The Wolfers Dig a Deeper Hole

Canis_lupus_portrait.jpgInside Higher Ed took a look at the controversy over the “Crying Wolf” project, in which a committee consisting mostly of academics will pay for works of “scholarly integrity” dealing with contemporary public policy issues. Scholarly “integrity,” in this case, means reaching the conclusion before assembling the evidence.

Defenses of the Wolfers, alas, confirm critiques of the project. Take, for instance, the case of Michael Les Benedict. Much like Wolfer board members Tom Sugrue and Nelson Lichtenstein, Benedict is hardly a fringe figure in the academy. He has published numerous, well-regarded books on Civil War and Reconstruction Era political and constitutional history, and currently serves as AHA Parliamentarian. This background makes his defense of the Wolfers’ project all the more troubling.

“Those who contribute to Crying Wolf,” Benedict writes, “already have studied the subjects they will write about.” Actually, nothing in the Crying Wolf manifesto lists such a prerequisite. Moreover, the decision to open the scholarship-for-pay project up to graduate students (few of whom, given academic realities, would have any publication records) suggests that having studied the subject in any depth isn’t a requirement for payment.

Benedict concedes that the Wolfers’ project is “biased” in that it will not publish material that doesn’t conform to the directors’ partisan agenda. But, incredibly, he doesn’t see this as much of a problem: “The arguments themselves will be based on research that has met the standards of scholarship, or else it will be deservedly disregarded not only by conservatives but the academic community generally. Many—by no means all—conservatives simply cannot believe this, because so many of them judge the quality of scholarship solely by its outcome.”

This is quite a remarkable statement—all the more so coming from such a prestigious figure in the historical profession. First, Benedict implies that “conservatives” aren’t part of the “academic community.” Second, he suggests (without any evidence) that “many” conservatives “judge the quality of scholarship solely by its outcome.” (Do conservatives do so more than liberals, or moderates?) Most important, however, he suggests that the Wolfers’ biases—deciding on the “truth,” and then finding evidence that corroborates that “truth”—won’t be problematic, because the academic board running the project will ensure that Wolfer publications have “met the standards of scholarship.” Peer-review is one critical element in maintaining academic standards. And yet Benedict is asking people to believe that an openly partisan project will structure a peer-review process free from partisan blinders. Such an argument is either willfully deceptive or hopelessly naive.

Project director Peter Dreier offered a similarly unusual conception of the academic, peer-review process. “This is legitimate work,” he declared, because the essays would be scrutinized for accuracy. In other words, legitimate scholarship is scholarship that has no factual errors. By that standard, many high school papers could be described as “legitimate work.”

Like Benedict, Dreier’s preference for engaging his critics is to resort to ad hominem attacks. Asked why conservatives have criticized his project, he responded, “That’s what they are paid to do.”

Linda McPhee, who describes herself as a lecturer at various institutions, sees the Wolfers’ project as typical of higher education today, since “calls for papers on particular themes are routine in academia.” In McPhee’s academy, it seems, academic conferences or calls for papers assume that scholars have adopted their conclusions before undertaking their research.

McPhee, like Benedict, doesn’t see any problems of bias in the initiative. “What if I was soliciting papers,” she muses, “on the dangers of child abuse? And in that Call, I’m touting the importance of such a collection in the endless fight around the issue. Then along comes some group that says ‘no, you are coloring the results by saying ‘danger.’ You should be neutral.'”

Is McPhee really suggesting that people who don’t agree with the Wolfers’ viewpoints on tax and regulation policy can be compared to those who don’t see a “danger” in child abuse? In any event, the appropriate comparison would be to soliciting papers on child abuse in which all participants, before undertaking any research, would have to agree that the deinstitutionalization of marriage is the sole explanation for child abuse.

Then there’s the “Midwest Prof,” who says he did his dissertation on “the origins of several policy research groups (Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others) at roughly the time the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation were getting underway . . . As one individual I interviewed (a former government official affiliated with Brookings, an organization often seen as progressive but which fought FDR’s policies) put it, ‘The measure of an organization’s credibility is whether it produces reports that surprise you. AEI sometimes will. Heritage never does.'”

By the standards of the “Midwest Prof,” then, the Wolfers’ project will lack any credibility, since its conclusions will never surprise. Indeed, the entire premise of the project is to produce the same conclusion, over and over again, in essay after essay.

As I noted in my previous post, the Wolfers’ impact on public policy debates will be negligible. But what their activities say about the state of the academy is most depressing.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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