ast Friday I wrote
piece for NRO urging the Bush administration to help "take back
the academy." I called for
appointment of a chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities
who would use the bully pulpit to ask for fair play in colleges
and universities now utterly dominated by the Left. I followed this
with an appeal for support of small, high quality, and entirely
voluntary great-books programs in which not only liberal, but also
conservative views could be represented. Was I a fool to hope that
even such modest steps might be taken in response to the near-total
loss of the academy to the forces of political correctness? Maybe
so. Events that Friday seemed almost deliberately to mock my hopes.
Even before my piece was posted, the New York Times reported
that several conservative Republican senators had voiced support
for the retention of President Clinton's NEH Chairman, William Ferris.
Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, and Dick Armey supporting the retention
of Clinton's man at NEH! How could this possibly have happened?
Apparently Ferris, a past head of the Center for the Study of Southern
Culture in Mississippi, had been clever enough to support the publication
of books and encyclopedias on the culture of states with powerful
What a tale that tells. If the calumny hurled at Ashcroft by the
mis-educated Left reflects the banning of respectable conservative
religious voices from the academy, that same troubling act of intellectual
segregation is reflected in the patent inability of Republican conservatives
to understand what's at stake in the choice of an NEH chairman.
Having been so completely shut out of the academy, many conservatives
have simply written it off, naively telling themselves that the
ideologues who run it are politically irrelevant. Yet every movement
that stands uncompromisingly against traditional values has its
base in the academy. What utter naivete to trade a last chance
a golden opportunity to restore some semblance of balance
to that universal socializer of America's governing elite, for a
mess of pottage.
Disturbing as this is, the situation may not be as bad as the story
in the Times made it seem. The Times's obfuscating
headline spoke only of Republicans asking President Bush to "keep"
Clinton's NEH chairman. Reading the fine print makes it clear that
only one of these senators, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, actually
called for President Bush to reappoint William Ferris to a new term.
The others merely voiced support for Ferris finishing out the final
year of his current term. But the Times is evidently eager
to whip up a boomlet for Ferris in hopes of preventing Bush from
appointing someone who might actually criticize Leftist bias in
the academy. As the Times tells it, Ferris has the merit
of being apolitical. Now that all dissenters have been expelled
from the academy, a neutral NEH chairman suits the Times
well. But let's not pretend this has anything to do with fairness.
And that was only Friday morning. Late that afternoon I received
another blow this time when a student called from California
asking for help. The young gentleman had
read my plea for support of small, high-quality, and voluntary great-books
programs that make space for conservative as well as liberal voices.
He was part of one such program, he said. Yet only days before that
program been effectively destroyed by his liberal college president.
I had argued Friday on NRO that small voluntary great-books programs
would be protected from attack by the Left in ways that large compulsory
programs would not. Apparently I was wrong.
movement that stands uncompromisingly against traditional
values has its base in the academy.
The program in question was the Saint Ignatius Institute, a widely
respected course in the great books at the University of San Francisco,
a Catholic institution. Although it enrolls well under five percent
of the students at USF, the great-books curriculum at the Saint
Ignatius Institute regularly attracts a disproportionate number
of the brightest students at the university. In 1998, SII received
an award from the prestigious Templeton Foundation declaring it
one of the finest great-books programs in the country. Yet just
months after his installation as president of the University of
San Francisco, Father Steven A. Privett summarily dismissed the
two key administrators of the program, and announced steps to consolidate
SII with another, and far different program at the university. Ostensibly,
this was a move to save money. But no one believes this. Privett's
coup, undertaken in secrecy, without the usual consultation, capped
years of hostility toward the Saint Ignatius great-books program
from USF's liberal theology faculty.
The liberal Jesuits who dominate at the University of San Francisco
of which Father Privett is one are supposed afficionados
of "diversity," and of such neo-Marxist movements as "liberation
theology." These leftist theologians reserve the right to disregard
the ordinary teachings of the Catholic Church. They frequently avail
themselves of that right. The Catholic faculty at Saint Ignatius
Institute, on the other hand, consider themselves bound by the ordinary
teachings of the Church. That does not make them simplistic dogmatists.
Far from it. SII boasts numerous non-Catholics and non-believers
on its faculty. And SII's students, in addition to studying Augustine
and Aquinas, must read and master such scourges of traditional Catholicism
as Hume, Nietzsche, and Freud. In fact, several years ago, SII added
the Koran, the Analects of Confucius, and the Hindu Ramayana to
its great-books curriculum. But that is simply not good enough for
Father Privett and the liberal Jesuits at USF. Why, then, did SII
have to go?
My student friend explained it best. He told me how he and his comrades
loved to shift back and forth between the liberal theology department
at USF and the conservative SII, putting faculty members on both
sides "on the hot seat," by forcing them to confront the arguments
of their opposites. That's what's going on here a shameful
attack on true moral, intellectual, and theological diversity from
ideologues who cannot bear to have students challenging their dogmas.
And the dogmatists here are on the Left, not the Right. Ironically,
Father President Privett, in his tireless opposition to American
involvement in El Salvador, eulogized liberal Catholic martyrs to
the guns of El Salvadorian militias by lauding the dangerous obligation
of intellectuals to force uncomfortable truths upon those in power.
Yet Father Privett has killed off the Saint Ignatius Institute for
the uncomfortable truths it spoke to the liberal powers at his university.
Father Privett claims that SII will go on, but it is all too evident
that his plans for SII will prevent it from ever again standing
as either an intellectual or theological counterweight to his liberal
The religious dimension of the SII battle marks it out as special.
Clearly, those liberal Jesuits who have placed a Catholic veneer
upon an essentially secular dogma take the mere existence of a traditionalist
Catholic program at their university as a standing affront. The
comparison reveals too much. Worse, these traditionalists cannot
be dismissed as narrow ideologues. Worse still, they attract the
finest students at the university. You can see why SII had to go.
But for all its theological interest, this case has much to tell
us about the battle for the soul of the academy. I may have been
wrong last Friday when I argued that small and purely voluntary
great-books programs would be safe from attack. But I was right
to believe in the power of even one such program however
small to shake the foundations of the Left's control over
a college or university. Even the smallest island on which to nourish
thoughtful doubt about the dogmas of the day strikes fear into the
heart of the new Inquisitors.
If you would like to protest the travesty at the University of San
Francisco, go to the website of the Friends
of the Saint Ignatius Institute. Read about what happened, and
consider sending a letter of protest to the USF Board of Trustees.
That's easy. Winning the battle on the national level will be far
more difficult. Perhaps it was foolish of me not to see that. But
my basic premise still stands and is even strengthened. Even
a single thoughtful person speaking out as the head of NEH, allied
with even one small chorus of thoughtful challengers from within
our universities, might bring the walls all tumbling down.