This week was the annual meeting of the editorial council of First Things. In addition to taking care of the business that magazines have to attend to, the custom at these meetings is to take up a major subject or two. This year, Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga led the discussion on what has happened in higher education since the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind some twenty years ago. Many incisive things were said, and I will return to that. But I had a couple of items in the "Public Square" file that are pertinent to the subject.
Here is a more or less typical alarum pushing the conventional story: Religious crackpots destroy everything. Archeologist and ancient historian Eric H. Cline doesn't quite put it that way, but he comes pretty close in a recent call to academic arms. By his reckoning, the sacred discipline of biblical archeology is being desecrated by "amateur enthusiasts" who lack "proper training and credentials" but whose "fantastic claims" find their way to the public by way of "vanity presses, television, and now the Internet."
According to Cline, the situation has reached crisis proportions. "Biblical archeologists are suddenly finding themselves in a position similar to the evolutionary biologists fighting intelligent design—an entire parallel version of their field is being driven by religious belief, not research principles." No doubt there are a lot of crackpots out there, including religious crackpots. But Professor Cline might consider whether the enemies of genuine scholarship are not closer to his academic home; indeed very much at home in his academic home.
G.M. James George's Stolen Legacy is a fantastical account of ancient history written decades ago and putatively revealing that Western culture hijacked everything from black Africa. It continues to sell briskly and is assigned in college classes as an example of Afrocentric "discourse from the margins." Nadia Abu El-Haj of Barnard College recently published Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. She argues that the modern discipline of biblical archeology is not scientific at all. Rather, it is dominated by—you guessed it—Jews, who use "history" to justify the State of Israel. The book won an award from the Middle East Studies Association, despite the fact that reviews by archeologists found it amateurish and politically driven.
One wonders why Cline is silent about such threats to the integrity of his discipline. Perhaps, like so many in the academy, he assumes that the crackpots on the left are well-meaning idealists who are, perhaps, a little blinded by their zealous commitment to justice. No need to worry when they win academic awards, get tenure, and gain control over their departments. Better to sally forth against the real enemy: the religious zealots with their vanity presses and dangerous websites.
So, you say, what's new? Leftist domination of the academy is by now a very old story. It has been told so many times that maybe it is beginning to crack the wall—better, the fortress—of denial. The other day, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that it is establishing a chair in conservative thought. Given the ideological uniformity at Boulder, this is a little like Wheaton College establishing a chair in atheistic thought. Of course there were protests from the left, but also from David Horowitz, who for years has been campaigning for a modicum of intellectual diversity in American higher education. A designated conservative at Boulder, he opined, is a little like a zoo boasting about having a rare animal on display. One is reminded of the New York Times several years ago announcing that it was assigning a reporter to cover conservatism in America. That would presumably balance the five hundred or so reporters covering the real world of social and political liberalism.
As I say, this is an old story. At the meeting of our editorial council, the discussion turned to alternative ways of fostering academic diversity. Addressing the Catholic circumstance, council member Robert Louis Wilken recently published in First Things "Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools," which is a very thoughtful reflection on the merits and demerits of establishing chairs or centers for Catholic studies at secular universities.
Russell Hittinger raised the question of whether programs such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) and even the revered Madison and Witherspoon programs at Princeton did not encourage students to be more conservative partisans than scholars. Robert George, the godfather of the Princeton initiatives, offered a vigorous defense that such programs do not only provide a place hospitable to conservative thought but actually model the kind of intellectual diversity that universities claim, falsely, to cherish. On the basis of my own limited experience with what Robert George and his colleagues are doing at Princeton, in cooperation with vibrant campus ministries, I believe that these efforts exemplify the kind of intellectual honesty, diversity, and seriousness that is deplorably absent on most campuses. But is there an element of partisanship in trying to correct the monolithic partisanship of the contemporary university? Inevitably. But who is to blame for that?
Participants in the editorial council of First Things are listed on the masthead of the journal. Of course the day-to-day production of the magazine is the work of the editorial staff. But it really is the case that First Things is the product of a lively and sustained conversation among the distinguished and diverse members of the editorial council, most of whom are also regular contributors. That truth was again demonstrated by this week's meeting. I would not be surprised if out of it comes some more engaging and instructive articles on the state of higher education, and what can be done about it.
"Raiders of the Faux Ark" by Eric H. Cline
"Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools" by Robert Louis Wilken