A Response to Peter Wood

By Allan Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University

In his response to my critique of the National Association of Scholars report, RECASTING HISTORY: ARE RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER DOMINATING AMERICAN HISTORY?, at the recent conference of the AAUP, NAS President Peter Wood harps on a remark that comprised well under 1 percent of my commentary, ignoring the other 99 percent plus. I noted that the NAS has published on its website positions on controversial political issues like climate change, gay marriage, sexual harassment codes and affirmative action that conform to the priorities of such conservative funders of the group, such as the Olin, Bradley, Coors, Smith Richardson and Scaife Foundations.

Continue reading

Analysis of the NAS Report on “Recasting History”

By Allan J. Lichtman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University

This analysis examines the report of the National Association of Scholars: RECASTING HISTORY: ARE RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER DOMINATING AMERICAN HISTORY? (January 2013). The report studies courses as the University of Texas, Austin and Texas A & M University. It concludes that introductory history classes at these two universities, especially Texas, Austin have an “inordinate emphasis” on race, class and gender. Unfortunately, rather than an impartial, scientific study, the report is ideology masquerading as scholarship. The report and its accompanying recommendations violate the NAS’s own values of scholarly excellence, openness, impartiality, and academic freedom.

Continue reading

Peter Wood’s Attack on the AAUP

I invited National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood to speak at the AAUP conference this past weekend, and organized a couple of sessions with him on the Higher Education Bubble and the NAS report on the teaching of American history. Unfortunately, Wood may be accustomed to speaking before loyal supporters and friends, since he certainly seemed annoyed at being criticized by Cary Nelson and Allan Lichtman (but apparently not annoyed by me, to my disappointment). In an essay for Minding the Campus, Wood writes that “the substance was overshadowed by the shabbiness” and uses the example to condemn today’s AAUP: “This isn’t John Dewey’s AAUP. It is Cary Nelson’s and Allan Lichtman’s.”

Actually, I have no idea if Allan Lichtman is even an AAUP member. He certainly has nothing to do with the organization. I invited him to speak as an expert historian, something that the NAS could have used in its deeply flawed report on the teaching of American history.

Wood accuses them of “disregard for the sort of boundaries that the AAUP once tried to uphold.” Wood denounces Nelson for accusing the NAS of “sclerotic wailing about Western civilization” and its “maniacal opposition to politics in the classroom.” Wood may not like the adjectives, but that’s a pretty accurate portrayal of some NAS positions.

Wood was upset that Lichtman mentioned Wood’s skepticism about climate change and gay marriage, and according to Wood, “Lichtman brought them up as a way of demonizing the NAS to an audience he could safely assume would be on the ‘correct’ side of these issues.” No, Lichtman brought them up as a way of showing that the NAS, and its leaders, are not some neutral, objective analysts in this debate, but people with a political agenda. It was a very minor point, probably the least important in his entire talk. Yet Wood chooses to write about this subject, and absolutely nothing else, and treats this insignificant issue as if it represented the decline and fall of the AAUP.

Wood complains, “The old AAUP was better.” Really? The old AAUP didn’t hold a conference where people expressed sharp differences about important issues in higher education. That was Cary Nelson’s invention. The old AAUP didn’t invite its critics to its meetings in order to assure a rousing debate. In the old AAUP, it would never have occurred to anyone to have someone like Peter Wood at an AAUP meeting. The new AAUP believes fully in freedom of expression, and shows it by defending the academic freedom of anyone, and holding events that live up to that commitment.

Wood denounces “postmodernists and ‘anti-foundationalists’ of various sorts who disdain even the ideal of scientific inquiry.” I don’t actually know what an “anti-foundationalist” is, and Wood doesn’t define the term (ironically, Wikipedia lists John Dewey, the AAUP co-founder praised by Wood, as an anti-foundationalist). Nelson and Lichtman didn’t disdain scientific inquiry (nor did I). What I do disdain is the notion that academic freedom should be limited only to statements that meet the standards of pure scientific methodology. The key difference between the old AAUP and the new AAUP is the willingness to defend controversial political statements.

Wood attacks the AAUP as “faculty members acting to promote their ‘right’ to do and say whatever they want. Such license isn’t genuine academic freedom.” What, exactly, does Wood regard as “license”? Since he devotes this entire column to the criticism Nelson and Lichtman directed against him, and then concludes with this line, I wonder if he thinks if their attacks are the kind of “license” that should be banned. The irony here is that Wood, in his own writings, is “guilty” of the very political license that he seems to think should be unprotected by academic freedom.

Wood argues that the AAUP in 1915 called for “dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language” by scholars. In doing so, Wood is holding speakers at an AAUP conference to a standard that the NAS and even Wood himself could not meet. Can Peter Wood really say that everything he’s ever written, and everything ever said at an NAS conference or published in their journal Academic Questions meets this standard of “dignity, courtesy, and temperance of language”? I’m pretty sure that I can find something a lot meaner than the word “sclerotic” and the mention of people’s views of climate change in Wood’s own essays.

The old AAUP, seeking to establish a new right of academic freedom, tried to support it with high-minded appeals to scientific and gentlemanly standards. But it was a deeply flawed approach; it ended up excluding a lot of activist radicals, and failed to challenge the widespread discrimination against women and minorities. As the freedoms in America improved, the AAUP expanded many of its old ideas, and the new AAUP defends political liberty in a way that the old AAUP never did.

I’m sure that Peter Wood, like many people, doesn’t enjoy being criticized to his face. But that’s part of academic debate, and Wood had an ample opportunity at the conference to respond to his critics. This kind of free-wheeling debate of ideas represents what the new AAUP stands for, and it is an important improvement over “the good old days” of fear and silence in academia.

