Tuesday, May 17, 2005

National Association of Scholars

Some twenty years ago, as a college professor concerned with declining academic standards, I became interested in the work of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). In due course I joined the executive committee of the local chapter, based in our City University of New York. Three years ago I dropped out. In the latter part of this posting I will seek to explain why.

The following are some of the main NAS concerns: decline of academic standards; politicization of scholarship and teaching, together with substitution of social reform for the pursuit of knowledge; use of sexual, racial, and other criteria unrelated to merit in hiring, in promotion, and in student recruitment; denigration of great literature and art; hostility to Western civilization; faddish curriculum innovations which tend to supplant scholarly methods and criteria of proven efficacy.

NAS has had to endure the slander of being a neocon or even Far Right plot. In fact it is not a monolithic organization. Many of the members are centrist Democrats. The NAS journal even published an article of mine on the state of gay studies in the academy.

In many articles, studies, and public statements the NAS folks have eloquently made their case. Yet a sense of redundancy has crept in. This is especially discouraging, as progress towards the achievement of NAS goals is so glacially slow. The multiculturalist faction in academia has had many years to consolidate its gains. And they enjoy at least the passive support of most of our faculties. College professors, never particularly courageous, flee at any allegation of "racism," just as fifty years ago they were terrified of being called "communist." The fact that most have been neither doesn’t seem to matter.

It is generally good policy to reexamine one’s conclusions from time to time. That is especially so with NAS, which has been right on so many issues.

On Sunday May 14 I went to an local NAS forum on schools of education. The gathering was held in a gorgeous apartment on the 26th floor of a building near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan with a wonderful view of the harbor. Sadly, this venue may symbolize the predicament of NAS—it has a lofty and cogent view, but is too far away to affect events. However that may be, about twenty-five people attended the gathering, most of them older, in their fifties and sixties.

The speakers, four of them, were in top form. All were eloquent, incisively on point, and the discussion afterwards was lively. I learned a few things that were new, such as the current vogue for "constructivism." This is the view that children construct their own knowledge. If a child concludes that two and two make five—well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. It’s the process that matters. And any criticism would damage the child’s self-esteem. There were some telling new anecdotes. And yet, as one speaker acknowledged, the presentations amounted to preaching to the choir.

Eventually the discussion shifted to the perennial topic of the need to study literature. I am very sympathetic to this precept. However, there is some disturbing evidence that for some students at least, popular culture may provide a more effective instrument for stimulating mental powers, than say, Victorian novels. My own view is that such novels belong to an earlier era, when families were confined indoors during the long winters with little else to do. I just can’t see any justification nowadays for spending many hours reading Anthony Trollope. Wait for the Masterpiece Theater version.

As far as I could detect the NASers attempted no discussion of the Internet, and of the fact that most students nowadays, and many professors too, get their information by “Googling it.” This shortcut, eliminating a trip to the library, involves real prospects of loss. Yet it is probably inevitable. Without entering a new dark age, we will probably have to forget about some of the arcana that lie locked in old files of academic periodicals. In all too many instances only thirty or forty people actually read these items of "fundamental research." Albert Einstein aptly termed this type of production "ink-shitting."

For better or worse, several uses of the Internet impinge on academia. I am told that when a candidate comes up for an entry-level academic appointment, the liberal enforcers troll the blogosphere. Should they find that the candidate has uttered anything remotely conservative or non-PC, the appointment is nixed. It used to be said, "don’t leave a paper trail." Nowadays an electronic one can get you into more trouble, and much quicker.

Of course, all this enforcement of orthodoxy, often conducted behind closed doors, is just not right. But tell that to those who are happily practicing it.

Even apart from all that, it seems that the opponents of reform are so entrenched in the schools of education that matters are likely to get worse, rather than better. Only one speaker at the NAS symposium suggested a way out: substitution of exams for teacher training. That sounds good, but the approach is unlikely to gain much traction.

Parents might be expected to rise up, but as a rule they are complacent. After all Jane and Johnny are getting A’s and B’s, so all must be well.

My own feeling is that only a drastic economic downturn in this country (a catastrophe some experts insist is inevitable) will suffice to curtail these monstrous programs of indoctrination. What a harsh remedy!


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