It is no secret that the far left has infiltrated higher education. But Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, says his organization is doing all it can to expose the spread of woke ideology on America’s college campuses.
The National Association of Scholars operates a cancel culture tracker to document each time a faculty member at a college or university is canceled by his or her employer. The group now has tracked hundreds of cases, Wood says.
“We decided once the numbers started to pile up that it would be a good thing to have one place where we can go to see how often this is happening,” Wood says. “Virtually every week we get approached by another faculty member at some college or university saying, ‘What can I do?'”
Wood joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain the biggest issues he sees in higher education and what can be done to resolve them. He also discusses why the University of North Carolina denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of The New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project.
We also cover these stories:
- Vice President Kamala Harris will make her first trip to the U.S.-Mexico border as vice president on Friday.
- The Supreme Court sides with a high school cheerleader in an important free speech case.
- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says the state’s schools will teach children about the evils of communism.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: I am joined by Peter Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars. Mr. Wood, thank you so much for being here today.
Peter Wood: Great to be here.
Allen: Tell us a little bit about what you do at the National Association of Scholars. What is your mission?
Wood: Well, we’re a 35-year-old membership organization that started out with the idea that reforming American higher education in the direction of its traditional standards is going to be a cakewalk, and turned out to be a bad theory. But it’s what we do.
I divide our work into three categories. One … is trying to help individual faculty members who’ve been canceled or run into problems with political correctness. We also do in-depth research reports and we do policy work trying to convince the powers that be that American higher education is in serious need of reform.
So, we’re a membership organization with about 4,000 members, most of them academics, but not all of us. And our outlook on life, I guess you would say, is that American higher education needs to do several things. It needs to pursue the truth. It needs to maintain a spirit of intellectual freedom, which goes beyond just the boundaries of near academic freedom. And it needs to produce virtuous citizens, people who understand what our country is and why it matters.
And those are three things which it turns out to be singularly inept doing these days. So we’re fighting an uphill battle.
I think this happens to be a moment when we see the American public awakening to just how ill served it has been by our colleges and universities. People are now fond of recognizing that many of our nation’s problems derive from the ill education that students have received.
Allen: Well, Dr. Wood, you are a scholar, you’re surrounded by scholars, you work with scholars. You recently wrote a piece about the author of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The board at the University of North Carolina this spring denied Hannah-Jones tenure. Why is that significant?
Wood: Well, the 1619 Project is partly written by and partly edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones. It launched in August of 2019. It has become a major piece in the culture wars over what should go on in education.
The Times originally launched it partly as a curriculum aimed at K-12 schools. And many thousands of schools have now adopted it, whole school districts like Chicago and Buffalo took it on very quickly, but it’s also spread into classrooms across the country. That seems, to me, to be a terrible thing because the 1619 Project is, first of all, largely false.
It’s made up of strong claims, such as the United States, what became the United States, began with false principles when slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. But it goes on to try to demolish virtually every aspect of what we would consider American exceptionalism, that’d be our ideals of freedom and equality are false because we’re really a system of racial repression.
Critical race theory is the broader category in which the 1619 Project falls. The 1619 Project, however, is the tip of the spear, it is where critical race theory is being brought into the lives of children as young as 6 years old. So I’ve been resisting it.
The National Association of Scholars immediately launched what we called our 1620 Project. I turned that into a book, which was a systematic critique of the 1619 Project. So we’ve been deep into the fight against Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, and the 1619 Project, generally.
When Nikole Hannah-Jones was put up for a tenured professorship at the University of North Carolina, the board there took a close look at what she really stood for and decided that granting her tenure was off the table.
They actually made that decision in January of this year, though it wasn’t reported publicly until April. When it was reported, all hell broke loose. There were many faculty members at that university and around the country who think that this was a gross violation of her academic freedom.
While she’s not an academic, her highest degree is a master’s degree, she has no scholarship behind her. To the extent that she is a public figure, one could recognize that a university might want to bring her in as someone who has something to say, but to treat her as though she were an academic who had met the rigorous standards for tenure is sort of silly. It was a political move on the part of a politicized faculty and I think it was rightly opposed by the trustees of the university.
