National Association of Scowlers

Peter Wood

A reader of the NAS’s official statement "Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative" and the consequent outpouring of aggrieved opinion among “student affairs professionals” on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s news blog had a flash of insight:

Hearing about the NAS statement and then reading the comments following the Chronicle posting reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s fourth book in the Foundation Trilogy, Foundation’s Edge. There the protagonist encountered a farmer who asked him “You be scowler?” “Scowler” turned out to be a mispronunciation of “scholar.” How apt.

MDH, I welcome your point. The National Association of Scholars does its share of scowling.

NAS styles itself as a supporter of rational argument. We think that should be the guiding principle of academic discourse, and we work hard to exemplify that principle in our formal studies and communications. But a diet of nothing but rational argument is like a diet of dried crackers and lemons. Personally, I like to add a note of cheerful mockery now and then, and I’m fortunate to have colleagues who likewise prefer laughter to weeping. 

 Nonetheless, there comes a time when no response to campus folly will do better than a scowl. NAS was originally founded by scholars who were dissatisfied with both the decline of academic standards and the rise of political ideologies that distort the teaching mission of the university. Rational suasion didn’t seem exactly the right response, however, when faced with Jesse Jackson’s “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go” march at Stanford University in 1988 or feminist philosophy professor Joyce Trebilcot replacing the word “seminar” with “ovular.”  

This summer, we launched our Seussian “If I Ran the Zoo” series, which has included a few scowls but which generally aims at a more genial tone. We asked contributors to tell us what they would do if they ran the zoo of higher education. Several gave us Seussian rhymes in which it is almost impossible to scowl. In announcing our website’s interactive comments feature, Adrianna Groth (A Penny for Your Thoughts APFYT) made a sunny appeal for civility. Ashley Thorne has been minding the media (The Shaggy Dog Story; A Real Page-Turner; A Head Full of Headphones) in good temper.  

 All this bonhomie has its place, but as MDH suspects, our mood can change. Think of Jonathan Swift imagining the Day of Judgement:

An horrid vision seized my head;
I saw the graves give up their dead!
Jove, armed with terrors, burst the skies,
And thunder roars and lightning flies!

 Jove addresses humanity in non-affirming accents:

Offending race of human kind,
By nature, reason, learning, blind…

 

To claim such a high pedigree and expansive scope for our dudgeon may seem excessive. After all, doesn’t the NAS in principle favor self-discipline, moderation, and civility? How can we also license rage?

We can’t. Rather, we draw a thoughtful distinction between rage and scowling. The former has no appropriate place in higher education; the latter is an ancient tradition through which the rightful holders of moral and intellectual authority express their disdain for faddish innovation.   This tradition, though sometimes mistaken for mere snobbery, welcomes newcomers. Think of Groucho Marx’s Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff in Horsefeathers (1932) making his presidential address to the faculty and students of Huxley College:

I don’t know what they have to say,

It makes no difference anyway,

Whatever it is, I’m against it.

No matter what it is or who commenced it,

I’m against it.

 

There is, no doubt, much wisdom in this tradition and in Groucho’s particular distillation of it, but clearly it will not suffice as an encompassing formulation of the National Association of Scholars’ policy views. We are actually on record favoring some things: academic standards, admissions policies based on merit and ability rather than group affiliation, academic freedom, the study of Western civilization, etc. 

In that light, it has become clear that we need to establish a separate organization that will take over the task of reflexive opposition to all expressions of novelty, institutional innovations, and unwarranted departures from grim sobriety. The National  Association of Scowlers is open for membership. To apply, please send us a digital photo of your best scowl. We reserve the right to determine if your scowl meets NAS standards. (Gnashing of teeth a plus.) You may choose to tell us what you are scowling about. We are of course most interested in scowlers whose displeasure is focused on matters in higher education. Disgruntled academics welcome. The gruntled who are only pretending to rancor will be subject to vigorous scowling.  

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