Young: Can scholarship and politics be untangled?

March 11, 2013

A quarter-century ago, the groves of academe became a battlefield.Several books, notably Allan Bloom‘s 1987 best-seller, "The Closing of the American Mind," charged that the American university had been hijacked by left-wing radicals who had jettisoned the pursuit of knowledge for social causes. Student activists rebelled against a curriculum filled with works by "dead white males." Stories circulated of professors and students penalized for dissenting from politically correct dogma on race, ethnicity and gender.

Amid these battles, a group called the National Association of Scholars was formed as a bastion of traditional scholarship. Earlier this month, the group marked its 25th anniversary at a conference in New York City. Its cause remains as relevant as ever — though it should be careful to avoid promoting a "political correctness" of its own.

At the New York conference, many speakers deplored the continued and one-sided politicization of the academy. All too often, they said, Western civilization is attacked as uniquely oppressive, even though it has brought unprecedented freedoms to the very groups the left champions, particularly women; self-criticism, a strength of Western culture, turns to destructive self-loathing.

Peter Berkowitz, a political scientist from Stanford‘s Hoover Institution, asserted that ideas from the past are seen as "hopelessly tainted by being racist, sexist" or otherwise bigoted. There is, he said, "a loss of a sense that two sides of a debate need to be presented — except when conservative ideas are being advanced." Thus, when Harvey Mansfield, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a noted conservative, invited guest speakers, the school always insisted on having a speaker for the other side — a requirement not imposed on other faculty members, Berkowitz said.

This bleak picture is no exaggeration. Last week, several new skirmishes in the campus culture wars were chronicled in an excellent column by Tobin Harshaw for Harshaw’s targets include a striking recent example of academic West-bashing: the claim by Columbia University Middle Eastern studies professor Joseph Massad that Western efforts to combat the persecution of gays and lesbians in Muslim countries are "culturally imperialist" and that Arab gay activists who take a pro-Western position are victims of "false consciousness."

The National Association of Scholars has done valuable work over these past years, issuing reports that document the decline of the study of Western culture in America’s universities, the proliferation of classes that advance a political agenda, and the climate of political and intellectual conformity. Unfortunately, the group’s potential is limited by its own politics.

At the conference, a rightward slant was unmistakable — in the selection of speakers (nearly all of them white, male and right of center) and in casual comments based on the correct assumption that the audience was overwhelmingly conservative. When one panelist, the Manhattan Institute‘s Sol Stern, suggested that the lack of national curriculum standards contributed to political indoctrination in schools at the K-12 level, he admitted that this was "problematic to say at a mostly conservative gathering."

The association’s mission statement speaks of fostering "intellectual freedom," high standards of excellence and "reasoned scholarship and civil debate." Many men and women across the political spectrum subscribe to these goals.

Another group with an academic mission, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which had a presenter at the New York conference), has consistently lived up to its proclaimed political neutrality: It champions free speech on campus regardless of politics and collaborates both with conservative groups and with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.

That’s the proper model for combating left-wing indoctrination and intolerance. A good birthday wish for the National Association of Scholars would be to find a similar balance.

Schools: Columbia University