It is a special honor to receive an award named for Sidney Hook— a giant in an age of pygmies— and to receive it from an organization devoted to academic principles that Professor Hook himself espoused and exemplified. Sidney Hook's biography was aptly titled Out of Step and members of the National Association of Scholars know all too well that they are out of step with current fashions and dogmas in academia. In both cases, being out of step has not been a goal in itself. It is what happens when you are looking for truth in an era when others are looking for power.
The first time I became aware of the work of Sidney Hook was back in 1949, when an article of his in the New York Times Magazine so impressed me that I cut it out and saved it in a scrapbook. Unfortunately, with the passing decades and many moves from place to place across the country, that scrapbook has been lost. What has not been lost, however, is the example of logic, integrity and courage that is Sidney Hook's legacy to those who came after him.
All too often today, we have reason to be discouraged by the ascendancy of pernicious ideas and practices in the academic world, and among intellectuals in general. But imagine what it must have been like for Sidney Hook, during the long decades when he was a staunch, outspoken opponent of communism, while much of the American academy and media either saw the Soviet Union as a vanguard of progress or saw anti-communists as cramped and twisted Cold Warriors. Moreover, the system he hated and fought against was spreading on every inhabited continent and subjugating hundreds of millions more human beings. It looked like the invincible wave of the future almost up to the very moment of its collapse.
We know all too well how pervasive and ruthless similar anti-Western counter-cultures are on campuses across the country today. Yet can we say that these trends have been on the ascendancy as long as the Soviet Union lasted, much less that they have comparable powers to destroy their enemies? We may have an uphill fight ahead of us to restore ordinary decency to many parts of the academic world, but Sidney Hook fought up a much steeper hill for a much longer time.
What is the fight confronting the National Association of Scholars and like-minded people today?
In one sense, it is a collection of fights over a wide range of issues— admissions policies, the curriculum, speech codes, faculty hiring— but, more fundamentally, the fight is over power because that is what our opponents have made their objective. The opposite of power is not power for opposite purposes, it is freedom. Just as the American war for independence from King George was not a war to set up our own king, so the battles of the National Association of Scholars and like-minded people is not, and cannot be, a battle to take over the kind of power that the political left, and especially the counter-cultural left, possesses today to impose its orthodoxy on campus. It is doubtful whether the membership of NAS could even agree on what orthodoxy they would impose, if they could or wanted to. Our goal is not a new hegemony but a new freedom— and the restoration of a sense of responsibility.
What the counter-cultural forces currently have is not simply power but irresponsible power. They will pay no price if it turns out that the "multiculturalism" that is supposed to promote mutual respect among groups ends up promoting polarization and hostility instead. They will pay no price if counter-cultural courses and majors send students out into the world unprepared to be anything other than discontented misfits, not even sufficiently organized in their thinking to be anything more than a minor nuisance to the establishment they seek to overthrow. The dominant left has in fact paid no price for double standards of admissions that have already led to horrendous dropout rates among those minority students admitted under preferences, even as other minority students admitted under the regular standards have gone on to graduate on campuses on which "racism" has become the all-purpose explanation of minority failures.
The unaccountable power of decision-making that currently exists in academia is unique in the world— indeed, in the history of the world. There is no other system— governmental or private, religious or secular, democratic or totalitarian— in which large numbers of decision-makers are wholly unaccountable for the consequences of their decisions. The combination of three things— makes this possible, so these three things cannot be discussed in isolation, as they too often are. They are tenure, so-called academic self-governance, and "academic freedom." Of these three, I am opposed only to the first— and primarily because it is too often associated with corrupt meanings of the other two.
First, tenure. One of our colleagues caught me in the hall the other day and said that he agreed with me on most things but not on tenure, that without tenure he and many other people like him and like me would have been fired. Undoubtedly that is the strongest argument for tenure today. Unfortunately, faculty self-governance cancels out a large part of that argument, because people with our views are not being hired in the first place in many departments across the country. Tenure does not represent, as many would have it, more job security. It simply redistributes the existing insecurity. That is, the senior professors get more and the junior professors get less, but overall there is no more security than there would be in the absence of tenure.
It is the combination of tenure with self-governance that leads to irresponsible power. The idea behind self-governance is a good one. That is, chemists should decide what chemistry courses should be taught and in what sequence. The illegitimate use of the concept is that professors have some sort of expertise in matters outside their own specialties— knowledge of why we should or should not have ROTC on campus, why we should or should not allow the Judge Advocate General's office to recruit in the law schools, why the institution's endowment should be invested according to ideological rather than financial considerations.
Academic freedom is very important in and of itself. But, too often, the blanket insulation it provides from outside non-academic interests has been interpreted to be more than the freedom to make academic decisions about courses or curriculums. Indeed, academic freedom has become a license to turn courses into indoctrination and recruitment centers for all sorts of fashionable ideological crusades.
There are grounds for grave concerns about the intellectual and social consequences of this. That worry was drive home to me yet again the other day when a young Southern professor told about the students she encountered in her classes. Among these students were teachers in training for her state's public school system, who seemed to have missed the point of a university education. More than half, as evidenced by their grades and performances, completely lacked factual knowledge, as well as any sense of the processes and rewards of intellectual development. The sobering question she asked me was: What is going to happen when these would-be educators take their counterfeit degrees back to small Mississippi towns and stand before children for whom a real education is the only ticket out of desperate poverty? What good is a teacher's ignorant utopian theorizing to hungry people?
A line must be drawn, somewhere, to make it clear that academic freedom and self-governance are not blank checks for any personal philosophy that an academic might wish to push. Drawing a line may sometimes be difficult. But, in most cases, when that difficulty is raised, the real issue is not where you draw the line, but whether you draw the line. I think that line is overdue to be drawn.