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.