They came from small schools such as Ferrum College in Virginia and Assumption College in Massachusetts and from large schools including Yale and Emory universities. Many were independent scholars. What they all shared was disapproval of the left-liberal culture that dominates American campuses and a hope that this culture might be turned around.
The occasion was the 10th National Conference of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the first following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The theme, "Higher Education and Democracy in Peace and War," sounded fittingly academic and a bit abstract, but the often eloquent talks and sometimes heated discussions were not.
For the nearly 300 academics and others who met at the Washington Marriott Hotel in June the questions at hand were serious ones worthy of their best efforts: What is patriotism? What is the responsibility of academics in the war on terrorism? Will our universities and colleges, as NAS Vice President Carol Iannone put it, learn that "the long mental holiday from truth is over" and that, "post-9/11, the old questions of good and evil, of what's noble and ignoble, and what are virtue, honor and self-sacrifice must be addressed."
Those words did not fall on deaf ears. NAS set up shop 15 years ago at a small office in Princeton, N.J., in large part the brainchild of Stephen Balch, then a professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York. INSIGHT covered its first national conference at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel in November 1988, and heard there the same unofficial NAS motto it heard at the 10th national conference--when the organization, with its very dedicated staff, has 4,300 dues-paying members nationwide. This slogan, "Resist the Zeitgeist" means "Stand against the times"--particularly when those times mean, as the NAS has claimed for 15 years, an era of sloppy, dishonest scholarship, of loud anti-Americanism and a politically correct attitude on many campuses so aggressive that it happily would suppress all opposition if it could.
It is a time, too, when the academic world, according to many at the conference, has weakened higher standards it once set for itself and prefers triviality and self-absorption to the more serious matters once taken up by higher education. "We define this conference as debating `Is higher education compatible with patriotism'" quipped Gertrude Himmelfarb, the noted scholar of 19th-century England in introducing the panel discussion she chaired. But "there are some of us who believe a better question is, `Is higher education today compatible with higher education?'"
For Himmelfarb and many others at the meeting no recent event better summed up what defines the current crisis in academia than actress Goldie Hawn delivering the commencement address this year at American University in Washington (see "The College Cats Get Liberal Tongue" June 24). "Listen to the sounds of your own heart, the college of your own heart" Himmelfarb quoted Hawn as saying, then asked: "Is this not a thoroughly narcissistic statement?" Another participant in the conference later summed it up as a statement from "the university of me."
Indeed, in his opening remarks NAS founder/President Balch warned about the dangers of political correctness and academic self-absorption in time of war. How educators teach--the spirit in which they communicate--the ideas and information they convey, he said, are of utmost importance.
Professors can fortify "the overall health of society" by emphasizing "the heritage of understanding on which ... civil community--in our case a free and democratic society--is based" said Balch. Or they could undermine the health of that society. Sounding a theme taken up by other conference speakers, Balch warned that colleges and universities are not separate from the rest of America and certainly not morally superior to it--a presumption, he noted, held by many academics and conveyed to their students. …