As a rule I don’t use this letter for academic shoptalk. Most of you aren’t college professors, and few things are more tedious than another profession’s gossip. Besides, there’s no regional angle to this stuff, except that the trendy foolishness currently plaguing American campuses may afflict Southern schools (Duke University aside) marginally less than those elsewhere. Still, if you don’t know about an organization called the National Association of Scholars, you should. Back in June I went to a meeting of that group in New York, and I’d like to tell you about it.

The NAS aspires to be an umbrella group for faculty members concerned or at least annoyed by what’s going on around them. This gives it, to say the least, a broad agenda. At one time or another the organization and its quarterly, Academic Questions, have deplored entropy in the curriculum; the metastasis of race, ethnic, and gender studies; the denigration of excellence and Western civilization in the name of “diversity” and “multiculturalism”; the deformation of humanistic learning by tendentious or self-indulgent “theoretical” work; the proliferation of race- and sex-based hiring and admissions policies; and no doubt other enormities that I don’t recall at the moment.

Of course, not every NAS member is exercised about all of these issues. Some of us are soft on multiculturalism, for instance. Others doubt the efficacy of imposing a core curriculum on unwilling students, or fear what a core curriculum designed by today’s professors might look like. A few try to look on the bright side of literary theory and victim studies. Some (mostly tenured) aren’t wild about the alternatives to affirmative action. Others just question whether it is politic for the NAS to bundle all of these issues: after all, the broader the agenda the narrower the constituency.

Still, the issues do tend to come as a package, and from pretty much the same promoters. And most of the NAS program ought to appeal not just to us reactionaries but to liberals of the old-fashioned sort who have had enough and aren’t going to take it any more. That’s certainly true when the organization steps forward to defend the traditional academic freedoms of speech and inquiry.

It’s hard to talk about the threats to these freedoms without sounding hysterical, but they are threatened. That’s not new, of course; they usually are. What’s new is that the threat these days comes from what we might as well call the left, and that the usual defenders of academic freedom (notably the American Association of University Professors) are strangely supine in the face of what they would ordinarily call McCarthyism.

In my own discipline, for instance, the American Sociological Association was called upon a few years ago to censure James Coleman of the University of Chicago for producing a study of busing with conclusions that were not politically correct. At Harvard, when historian Stephan Thernstrom was denounced for “insensitivity” in the classroom, his accusers at first declined to specify the charges further; eventually they produced a list of offenses that included Thernstrom’s observing that 19th-century Chinese immigrants practiced an “Oriental” religion, and remarking that family instability contributes to present-day black poverty.

Now, Coleman and Thernstrom are big boys, bull elephants of the academic jungle, and they weathered these episodes without permanent damage—although they’ve both become active members of the NAS. But what about students and junior faculty? When the Sensitivity Police come for men and women without named chairs and international reputations to protect them, a new double standard is applied without shame. Last year a student editor published some stupid slurs on Duke’s black cafeteria workers; he was drummed out of office without one solitary bleat from the usual First Amendment fundamentalists. When an art student’s offensive painting of Chicago’s former mayor in ladies’ underwear was torn down—well, actually I think it should have been torn down, but then I feel the same about Mr. Serrano’s Piss Christ. (Even if Jesus Christ’s reputation is on firmer ground than Harold Washington’s, how about some concern for the feelings of Christians?) But where were the defenders of the supposed rights of that student “artist”? Hell, he wasn’t even receiving NEA funds.

It’s probably the 98-pound weaklings of academia who need the NAS most, and one of the great pleasures of the New York meeting was hearing from some of the Charles Atlases of our profession. One session dealt with the question “Can the Professoriate Reform Itself?” The consensus seems to be that, no, it can’t, but everyone seemed pretty cheerful nevertheless. When you hear sense being spoken by people like Coleman and Thernstrom, by Gertrude Himmelfarb and Dean Donald Kagan of Yale—well, it’s encouraging. You realize that you’re not just right, you’re in good company.

It’s like the famous Asch experiments, which Intro. Psych, students of a generation ago may recall. Asch asked groups of people to say which of several lines was the longest. The actual subject of the experiment was the last to be asked, after several pseudo-subjects had confidently and consistently made the wrong choice, and often the poor schnook simply caved in and went along with the group. Some just felt it wasn’t worth arguing about, but others were actually led to doubt the evidence of their own eyes. A few, unusually suggestible, even saw one of the shorter lines as longest, when the others said it was. Even subjects who made the right choice usually did it hesitantly and apologetically.

