By George Leef

There are two national publications devoted entirely to higher education. One is Inside Higher Education and the other, the older of the two, is The Chronicle of Higher Education. Mostly, it publishes material in line with the interests of the higher education establishment, although from time to time you find an article that’s critical of developments like the politicization of the curriculum. A companion publication, The Chronicle Review, is more overtly ideological and has published some astounding screeds over the years.

In that vein, on September 2, it ran an essay by Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley entitled, “Fascism and the University.” (All Chronicle material is behind a paywall, so don’t bother clicking on the link if you aren’t a subscriber.)

Professor Stanley frets that “a certain kind of far-right nationalism” threatens countries including Russia, Hungary, Poland, India, Turkey and, yes, the United States. And, connecting with The Chronicle’s readers, he worries that higher education, “historically a bulwark against authoritarianism,” is being subverted by American advocates of that far-right nationalism.

I’m not going to write a full rejoinder to Stanley’s piece here (I’ll do so in good time), but want to focus on one particularly absurd accusation, namely that the James G. Martin Center is somehow complicit in a dark, devious plot by right-wingers to install the sort of fascist regime they desire.

Here’s how Stanley proceeds.

He first notes that former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory criticized some courses offered in the UNC system, such as “gender studies.” Nothing came of his criticism, but Stanley can’t let a good conspiracy theory go to waste and indicts the Martin Center.

He writes that McCrory “was backed up by what was then the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, run and funded by Art Pope, a powerful and wealthy Republican donor. The Pope center has successfully urged the University of North Carolina to raise its tuition. . . . At the same time it denigrates subjects that would enable a greater understanding of human cultural diversity, the Pope center (now known as the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal) also urges the teaching of a ‘great books’ curriculum, which emphasizes the cultural achievements of white Europeans. The priorities here make sense when one realizes that in antidemocratic systems, the function of education is to produce obedient citizens structurally obliged to enter the work force without bargaining power and ideologically trained to think that the dominant group represent history’s greatest civilizational forces.”

People who read Stanley’s essay would come away believing that the Martin Center is in league with deplorable forces of antidemocratic, nationalistic white supremacists. No doubt he figured that would play well with the great majority of his readers.

“Nothing could be further from the truth” is an overworked phrase, but it fits perfectly here.

First of all, the Center has always opposed the politicization of the curriculum and did not back up McCrory’s idea that some courses should be dropped. While we have often argued that many courses are of scant intellectual value (such as gender studies), we do not want the state government (or any government) deciding what courses must or must not be offered.

Now, as for the benefits of a “great books” curriculum, we have said that it’s a fine approach to liberal education, but have never said that it is the only approach and certainly not that it should be mandated. Stanley’s snide insinuation that if you favor teaching “great books” it must be because you want to use education to prop up white supremacy and an economic system geared toward the interests of big business, is just a smear.

If Stanley had bothered to read much of our output, he’d see that we are libertarians arguing for the downsizing of the role of government in education (and everything else). Our philosophy is the exact opposite of fascism and the strongest bulwark against it.

Moreover, it’s simply false to claim that teaching “great books” is a means of shoring up the white power structure. Many non-white thinkers and activists have found inspiration in those works. Black activist W.E.B. DuBois, for example, wrote in his The Souls of Black Folks, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas. I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come graciously with no scorn or condescension.”

Linking the Martin Center to fascism because we think that “great books” courses are good, and identity studies courses are a waste of time, is ludicrous.

It’s worth noting that Stanley’s Chronicle piece is drawn from a book he recently wrote entitled, How Fascism Works.  Too bad the editors at Random House didn’t bother to see if his attack on the Martin Center had any validity.  It doesn’t’.