Allen: You mentioned, and we’ve seen across the country, many school districts have very quickly embraced the 1619 Project, it almost seems before they have a chance to even read it. How do you think that we can really go about communicating well what the 1619 Project actually is and then what the alternatives are for how we can be teaching history to our young people in a really encompassing way? Not leaving out, of course, the sin of slavery of America’s past, but also not just saying, “America is ruined,” but really telling the full story.
Wood: I think you’re right that a lot of school districts, teachers, others have just taken the 1619 Project at face value. There’s a claim that African Americans have been left out of American history and this is an occasion on which it could be replaced. Even the claim that African Americans have been left out of American history is a gross exaggeration.
At least for the last 50 years, slavery in America has been maybe the most important topic addressed by American historians. Whole journals are devoted to it. Whole careers are built on it. Many of the major works of history written during the last half-century have been devoted to slavery.
So it’s just absolutely false that this has not been part of our told history. You have to go back a long ways to find a period when this was history that was ignored or erased.
So the first thing we need to do is just remind ourselves of how much progress has been made in racial history in America. And that the whole civil rights movement feeds into an era in which we have acknowledged the contributions of African Americans to the building of this country.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, this journalist wakes up one day and decides she wants to tell a story. It would have behooved her to at least tell the story accurately, not to portray Abraham Lincoln as a racist whose motive in the Civil War was to exile blacks from off the North American continent and not to tell the story that the Declaration of Independence and the American founding were really about the efforts of Americans to prevent the British from abolishing slavery. That never happened, that threat was never made, that wasn’t the reason why we fought the Revolution.
To start teaching young children that fairy tale is just a terrible thing in itself because it’s not truthful, but also, it’s destructive to our country. And I think Americans, as we begin to understand that racial division is not in our favor, that building a form of education that encourages resentment and guilt is a way of dividing the country that will be destructive to the lives of everybody, black and white. So that’s what we need to say.
Allen: That is critical. I want to pivot for a moment, the National Association of Scholars now has a tracker for cancel culture in higher education. This is really fascinating to me. Tell me about this tracker.
Wood: We decided, once the numbers started to pile up, that it would be a good thing to have one place where we can go to see how often this is happening.
Virtually every week we get approached by another faculty member at some college or university saying, “What can I do? Look at the trouble I’m in.” Usually that involves some statement that faculty member had no ill intention in making, minor things getting blown up into big accusations and the administrators panicking and thinking that unless we do something quick to suppress this person, we’re going to have riots on campus.
So we decided that getting the facts out would be important. So our tracker looks at who’s been accused, what the accusation is, what sort of response the college or university has made, what the outcome of that has been. And we took it back three years, so we have a good collection now of instances. And this is all public information, it’s available to whoever wants to look.
Allen: How many have you all tracked? Do you know a number?
Wood: We’re in the hundreds now.
Allen: OK. Wow. I appreciate you tracking that, but it’s a little discouraging that there’s that many. Is there a theme of those who are canceled? Is there anything that is sort of a common denominator for these individuals who are canceled?
Wood: No, I don’t think there really is. It seems to be across all the disciplines. That happens to people in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. It happens to people who [are] just starting out, it happens to people who have been teaching for 40 years.
If there’s a theme, it is that they have offended or a student at least has said that he or she is offended. It could be a matter that the faculty member has chosen not to use the preferred pronoun of a student or it could be a matter that someone has read a text by Mark Twain that uses the N-word.
And it goes across the board, some of it has to do with the racial politics on campus, some the sexual politics, and some just seem out of thin air, people can get into trouble for all sorts of things.
Allen: What do you think about the fact that Princeton recently decided that it was going to remove its Greek or Latin requirement for classic majors based on concerns about race concerns?
Wood: Well, I don’t want to overuse the word “tragic,” but it comes pretty close to that. The effort to broaden the appeal of the classics by eliminating what the classics is all about, it seems to be a kind of wound to the foot.
What would classics mean if you’re not reading the originals in Latin and Greek? And any of us at any time can sit down and read translations of “The Odyssey” or “The Iliad” … and we should, I mean, there are some splendid English translations of them. But that doesn’t make you a person who has studied the classics in the real sense of the word.
