There’s an absolutely atrocious opinion piece about higher education in the New York Times.
In other news, the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and the Pope is, in fact, Catholic.
As a regular (though lately quite inactive) blogger for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, and as a historian of higher education, I really ought to offer our readers something more than shoot-from-the-hip snark about the state of public intellectual discourse about the university. But I plead extenuating circumstances: 1) I just finished my dissertation and have only three or maybe four working brain cells left, all of which I will need for my defense (Nov. 10 – you might feel a disturbance in the force); and 2) involving myself too deeply in present polemical battles about higher education really complicates my ability to maintain some critical distance regarding past polemical battles about higher education. I need to keep the peas of the past and the carrots of the present neatly separated on my plate for a little bet yet.
So, instead of discussing how this column penned by one of the fine thought leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, appearing in the nation’s newspaper of record, demonstrates the extent to which neoconservative foundations have successfully co-opted and arguably corrupted public discourse – an argument that I am sure other historians will be making – let me simply refer our readers to two absolutely indispensable works of scholarship that I relied upon to make sense of the connection between neoconservative foundations and mainstream media coverage of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ellen Messer-Davidow, “Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education,” Social Text No. 36 (Autumn 1993):40-80.
John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).
The article by Messer-Davidow is available on JSTOR, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding the virulent outbreak of discourse about “political correctness” in the 1990s. Messer-Davidow follows the money, tracing out a “reticulated” network of conservative intellectuals and neoconservative organizations who consciously mustered, manned and maintained an “ideas industry” in the 1980s. This neoconservative network put a great deal of money behind messaging – Davidow gives us the dollar figures – to make sure that its crew of intellectuals for hire could keep churning out their own books and reviewing each other’s books, churning out their own op eds and publishing each other’s op eds. The conservative foundations footing the bill shared board members and benefactors who poured cash into making sure that the free market of ideas was a rigged market.
John K. Wilson’s book covers some of the same phenomena and explores conservatives’ political uses of these polemical indictments of higher education as a bastion of “political correctness.”
Both texts were absolutely essential for me as I tried to assess the significance of the “reception history” of the canon controversy at Stanford. These are meticulously sourced pieces of detective work that provide a level of factual detail about the funding and logistics of conservative messaging in mainstream media that would be very hard to reconstruct from a distance of even a few decades. They did an enormous amount of work to make sense of their present moment, and it has proved extraordinarily useful for this historian of that moment.
As a historian of that moment and a fellow sojourner in this one, I’ll tell you this: there was nothing spontaneous about the national conversation about “political correctness” in the 1990s. And it’s my strong suspicion that there’s nothing spontaneous about the conversation today. But history is not predictive, the present is full of possibilities, and the future is not yet written.
I just wish the New York Times would cut it out with the re-runs.