Limbaugh’s Lies about Bowdoin College

Yesterday on his radio show, Rush Limbaugh read a Wall Street Journal article summarizing the National Association of Scholars (NAS) study about Bowdoin, and quoted the finding that Bowdoin doesn’t require history majors to take an American history class.

Limbaugh declared:

So a history major at Bowdoin College is taught about the intrinsic discrimination against blacks, women, gays, lesbians, transgender, bisexuals. That’s all they are taught. A history major coming out of Bowdoin College is not taught for one minute about the American founding. There is not one moment of traditional American history taught, and this is just the history department. What’s taught is how immoral and unjust America has been since its founding and how its founding featured institutional racism, segregation, sexism, homophobia, and all that.

Continue reading

The Bias Fallacy

This is a guest post by Darren L. Linvill, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Clemson University. His article, “The Bias Fallacy,” appears in the newest issue of Academe.

Did you know people who like mayonnaise are more likely to be good dancers?  As my undergraduate research methods students are taught, correlation does not equal causation.  This, and other, foundational concepts of sound methodological practice are not always adhered to by some researchers working on behalf of the National Association of Scholars.

I haven’t examined the full breadth of research and commentary published by the NAS.  I’m confident that if I did I would find some good work coming from competent and dedicated scholars.  If I wanted to make an argument that the NAS publishes poor scholarship, however, and sampled only the NAS’s two most recent reports, A Crisis of Competence and Recasting History, I could make a convincing case.  This same kind of cherry-picking is only one tactic employed by these reports that invalidates their broader claims. Selective sampling may not be sound research practice, but it certainly makes a researcher’s job easier.  It is not difficult to argue a point when you only examine the data that supports that point.

The NAS’s two recent reports are both broadly aimed at addressing what that organization, among other critics of academia, view as an ongoing politicization of higher education.  In my recent Academe article, “The Bias Fallacy,” I discuss the evidence put forth by the NAS in A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California In the report NAS attempts to link university politicization in the University of California system to recent declines in basic skills among graduates.  The report attempts to illustrate a liberal bias in the University of California system predominately through clearly cherry picked evidence such as student narratives and course descriptions.  While the research methods employed are biased, this is not where the report truly falls short.  Its greatest weakness is in failing to establish a causal link between supposed classroom politicization and any negative student outcomes.

Society and higher education have both seen an incredible variety of changes in recent decades.  Any number of factors may have led to an impact on certain student skills which A Crisis of Competence refers to.  While college professors are predominately politically liberal, it is possible to be liberal while remaining a competent educator who teaches from multiple perspectives and evaluates students’ ideas based on factors other than ideology. The perception of political bias in the classroom should be addressed, but not for the reasons the NAS suggests.  In my article I discuss what peer reviewed research tells us about the role of ideology in the classroom and just how I think the issue should be approached.

In publishing fallacious reports such as their recent work, I can’t help but wonder if the goal of the NAS is less to engage in scholarly discussion and more to persuade pliable minds, just as they accuse liberal professors of doing.

We All Politicize History

By Robert Jensen

Here’s an interesting question for historians: Why do ideologues never seem to be aware of their own ideology?

Such is the case with the recent report from the Texas Association of Scholars and the National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?

What Kind of History Should We Teach?

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) today issued a report on the teaching of American history at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. UT-Austin professor Jeremi Suri wrote a response to the NAS report on the blog of The Alcalde, the University of Texas alumni magazine, which we reprint here.

Continue reading

A Crisis of Censorship: A Response to the National Association of Scholars

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued a new report about California universities based upon false evidence, distorted anecdotes, random online postings, and a series of terrible arguments that are fundamentally contrary to academic freedom and the idea of the university as a place for the free debate of ideas.

What the NAS calls for is a kind of a new McCarthyism, where Regents and administrators ban the use of funds for events deemed “political,” force the hiring of unqualified conservative professors, and silence professors as “political” if they criticize the government in class or stray from the preferred conservative ideology of the NAS.

“A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California” is a new report issued from the California Association of Scholars and the National Association of Scholars’ Center for the Study of the Curriculum.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum apparently read the report, too, and embraced its loony vision of a vast left-wing conspiracy on campus to destroy education:

Continue reading

The Bowdoin Broil

The National Association of Scholars has announced a projectexamining the curriculum, student activities, and campus values of Bowdoin College.” I am sure that Peter Wood and the research fellow he has hired will attempt to do a thorough and fair job. But obviously they bring certain biases to their approach. And one concern I have is the fact that the NAS article announcing this program didn’t mention who is funding the study. Wood emailed me in response to my question to inform me that Tom Klingenstein is the funder. Considering that Klingenstein is the center of the controversy about Bowdoin, it’s hard to regard this as a neutral, unbiased approach. It will be hard for the NAS to make a convincing case for their objectivity no matter how much research data they try to bring to the question.

Nor is the campus culture something that easily lends itself to a data-driven analysis. For example, Bowdoin has numerous religious student groups, but no atheist student group as far as I can tell. There is an entire department of religion, but none of its class descriptions mention atheism. Does that mean Bowdoin lacks diversity of views on religion, or that atheists face a climate of repression on campus? Of course not. And if there was a lack of atheist events on campus, there’s an easy solution: the atheists, and their supporters, can organize student groups and bring speakers to campus.

Instead of trying to prove an alleged lack of ideological balance or denouncing Bowdoin for failing to confess its liberal sins, I’d much rather see conservatives come up with innovative ideas for how to improve the debate of ideas on college campuses.