The left's control of academe is so complete, especially at the elite level, that departments or individuals that depart from the politically correct norm find themselves targeted for ridicule, ostracism, and obliteration. Nowhere is this truer than in the politically charged field of Middle East Studies, where anti-American, anti-Israeli, and, more generally, anti-Western prejudices are the norm.
So it's hardly surprising to read in today's Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper of Princeton, that the Near Eastern Studies Department there is under attack for its refusal to go along with prevailing radical norms and stick to more traditional standards of scholarship.
In practice, this means that Princeton, hardly a conservative school, still employs scholars who reject the now ubiquitous ideology of post-colonial studies, a plague on the study of non-Western cultures that conveniently blames the West for all manner of problems in the Third World. Employing opaque language and rarely missing an intellectual trend, post-colonialists use their bully pulpits in America's universities to accuse their peers and predecessors of immoral, racist, and archaic scholarship and teaching.
Few post-colonialists rival the late Edward Said, whose apotheosis was assured when, in 1977, he published Orientalism, a book that became the Bible for the rising generation of Middle East scholars. A principal thesis of the book is that previous generations of such scholars had viewed the region and its people through racist lenses; that the decades of careful study carried out by dozens of well trained professors amounted to little more than paternalistic, insulting presentations which refused to see the Orient as it really was in favor of denigrating it when comparing it to the Occident.
Mainly through the towering presence of Bernard Lewis, the most accomplished scholar of Middle East studies of his generation, Princeton's department escaped the anti-intellectual, rigid ideology of post-colonial studies. The Princetonian's article, which is clearly the result of many hours of interviews and research, calls Princeton's Near Eastern Studies department "Orientalist" even though the word has long been a term of opprobrium. But it does a good job of highlighting the degree of animosity toward the department, both from similar departments or programs at other universities as well as from within Princeton's history department.
The concern is, I believe, mostly political in origin, and I fear that it will be mostly political in its results. That's because Princeton's leaders, fearful that a traditional-leaning department will cause the university to lose face among its more radicalized peers, are laying the groundwork for transforming the department into the image of those at nearby Columbia and New York Universities. This means that followers of Edward Said, including Joseph Massad of Columbia, who has been charged with making anti-Semitic remarks and harassing students who defend Israel, may see Princeton's NES department swing to their side of the debate within a few years.
Here's the meat of the university's official concern, as described by the Princetonian:
The status of the department has drawn concern from the Tilghman administration and other faculty because of fears that any negative perceptions will dissuade new faculty members and students, both undergraduate and graduate, from joining the department. In September, the dean of the faculty's office began a departmental review, which will include a study of the department made by outside scholars who will report back to Nassau Hall on what changes, if any, should be made.
Senior officials frame the inquiry as seeking to ensure that the department continues to live up to the longstanding prominence it has had in academia.
"It's a great department that needs to rebuild itself," said a senior Nassau Hall official who asked not to be named.
Nassau Hall officials declined to be interviewed on the record for this article. It seems the administration is attempting a delicate balance when articulating positions on the department; fearful of drawing any conclusions before the departmental review report is issued, all administration comments have been laced with strands of cautious optimism even as officials quietly express concerns.
Professors believe the importance of Princeton NES cannot be underestimated as the University seeks to reaffirm its position as a premiere hub of scholarship in medieval Middle Eastern languages and literature and a post-Sept. 11, 2001 Middle East.
The resurgence around the country of interest in the Middle East comes at a critical time in the department's own history: several senior professors are due to retire within the next five years and there is already a search running to fill an open faculty post.
As these comments make clear, prestige in the modern university is gained through strict adherence to in-vogue ideologies rather than genuine scholarly accomplishment. If Princeton's department is transformed into a chic, radicalized home for high profile anti-American professors, academe will lose an important dissenting voice in a growing field of study. But of course, that's precisely what the left wants, as its pleas for diversity run only skin deep.
More importantly, at this crucial time in our history and with the nation at war against Islamo-fascists, we need the critical, reasoned, highly trained voices of scholars who know the Middle East and its peoples and languages well, and whose perceptions aren't skewed by their adherence to an intellectually vacuous, trendy ideology that serves more as a career path for its followers than a means to understanding a vital part of our world. The intellectual monolith that is American academe marches onward, crushing all dissenters in its path. The only winners are the ideologues running the institutions, who will see their budgets and prestige rise on the ashes of a once-great department. It's an old story, and the time's come for it to end.