Apparently it takes a real hero, or a real jerk—anyway, someone unusually stubborn or arrogant or courageous—to insist that everyone else is simply wrong, even when they obviously are. That’s the bad news. The good news, though, is that the presence of even one fellow dissident produced nearly unanimous nonconformity. Which is why the NAS meeting was such a heady experience: it was downright exhilarating to be in a room with a few hundred others who also know which line is longest.

It’s hard to overstate the political lopsidedness of American college faculties these days. I think it was Thomas Sowell who said that the ideological spectrum usually ranges from left to far left. Those with views outside that range are likely to spend their working lives subjected to relentless academic groupthink, usually not so much conscious harassment as just the constant weight of assumption.

Incidentally, the bad guys in this business are not, for the most part, the former student radicals of the 1960’s. Those of us who still bear grudges from those days may like to think they are, but we need to be reminded that the 60’s are now as long past as the 30’s were then. It’s sobering to realize that our students see the days of the Free Speech Movement as either a mythical era when giants walked the earth or an irrelevant past that tiresome old fogeys get nostalgic about—either way, an epoch now lost in the mists of time. Sure, some of our old adversaries have now completed their Long March through the institutions and emerged as tenured wannabe thought-controllers. They’re doing their best to insure that, a generation from now, scholars who don’t share their opinions will be found only in disciplines like poultry science or in colleges named for living evangelists. They’re a problem: in particular, they put others’ commitment to a depoliticized academy to the test, because it’s hard not to want to purge people who would gladly purge you. But, outside a few departments here and there, they’re not the immediate problem.

That comes from a much more numerous and influential party of well-intentioned souls who practice what one speaker at the NAS meeting called, after Veblen, “conspicuous benevolence,” supporting programs and policies that demonstrate good will and political correctness, almost without regard for any other consequences. To those of us who can see which line is longest, for example, it’s perfectly obvious that quota systems undermine the self-confidence of their supposed beneficiaries and breed cynicism and resentment in others. That argument needs to be made (probably in an accent other than mine), but it will not move someone who is determined to show that he cares, that he is not “mean-spirited.” One speaker at the meeting confessed that this kind of amorphous mush almost makes him nostalgic for the old-timey academic Marxists, most of whom at least had some sense of intellectual rigor and believed there are more important questions than whether people feel good about themselves.

Anyway, maybe—just maybe—the tide is turning. Let me tell a story.

Ten or twelve years ago, my department chairman got a questionnaire from something called the Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Sociological Association, asking 1) how many members of our department were openly gay or lesbian and active in gay and lesbian causes, 2) how many were gay or lesbian, but not politically active, and 3) how many he thought might be gay or lesbian. (My colleague, a brilliant statistician and demographer, is a Brahmin from Kerala who takes a rather detached view of American academic politics. He photocopied the questionnaire and sent it around, essentially asking us to volunteer.)

The NAS meeting reminded me of that episode. Deviants of the sort the NAS speaks for are also a vastly outnumbered and sometimes persecuted minority, although I wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far. (Nobody’s suggested quotas for us yet—and I hope nobody does, because I’d be tempted.) We, too, come in varying degrees of outspokenness. Not many are willing, at least not yet, to be active in an organization like the NAS. But there are more who make little secret of sharing our views. They may not feel as strongly about them, or they may feel they have better things to do than fight for lost causes (I often feel that way myself), but their mere existence makes an important contribution, as the Asch experiment suggests. It may be wishful thinking, but I believe there are more such witnesses than there were a decade ago. Ironically, the politicization of our campuses may have brought this about. People who constantly ask “Which side are you on?” are sometimes going to get an answer they don’t want.

Perhaps even more encouraging are what I take to be signs that a growing number of our colleagues think straight in private. They really know which line is longest, in other words, but aren’t yet ready to be disagreeable about it. Those of us who are ready, and willing, have all had colleagues sidle up to us, glance furtively about, and whisper that we’re right about something. My favorite example is the friend who told me in 1984 that he was going to vote Republican—but asked me not to tell his wife. I’ve even had a few colleagues tell me that they read Chronicles. You can bet they get their subscriptions at home, not at the office, but it’s a start. When you’re ready to come out of the closet, fellows, you can join the NAS for $30.00 a year ($15.00 for graduate students). The address is Suite 250 East, 20 Nassau Street, Princeton, N.J. 08542. Nonacademic sympathizers and curiosity-seekers can subscribe to Academic Questions for the same price.