Curriculum For Sale?

Conservative philanthropy in North Carolina comes at a price.
By Hassan Melehy

Given the widespread tendency to direct budget cuts in higher education toward areas perceived as less essential to economic productivity, there isn’t a single college or university humanities program in the United States that wouldn’t benefit from philanthropy. However, because some moneyed interests use the current crisis as a pretext to further diminish publicly sponsored opportunities for the less well-off, there is good reason to be wary of some donors’ motives.

Many of us teaching in North Carolina’s public universities know that a philanthropist to whom this principle strongly applies is Art Pope, a conservative multimillionaire. Pope came to national prominence last October, thanks to Jane Mayer’s superb New Yorker profile of him, appropriately titled “State for Sale.” That profile mostly concentrated on Pope’s influence on state legislative races, although it devoted a few paragraphs to Pope’s role in higher education in North Carolina. 

For many years, among his other political activities, Pope has waged a wrestling match with the faculty in the University of North Carolina system, especially at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I teach. He has directed his struggle generally against public higher education and specifically against the supposed anti-Western bias of teaching and research in the humanities. His strategy—carried out mainly through think tanks he funds, the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the John W. Pope Foundation, and the John Locke Foundation—combines a public image of concerned generosity about the university system with open attacks on the faculty and curriculum at UNC–Chapel Hill.

An example of this carrot-and-stick approach was a September 2011 press release from the Pope Center addressing a budget cut: at issue was the cancellation of one of the two spring 2012 sections of a highly popular honors course at UNC–Chapel Hill, Elements of Politics, taught by Larry Goldberg, a longtime lecturer in the English department who remains active in retirement. The center offered to pay $2,000 of the $7,500 part-time salary that Goldberg would get for the section; he had stated his willingness to teach the course for free, but administrators, concerned about workloads, no longer permit volunteer instruction from contingent faculty. In the release, center president Jane Shaw expressed “profound disappointment” in that decision. A class in which students read the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Locke was losing out, she lamented, to “frivolous” courses such as Costume History, Conspiracy Thinking in Contemporary America, and The World of the Beat Generation: Transcultural Connections. (The last was my own course, which I taught once in 2007.)

Because of UNC–Chapel Hill’s mostly implemented policy of turning down earmarked donations, however, the Pope Center’s offer went nowhere. The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, ran an editorial entitled “Backhanded Generosity,” signaling the blatancy of the Pope Center’s attempt to impose its agenda on the curriculum and to set up a further attack on the university for refusing money in a time of crisis; the article characterized the strategy as “a swipe at a progressive university.” Several media outlets also underscored the irony that the budget crisis is as dire as it is—involving a 17.9 percent reduction in state support for 2011–12—in part because of Art Pope’s aggressive funding and strategizing to influence the North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, the result of which has been Republican domination of the house and senate for the first time since Reconstruction.

In making the distinction between serious and unserious courses, the press release invoked a litany familiar to anyone who even partially follows conservative critiques of higher education: the West is under siege in the universities by tenured radicals who “relativize” all values by placing non-Western cultures on an equal footing with Western ones and teaching frivolous subjects such as clothing and pets rather than the Great Books.

But aside from the fact that the press release didn’t acknowledge the major difference between cutting from the budget a lecturer’s per-section payment (a financial decision) and removing a course from a faculty member’s instructional repertory (which would raise questions of academic freedom), the “tragic” notion that the luminaries of the West “are being marginalized and disparaged,” as Shaw put it in the release, simply has no basis in fact. A look at the UNC–Chapel Hill undergraduate catalog reveals an abundance of offerings on the West, even if one imagines that region as restricted to Europe and the United States and as excluding Native American cultures. Western art is a strong presence; the English core courses are still British literature, crowned by Shakespeare; courses in French, German, Italian, and even Spanish bear heavily on those languages’ regions of origin; philosophy majors take a sequence in which Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and many other traditional greats are anything but forgotten. There is indeed little possibility for any undergraduate at UNC–Chapel Hill not to have a serious and detailed encounter with the West—as is the case on most college and university campuses not only in North America but also in South America and Europe. But Pope and his staff have in mind a certain version of the West that promotes a certain set of values, dismissing courses—often on the basis of titles and short catalog descriptions—that don’t place the Western greats in the foreground.

Shoring Up A Sagging Western Culture?

My first encounter with the Pope Center’s version of this dogma was just after my arrival at UNC–Chapel Hill in fall 2004: faculty were in the midst of a heated debate over whether to accept a donation of more than $10 million from the Pope Foundation for the creation of an undergraduate program in Western cultures. The program proposal itself was the creation of a faculty committee, and there was no communication on the proposal between the Pope Center or the Pope Foundation and the committee members. University administrators said they had initiated discussion with the foundation. But of course, the very idea of such a program was conceived with the aim of interesting the donors. My principal reservation, which I shared with a number of other faculty members, was that the program’s creation entailed acceptance of the notion that the West had been eroded and needed to be shored up under a single heading rather than taught in its immense variety. It seemed to me not merely a disservice to cultural diversity but even more a vast oversimplification of the West. The committee, well aware of these and related objections, proceeded to formulate a program that relied entirely on the existing curriculum; it was not to be a major or even a minor but rather a “certificate,” the most gentle of curricular groupings.

