Milestones for the NAS

Peter Wood

In April, NAS issued its formal statement, “Fixing Sustainability and Sustaining Liberal Education.” In May, we issued The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, a research report nine months in the making. These were our signal events so far in 2011.

Issuing a formal statement is a rarity for NAS. Fixing Sustainability is only the fifth in our 24-year history. The one before that, Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative came in 2008, and the one before that, Sexual Harassment and Academic Freedom dates back to 1993.  The other two are The Wrong Way to Reduce Campus Tensions (1991) and Is the Curriculum Biased? (1989).

Issuing a formal statement marks an issue as one of central concern to the organization. It is also a bid to shape ongoing debate and discussion by distilling what we think are the key points. Fixing Sustainability comes after three years of our examining this new campus ideology, during which time we published a special issue of Academic Questions (Spring 2010) examining its intellectual roots and its place in university life. We also presented upwards of a hundred articles on our website, on the online magazine Inside Higher Ed, and in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We also published essays by NAS members who disagreed with the approach I was taking.

“Fixing Sustainability” walks a careful line. We have consistently declined to take a stand on global warming per se, other than to express our confidence that good science will eventually provide reliable answers to the underlying questions. Our focus has been not on the science but on the unscientific extravagance that has been piled on top of the science—everything from banning trays in college cafeterias (so they won’t have to be washed) to making faculty members report annually on their “sustainability contributions.”

The extravagances have some ardent supporters. I recently found out how ardent when I used my Chronicle of Higher Education blog to criticize a proponent of “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW) theory who has adopted the tactic of savaging the reputations of researchers on the other side of that debate. We should, I said, settle scientific debates with scientific logic and good evidence, not character assassination. That didn’t sit well with some AGW supporters. Within days, NAS board members, affiliate heads, and staff were receiving emails and telephone calls about me. The callers offered speculation that NAS was being paid off by Big Oil to undermine good science; one woman broadly insinuated that we had murdered two NAS staff members, perhaps at the behest of a donor. After a month of this abuse, I replied on the Chronicle of Higher Education website with an article titled “Climate Thuggery.” The comments section and a guest editorial by one of my opponents provided some ripe examples of what intellectual thuggery looks like these days.

No one likes to be the target of smear tactics, and I also wince when views are falsely attributed to NAS. But on the whole this summer’s flare up demonstrates that we were on good grounds all along to question where the sustainability movement was going and how it intended to get there. The questions about global warming remain valid ones for scientific inquiry, but the eagerness of some proponents to shut down debate, demonize skeptics, and impose roughshod “solutions” of their own shows a movement with a unwholesome willingness to set aside the principles of academic and intellectual freedom.

Our statement, Fixing Sustainability, will I think stand the test of time. NAS is the first and as far as I know the only major organization concerned with academic reform to draw attention to the excesses of this movement. We can wear that as a badge of honor. (And in case you are wondering, Big Oil hasn’t given us a drop.)

Our other signal event in 2011 was publication of the research report The Vanishing West: 1964-2010, which traces the decline and near disappearance of the once ubiquitous Western Civilization survey course. In the 1950s it was a staple in American higher education and the backbone of the curriculum as a whole, but as we show in the report, in the decades since the nation’s leading universities and colleges demoted it to a general education elective and in most cases discarded it completely.

The report covers 125 institutions in all 50 states and looks at requirements in 1964, 1989, and 2010. We offer twenty-three recommendations to help colleges identify the problem, fix the curriculum, and repair the pipeline with professors of history competent to teach Western Civilization. The recent report dovetails with our efforts to establish Western Civilization courses in universities around the country, and with our forthcoming creation of a Center for the Study of the College Curriculum. We also have an issue of Academic Questions due out next year where we have essays by a variety of prominent scholars who respond to the question, “Why Teach the West?”

Fixing Sustainability and The Vanishing West represent two of the three initiatives NAS has been working on this year. The third—our interest in the higher-education “bubble”—has yet to take the form of a single substantial document, but that’s about to change. We are working on a special issue of Academic Questions that will take up the problem of whether the current system of some 4,000 colleges and universities is headed for a major shakeout. Numerous observers have likened the situation to the housing bubble or high-tech stock bubble. Students and their families have been persuaded to pay dizzying prices for college programs on the prospect that the degrees they earn will command large increments in wages over the long term. But as higher education has expanded its enrollments and, in many cases, lowered academic standards, the college degree is losing some of its luster.

At the same time, online programs and for-profit universities have been making headway in drawing students to alternatives to traditional four-year residential college programs. A new book by a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, The Innovative University, has enhanced the credibility of the idea that online education will prove to be the sort of “disruptive technology” that will force many colleges either to close their doors or transform themselves into lower-cost marketers of online courses taught mainly by adjuncts.

NAS doesn’t welcome that prospect but we do think it deserves thoughtful attention. My view is that NAS should embrace a new division of labor in higher education—one that recognizes that online technology will indeed dominate the mass market for post-secondary education in the decades ahead—but that there will still be substantial room for residential colleges, especially those that find their way back to the core principles of the liberal arts and sciences.

That will require their shedding their habit of becoming enthusiasts of every passing illiberal trend, such as sustainability, and also finding their way back to teaching about the history of our own civilization.

This article appeared in NAS Update, the newsletter of the National Association of Scholars.

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