Monday, June 07, 2010

The NAS Responds to Me

The National Association of Scholars has responded to me.

I thank the NAS for their reply to my critique, although people who denounce books as not being “serious” without reading them surely should not be falsely accusing me of repeating their error by wondering “whether he’s actually read our report.” I have the report, and disagreement doesn't make me ignorant.

According to the NAS, “Wilson also writes, 'The NAS doesn't mention any contemporary conservative books they think deserve to be included.' No we didn’t, because that wasn’t our purpose. Unlike so many in the contemporary academy, we don’t think everything can be reduced to transient political categories.”

Excuse me? A report whose primary headline is that 70% of the common reading program books are liberal and only 2% conservative isn't reducing anything to “transient political categories”? That's exactly what the NAS is doing. As I noted, many of these books aren't explicitly liberal at all, despite what the NAS claims (the NAS still hasn't released a detailed explanation of which books are “liberal” and why, perhaps because they did so based on a summary online rather than after reading the book).

Obviously, the NAS wants to have classical books used in these programs, although the chances of getting students to voluntarily read Burke and Rousseau during summer vacation seem very low. Colleges are trying to get students to read something serious over the summer by asking them to participate in this program, assigning a contemporary book that deals with a hot topic, and then bringing the author to campus to engage with the students. That seems to me like a great idea. If the NAS wants more conservative books taught, they need to suggest contemporary conservative authors with a serious approach, and there simply aren't many of them.

The NAS claims, “The top two books in the study are This I Believe, a collection of essays on personal philosophy solicited by NPR and CBS; and Enrique’s Journey, LA Times journalist Sonia Nazario’s account of an illegal immigrant boy’s journey from Honduras to the U.S. Both books undoubtedly contain moving and interesting stories—but little if any intellectual substance. If Wilson thinks these are serious, college-level books, this only confirms the dismal state of what is considered to be 'college-level.'”

Actually, if you look at the best-seller list on college campuses over many years, it typically includes cartoon collections, Harry Potter books, and novels that movies have been made from. Compared to what college students normally read for pleasure, these books are indeed, very serious work about serious topics. I haven't read those two books, but they seem to have a lot of intellectual substance despite being non-academic books. I wish more college courses assigned this kind of serious, well-written journalism rather than the dumbed-down textbooks that are all too common (albeit more so in secondary education). I don't see anything dismal intellectually about the books on the NAS list. These kind of books are precisely the kind of serious, well-written works that should serve as writing models for college students who get a heavy diet of textbooks, academic writing, and archaic classics that are not the best models for contemporary writing. So I'm quite happy to defend these books overall.

The NAS takes my comment that critiquing traditional values can be a good thing as some kind of “look-down-your-nose disdain for all traditional values.” I really can't figure out what books on the list are disdainful of traditional values. Perhaps if colleges were assigning Hitchens or Dawkins (which would be wonderful), that might be true. But colleges appear to run scared from any lefty (or right-wing) political book or atheist critique of religion.

And running scared is the whole issue here. Yes, the NAS gave a tepid endorsement to having these common reading programs (however, the report says that to be “genuinely worthwhile, the choice of books must be improved”). The bulk of the report is devoted to trashing these programs as too liberal, and the NAS still refuses to condemn the right-wing efforts to censor common reading programs deemed too controversial. Denouncing reading programs as liberal and stupid isn't exactly the best way to encourage colleges to continue them. Enraging conservative alumni and legislators is not going to help colleges who want to adopt these programs, nor will it encourage the selection of strong-minded, well-written controversial books that are essential to provoke serious discussions and debate on campus.

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