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The Mangling of American History

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

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Twenty Years in the Vineyards of Higher Education Reform

This month the National Association of Scholars celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan sat in the White House. Twenty years ago a wall stood in Berlin. Twenty years ago the world wide web was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. Twenty years is enough time to have fought all the declared wars of the United States, as well as the Civil War, back to back. Twenty years doesn’t quite count as an era, an epoch, or even a full generation, but it’s not an inconsiderable span, and certainly one sufficient for taking stock. So, after twenty years of struggle for higher education reform, how do things stand, and, more significantly, what has been learned about feasible routes to remedy?

As to how things stand, let’s start with the plus. First, we have a genuine academic reform movement where twenty years ago there was none. A sizeable community of organizations, with distinct missions and partially distinct if overlapping bases of support, now act in concert. Some, like the American Academy for Liberal Education, the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and The Historical Society, came into existence, in large measure, because of the NAS. Others, like that indispensable campus civil liberties watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took shape under their own inspired leadership. Another, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has a productive history reaching back to the fifties, but, over the past two decades, has assumed a great many new and vital reformist roles. Groups like the American Civil Rights Institute, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Center for Individual Rights, while not confined in their concerns to higher education, are the vanguard in the fight against academe’s entrenched and emblematic system of ethnic preference. Donor organizations like the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, and the Manhattan Institute’s own Veritas Fund, have also come into being, with the promise of generating the financial resources which any growing movement requires.

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