Salvador Dalí would have found a lot to admire about higher education today; George Orwell, for his part, would have found in it a veritable lexicon of Newspeak. Dalí would have savored the surrealistic aspect of the enterprise: the vertiginous disjunction between the stated aims of liberal education (widening horizons, acquainting students with “the best that has been thought and said,” honing critical and rhetorical skills) and the sordid reality: the mind-numbing commitment to political correctness and intellectual vacuousness, the bizarre elevation of pathologies like “gender studies” (to say nothing of “transgender studies”) to a respectable place in the humanities curriculum. Orwell would have gone to town on the spectacle of colleges proclaiming “diversity” while actually enforcing spech codes and preaching conformity on any of the long and growing list of contentious issues, from abortion and “affirmative action” (i.e., discrimination according to this week’s favored category of victimhood) to the alleged failing of the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, gay marriage, or a hundred other items.
In our October issue, we reported with pleasure on an apparent bright spot in this depressing landscape. Hamilton College, an epicenter of political correctness, was actually planning to embark upon a serious pedagogical experiment: the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization, funded by gift of $3.6 million from Carl Menges, a concerned alumnus and Hamilton board member. Announced in September, the new center was to be dedicated to promoting “excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture.”
It would be paltering with the truth to say that we were not surprised by the birth of a center dedicated to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton at the college that bears his name. After all, this was a place that had made itself into a poster child for academic irresponsibility in recent years. Its former president, Eugene Tobin, had to resign a few years ago when it was revealed that he was in the habit of publishing other people’s work as his own. On the basis of that distinction, Mr. Tobin promptly ascended to a plump place at the Andrew Mellon Foundation, but that is a scandal for another day. Back at Hamilton, the college-funded Kirkland Project, a bastion of sclerotic left-wing activism, was busy bringing porn stars to campus to demonstrate the proper use of sex toys to students. In the autumn of 2004, the Kirkland Project announced it was bringing Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground, one of the most violent of the radical anti-American groups of the 1960s, to Hamilton to be an “artist- and activist-in-residence” and teach a seminar called “Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity and Change.” Rosenberg had only recently become available for such pedagogical adventures: she had served sixteen years in a federal penitentiary when Bill Clinton, in one of his last acts as President, commuted her fifty-eight-year prison sentence.
National outrage at this example of left-wing academic folly—outrage, by the way, that we are proud to have had a hand in promoting—led Rosenberg to withdraw. A similar scenario unfolded a few months later when Hamilton had to back down from its offer to Ward “Little Eichmanns” Churchill, the faux-Indian “ethnic studies” prof who had made a profitable academic career out pilfering other people’s prose to fuel his adolescent anti-American screeds. Churchill, who notoriously compared the victims of 9/11 to a Nazi bureaucrat, has the distinction of making himself synonymous with contemporary academic malevolence and irresponsibility. As we noted in October, the embarrassment of l’affaire Churchill sent the Kirkland Project into rehabilitation for a semester, when it emerged, still college-funded, as the “Diversity and Social Justice Project.” No, we are not making that up: a new name, but obviously the same tawdry, ideologically inspired business. Well, we were as surprised as we were pleased that a place like Hamilton, so obviously enthralled by the academic status quo, would actually deviate from its lock-step adherence to the agenda of political correctness to countenance the presence on campus of a center honoring the legacy of an American Founding Father. Alas, our surprise turns out to have been more justified than our pleasure. No sooner had Hamilton announced the creation of the Hamilton Center than the faculty (led by former members of the Kirkland Project) went to town, intimidating the pusillanimous administration and demanding that the center be subject to faculty oversight.
In the succeeding weeks, the Hamilton administration has rallied around the line that the problem with the AHC was “governance,” i.e., that it was not sufficiently accountable to the College. That is ridiculous. When confronted with that objection, the founders of the Hamilton Center responded with a substantially revised charter that explicitly emphasized that the center’s “policies and operation comply with the resolutions of the Trustees of Hamilton College and their fiduciary responsibilities.” The revised charter went further:
The founders of the AHC recognize that violation of those resolutions, disregard of those responsibilities, or deviation from the center’s scholarly mission as clearly defined in the charter may result in the removal of the AHC’s executive director from his office by the president of Hamilton College and the Board of Trustees or the discontinuance of the center’s funding by the College or both.
All well and good, but a bootless exercise. The issue with the Hamilton Center was not governance or oversight. No, what terrified the left-wing faculty was the possibility that an alternative voice, a voice not subject to their correction and control, might be allowed to flourish on campus. Any deviation from the politically correct script had to be nipped in the bud. Otherwise, before you knew it, students might learn about the Federalist Papers instead of Annie Sprinkle and her pornographic paraphernalia; they might learn about the rule of law instead of the escapades of a washed-up 1960s felon; they might learn about the strengths and virtues of American capitalism instead of being lectured about its depredations by a rancid beneficiary of that system. Obviously, this was intolerable. The administration, led by President Joan Stewart and Dean Joseph Urgo, went into a full-court cringe, announcing that the AHC would not be established “at this time.” Meanwhile, Mr. Menges withdrew his gift and is reported to be considering leaving Hamilton’s board. At least three other universities are reported to be interested in offering the Alexander Hamilton Center a home: it would be a fitting conclusion if the center, and its assets, wound up at some more responsible campus, leaving Hamilton to stew in its increasingly irrelevant narcissism. The real losers, of course, are the students: this year it costs about $45,000 to attend Hamilton. For that amount of money, parents can rest assured their children will be effectively insulated from any opinion not sanctioned by Hamilton’s left-wing, activist faculty.
The latest spectacle at Hamilton may seem like a parochial drama. What gives it a broader significance is the likelihood that faculties elsewhere will resort to similar tactics to enforce their ideological monopoly on campus. Faculties are everywhere jealous of their autonomy to teach and preach what they like—unless, it seems, some of their number presume to break ranks and offer students a genuine alternative to the “transgressive,” anti-Western canon that has become the new orthodoxy on campus. What happened at Hamilton is likely to set a precedent, and become a model, for faculties bent on stifling intellectual freedom.
The irony is that, in the normal course of things, an institution like the AHC would not even require faculty approval at Hamilton. As the historian Robert Paquette, one of the three faculty organizers of the AHC, noted, the center
did not seek to alter the curriculum of the college in any way, to create new courses arbitrarily, for example, or new faculty positions… . In effect, we were designing educational extras—awards, internships, colloquia, conferences—that would benefit both students and faculty as well as elevate, we thought, the scholarly reputation of the college. In a sense our initiative was comparable to that of a scientist who offers to create a new specialized laboratory on campus if he can score outside money from, say, the National Science Foundation. I know of no campus where such a scientist would accede to the faculty’s demand to impose its choice of assistants on a proposed experiment.
Last year, the Hamilton faculty met to discuss the embarrassing affairs of Susan Rosenberg and Ward Churchill. According to one observer, Nancy Rabinowitz, then head of the Kirkland Project, stood to defend her program and ended by addressing President Stewart: “The Kirkland Project is Hamilton College.” Many of the faculty gave her a standing ovation. Parents and alumni take note: The Kirkland Project may have changed its name, but its toxic spirit clearly lives on at Hamilton. More’s the pity.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 5, on page 1
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