Presumably, the reason Princeton’s classics department wants to do this is that it’s gotten woke. The head of the department is aggressively woke and the idea is that they’ll be able to attract more minorities into the department if they don’t make this hard intellectual demand on them. Well, learning Latin and Greek is hard. And unfortunately, it’s what it takes to become a scholar in those fields.
Allen: It seems like the field of academia [has] always leaned left. It’s kind of taken, I feel like, a radical and fast turn, much, much harder left. So what are your thoughts? Is this leftist ideology coming from entirely within the United States or are there maybe also some outside influences that are impacting this leftward agenda?
Wood: Well, it’s not something that’s entirely in the United States. Britain, Australia, other countries are seeing much the same thing.
There’ve been interesting headlines lately about how the French government is worried that it’s going to spread to France from the United States. And nice irony in there since so many of our ideologies have first come from France, well, now they’re blowing back at France, they don’t like it.
But why is it happening here and now? I think that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the one place in the world where true believers in Marxism remained in substantial numbers was the American college campus. They have never relented in their pursuit of a radical interpretation of our history.
But what has happened is that a generation has grown up without the Cold War behind it, without any sense of what a Marxist government or Marxist social system really looks like. So the appeal of this idea has deepened.
I think there’s a lot more to it than that. It connects with the increasing secularization of American society. People who don’t have any ultimate belief in God are more susceptible to the idea that we can be God, we can remake our lives from the ground up.
American feminism has played a part in this, partly in deriving masculinity and partly from teaching women that a pursuit of anything is bound to run into a glass ceiling. Well, the glass ceiling may not even be there, but the sense of resentment and grievances are there. And those things play into the ability of colleges and universities to present a radical curriculum that resonates to some degree with your generation.
Allen: Is there any hope for our colleges and universities that we can pull them back a little bit more center?
Wood: Well, there are some colleges and universities that have resisted this, maybe a dozen or so around the country. And almost every college and university has a handful of survivors, of professors who aren’t willing to give up. So there’s always hope with that, and I try to speak for and to those. But I would say, if on the broader picture, probably American higher education is going to have to hit a real hard bump before it changes its direction.
For one thing, the faculty members are committed to agendas that aren’t going to change. Most of those people have tenure, they’re not going anywhere, they’re going to continue teaching what they teach.
What is happening, however, is that parents are reaching the limit of what they can pay for. The cost of college has become extraordinary. The debt that students go into to support the cost of college has become unbearably high. And with the COVID shutdown, large numbers of students discovered that they could get much the same education at a fraction of the price without the trouble.
Now, it’s a complicated problem. Students do want to be on campus and meet each other and enjoy the act of learning together and not simply sitting at home in mom’s basement or something like that. Nonetheless, the dynamics and the economics of higher education are at a crisis point, which is likely to result in the closure of a good many colleges and universities and the opening of others.
I like to say that colleges and universities aren’t the only way in which people engage in higher education. They never have been and I think increasingly we’re lucky to see students finding their way to the alternatives that are out there. So, yes.
Allen: So, as young people are looking for a college, as maybe parents are listening and they’re thinking, “Well, what are maybe two or three of those really good colleges that are still left, that haven’t been corrupted,” [what] are some of those colleges that you would recommend students to consider?
Wood: I’m a little reluctant to be praising brands, but I can name some of the ones that I think people probably already know about, like Hillsdale and Grove City, and University of Dallas, all of which are quite estimable places. I’m actually working on a list of recommendations that I hope to make public soon, which will have many more than those on it.
I also think it’s a crucial thing that people who are considering going to universities that aren’t on the list of ones that I think are really solidly safe understand that there are … good departments and they’re good programs within other universities, including many that have adopted policies overall that look pretty dismal.
So if you’re a good shopper, you can find the places to go in American higher education where a first-rate education is available, just don’t be taken in by the programs that are praised relentlessly but aren’t very good.
Allen: Dr. Wood, thank you, really appreciate your time today. And thank you for the work that you’re doing at the Association of Scholars.
Wood: Thank you for having me.