The National Association of Scholars recently made headlines when it published a critique of the University’s Department of History.
In a paper titled “Recasting History” the group criticized the department for over-emphasizing themes of class, race and gender. And though this may be the organization’s first interaction with the University’s history department, it is not the organization’s first mention in the history of the University.
The organization, which according to its website is a coalition of academics concerned with issues such as the politicization of the classroom, launched its first public campaign against a UT department’s curriculum in the 1990s.
In spring 1989, a committee of English professors began to revise the department’s curriculum, focusing on English 306, a mandatory freshman composition course.
The following spring, the committee presented a packet of course materials to the English department. One of the books was called “Racism and Sexism” by Paula Rothenberg, a collection of articles and personal narratives written by a diverse group of authors. When brought before the English department, the proposal received a majority — but not a unanimous — vote for approval.
At this point, the National Association of Scholars got involved. In the summer and fall of 1990, the organization used tactics similar to those used in its recent campaign against the history curriculum. Then and now, the group has used the power of the media and relied in large part on publicly-released syllabi.
“As far as we were concerned, the book was exhibit A of too much politics in the classroom,” Glenn Ricketts, the organization’s public affairs director, said. “We certainly sought to publicize it.”
The push resulted in national attention. The revisions were the subject of several nationally syndicated columns and were called “political indoctrination” by an opinion writer for The Washington Post.
In July, the organization paid for an ad in The Daily Texan, titled “A Statement of Academic Concern.” The ad stated that the proposed curriculum “[distorted] the fundamental purpose of a composition class.” Fifty-six professors signed the statement, including 16 professors who teach at the University today. Though the organization paid for the advertisement, its name did not appear anywhere on the ad. It is unclear if the signatories were aware of the organization’s role in publishing the advertisement.
“The NAS championed the resistance to some of the more radical trends,” Alan Gribben, a former UT English professor and prominent critic of the revised curriculum, said. “They had been looking for issues like this to support.”
The organization succeeded in defeating the proposed revisions to the English course. Under intense media criticism, the University’s administration did not give the English department permission to test its revised curriculum on a smaller scale. Every member of the committee originally charged with revising the curriculum resigned in protest.
In the 20 years since the debate over the E306 course, the organization has broadened its mission and goals. In the past month, it published blog posts criticizing the new director of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and lamenting the damage caused by “diversity mania” at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The NAS has also kept an eye on Texas: In the ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. Texas, which examines the role of race in college admissions, the group filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiff. The president of the Texan Association of Scholars is philosophy professor Robert Koons. The former president of the Texas affiliate, Joseph Horn, who founded the Liberal Arts Honors program, served as advisor to UT’s Young Conservatives of Texas and led the charge to defund Tejas, a campus Chicano newspaper. Lino Graglia, a law school professor who attracted controversy in December with his statements that African-Americans and Hispanics are less likely to be academically competent than white students, is a member as well.
Koons said the organization has the same concerns now that it did in 1990.
“It’s not that the NAS is opposed to the study of race, gender and class issues,” Koons said. “It’s just not to the exclusion of learning writing, and not to the exclusion of getting a general introduction to American history.”
Alan Friedman, a UT English professor who has worked at the University since 1964, said the organization’s continued reliance on syllabi leads to an incomplete picture.
“You cannot tell, it seems to me, what faculty are doing in classrooms merely by looking at the texts they require their students to read or by looking at a syllabus,” Friedman said. “You can find out what materials they’re using, but not how they’re using it, how they’re teaching it or what angle they’re taking on it. The NAS does merely that — they are not an academically respectable organization.”