. “Here are some of the things I’ve heard from my professors,” she said. “The US could stop world hunger if we just spent less on defense. American soldiers are no different from terrorists and essentially pursue the same objectives. China is not a Communist country.” (Is the last of these necessarily an example of left-wing propaganda, or a recognition of China’s moves toward a market economy?) The young woman was also unhappy that in a journalism class, she was required to read The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times for class reports and credit, but was not allowed to substitute The Washington Times; it didn’t help that she repeatedly referred to the latter as “The Washington Post” until corrected by someone from the audience. Now, I will say that depending on the type of journalism class it is, it might be quite appropriate to give only those reading assignments. But a comparative analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Times might be interesting as well.
Nelson’s response to all the anecdotal material was that he couldn’t comment on them without knowing all the facts. The larger issues, though, is that in all too many academic departments, there is an atmosphere in which left-of-center politics are assumed, and equated with virtue. Tthat’s a problem, not just for conservatives or libertarians but for the exchange and flow of ideas. And sometimes, this orthodoxy does blow up in ugly ways — for instance, during the Duke sexual assault hoax case, which went unmentioned at the Nelson/Wood panel.
But meanwhile, what about conservative politics? On the first day of the conference, Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution and National Review Online gave a speech about the importance of classical education, arguing that the study of Western culture and the Greeks in particular is indispensable to an understanding of the human condition and its limitations. Hanson lamented that “the general public has lots all idea of what the West is; they live in it and enjoy the benefits of its daily commerce and its consumer culture, but they don’t have any notion of what its founding principles are.” Hence, he noted, the widespread willingness to give credence to arguments for moral equivalency between Western democracies and totalitarian regimes.
So far, so good; and Hanson reserved some of his criticism for the right, for the rise of vocationalism and the decline of the idea that the liberal arts should give people a grounding in a common culture, shared history and literature, etc. But there is another elephant in that room: isn’t any conservative effort to promote classical culture these days going to come into conflict with the rise of conservative populism, and its frequent appeal to hostility toward the educated “elites.” When I asked Hanson about this, he flatly denied that such a problem existed; the real problem, he asserted, was the elites’ prejudiced attitude toward Sarah Palin, as evidenced by the difference in the treatment she got compared to the coddling of Caroline Kennedy. (That’s coddling?) Hanson also assured me that if he saw a real trend of anti-intellectualism among conservative commentators — for instance, the claim that “instinct is superior to reason” — he would oppose it and speak out against it.
A good portion of Hanson’s luncheon speech the next day, when he was receiving an NAS award, was also devoted to a defense of Palin; he noted morosely that “those of us who are conservatives or moderates are somewhat bewildered by the last election,” and specifically by the attacks on “‘Palinism,’ defined by some as ‘know-nothingism’ or ‘anti-intellectualism.’” Hanson lamented that conservatives like David Frum, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and others “deplored Palin’s lack of knowledge of foreign affairs,” and commented, “All I can say is that it’s very hard to spend your life in Wasilla, be a mother of five and get to be Governor of Alaska and take on the power structure that she did.” (Isn’t that rather like the rationales for affirmative action?) Hanson concluded by saying that Palin represents “conservatives values lived through experience.”
I have no problem with the fact that Palin had no Ivy League degree, and I certainly don’t think that being a certified intellectual should be among the qualifications for political leadership. But the contradiction between conservatives’ attempt to be custodians of culture and the Know-Nothing populism often spouted by Palin’s champions is striking. And unless conservatives address the fact that some people in their camp contribute to hositlity toward the educated, this is not going to change.
Yes, some of the conservative hostility and suspicion toward intellectuals stems from the susceptibility of many in the intellectual class to genuinely pernicious ideas (from communism in the old days to radical race and gender theories today). But the responsibility of educated conservatives — the kind who gravitate to NAS conferences — should be to do what they can to ensure that the marketplace of ideas remains diverse. And when some of their political allies seem just as happy to consign the educated to “enemy territory,” it’s time to beat the alarm.