Friday, August 01, 2008

Putting the 'Arrrrggg' in Argus

The National Association of Scholars recently announced a new "Argus Project" which promises, after recruiting volunteers from the right-wing, "These faculty members and citizens each picked a college to watch and have begun to look into whether that college conducts politicized teaching, requires ideological adherence, or sustains slights to conservative students."

Let me quote what I wrote in response to the Inside Higher Ed article:

"In defense of NAS, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with monitoring what colleges do, and protecting the rights of students and faculty is a good thing. I wish that progressives had some organization that did this, now that NAS, FIRE, Students for Academic Freedom,, and many others are monitoring campuses.
"However, what makes the monitoring by NAS wrong is the ideological nature of it. Note how they proclaim that they will be scrutinizing “politicized teaching” or “slights to conservative students.” Neither of these are violations of student rights (and, of course, slights to liberal students will be ignored). Indeed, it is the attempt to banish “politicized” teaching that threatens academic freedom and free speech on campus.

"As I argue in my book Patriotic Correctness, it’s time for progressives to form an activist organization that will monitor violations of liberty on campuses (especially the campuses ignored by the right-wing groups), and protect the intellectual freedom of right-wingers, left-wingers, and everyone in between. If you’re interested in helping with this (whether you’re conservative or liberal), please contact me at"

As for Peter Wood's assertion that "NAS is politically centrist and non-ideological," that doesn't even pass the laugh test. I'm not sure what's "non-ideological," but the NAS certainly isn't. Let's see: it's funded by right-wing foundations and contacts members of a far right website to recruit volunteers for a project to stop "slights to conservative students." That might just be a teeny bit ideological.

It is interesting that Wood brings up the College of William and Mary's disturbing bias reporting system. But Wood doesn't explain why the NAS "slights" reporting system is any better (indeed, since "slights" aren't illicit at all, unlike actual bias, it seems much worse).

I'd encourage the NAS to change the Argus project so that they will monitor and oppose violations of rights (not "slights") of all students and faculty, not just conservatives.

In response to my posting, one reader pointed me to a Nebraska group, AFCON: The Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (, a group that I'm told includes the Nebraska chapter of NAS. I wish there could be a national academic freedom coalition that would unite serious defenders of academic freedom from the left, the right, and the center to organize debates and discussions about intellectual liberty, urge policy reforms on campus, and unite to condemn the many cases where everyone agrees that a terrible censorship has occurred.

In reply to my response, Steve Balch of the NAS noted: "John K. Wilson’s response to our posting is an example of much of what’s wrong with contemporary academic discourse. His discussion of our ideological character relies on stereotypical guilt by association, rather than a treatment of our organization’s actual views, and he fails to see the obvious, that at William and Mary reports might lead to quasi-judicial proceedings against people vaguely accused of “bias”. We simply seek to bring news about institutional practices to the public’s attention.

"Liberal students deserve as much protection from abuse as do conservative ones, though given the overall state of academe, the latter are typically in a far more exposed position than the former. We’re glad John Wilson would like to be a collaborator in the effort to defend academic freedom, but he needs to attain greater conceptual clarity before he’s likely to be a useful one."

Here's my rejoinder:

Steve Balch's reply to me is an example of much of what’s wrong with contemporary discourse about academia. Balch has an odd idea of conceptual clarity (apparently it means agreeing with him). I'm very clear where I stand (I've written numerous blogs and two books describing it). I strongly support the right of everyone to intellectual freedom, which includes the right to "politicized teaching" and the right to make "slights." If NAS only plans to criticize these activities, and not urge any attempt to punish faculty or students for their political speech, then that's perfectly fine. However, I wish they would explicitly reject David Horowitz's approach of institutional grievance procedures for disagreements with a teacher's political views or syllabus, and also devote their resources to addressing the more serious problem of individual rights being violated by administrators at public and private colleges of all kinds.

I never engaged in any kind of "stereotypical guilt by association." I mentioned other conservative groups, both good (FIRE) and bad (Students for Academic Freedom), and wished that progressives created the same. I criticized NAS not for their associations, but for their explicit promise to protect "slights against conservative students" without mentioning any other students. But I believe there are useful collaborations that can be made without embracing the ugly idea that we all have to agree or silence our critiques of each other. I wish the NAS felt the same way.

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