Nonetheless, protest from faculty was strong: many didn’t want the university to have such a close relationship with an ideologically driven organization—a feeling not helped by the frequent attacks the Pope Center made on its website against both the university and individual faculty members and programs. An early response to this objection, from both the Pope Center and some faculty members and administrators eager to get funding, was that the foundation and the center were distinct entities and hence that engagement with one didn’t amount to approval of the other—a spurious claim, since the foundation is the center’s main source of funding. In spring 2005, in the face of faculty opposition, Art Pope withdrew the offer but indicated his openness to a revised proposal. Administrators met his request, issuing a new plan in August, which faculty soon recognized as designed to please him—and as having been written without their consultation. In a memorandum from May 2006 addressed to Chancellor James Moeser, Provost Robert Shelton, College of Arts and Sciences Dean Bernadette Gray-Little, and two others, faculty objected again, citing the traditional principle of transparency and university guidelines that call for instructors’ involvement in any curricular change affecting their areas. The chancellor ceased negotiations with the Pope Foundation on that particular proposal.

Since setting up potential and actual beneficiaries for future attacks is essential to the strategy of Pope and his think tanks, a consequence of our rejection of the Western cultures proposal is that Pope’s groups continue to remind us of our supposed rejection of the West. In a 2009 article, “The Culture Chasm at UNC,” Jane Shaw revisited the Western cultures proposal in order to comment on its last remnant, a Pope-funded series of guest speakers called Renewing the Western Tradition. Noting that the Pope Foundation had no role in the choice of speakers, Shaw criticized the series. She said that those invited, among them prominent scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Elaine Pagels, and Stephen Greenblatt, didn’t emphasize the true strengths of the West. These include, she explained, “the long process . . . that developed freedom of thought and freedom of scientific inquiry, separated religious conscience from political obeisance, and laid the foundations of economic freedom and democratic governance. These forces led to unprecedented levels of liberty and economic growth in the world.”

Western Tradition as a Way of Thinking

Certainly, economic freedom and growth are one set of values that stem from the Western tradition. But it’s erroneous to characterize economic freedom—or, for that matter, democratic governance as we know it today—as a direct consequence of the salient features of the Western tradition. In even a cursory reading of major texts from Western intellectual history, it’s easy to discern tendencies sharply critical of the Pope Center’s notion of economic freedom, which entails minimal government regulation, no redistribution of wealth, and assignment of full responsibility for one’s economic success or failure to the individual.

For example, it is unusual to find in the political theories of the sixteenth century any proposal for a state that doesn’t call for generosity to all and care of the less fortunate (Niccolò Machiavelli was an exception, although even he found government liberality appropriate in certain circumstances): important Western figures in whose work the one without the other would be quite problematic include Erasmus, Thomas More, François Rabelais, and Michel de Montaigne. These authors figure among the many neo-Platonist republicans of the era (recent research also convincingly places Shakespeare in this broad camp). The early modern English word for republiccommonweal or commonwealth, shared wealth or shared goods (a translation of the Latin res publica)—is telling in this respect. Some of these writers articulated the notion that accumulation of wealth can threaten liberty and autonomy. In the following century, John Locke, the theorist of modern property rights, after whom Pope named one of his think tanks, made it clear that, since as gifts from God all goods begin as common possession, in its essential function of preserving private property government must exert the force necessary to make a priority of the common good.

The era that gave birth to the modern democracies, the eighteenth century, is filled with indictments of the vastness of family fortunes as lying at the very heart of injustice. Criticisms of the aristocracy that preceded the French Revolution by writers as diverse as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos are marked by this critique; revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat lamented the rise, following the abolition of the nobility, of the aristocracy of the rich. After his presidency, Thomas Jefferson, heavily influenced by French Enlightenment thinkers, similarly decried “the aristocracy of our monied corporations.” And in a 1785 letter Jefferson proposed laws that would make unused tracts of privately owned land available to the unemployed for use without charge; he couched the notion in the Lockean terms of natural right, characterizing the earth “as a common stock for man to labor and live on.”

While one would scarcely be wrong to base the value of unbridled economic freedom on the authority of the Western tradition, one would also be right to claim, on the support of a larger number of sources, that social democracy is the most authentic heritage of that tradition.

However, this conflict of political philosophies aside, what matters most about the study and appreciation of the West is not which values might be justified using its authority but rather how, in its extensive variety and continuously changing forms of art, literature, and philosophy, it offers the tools to reassess and reconsider those values, to think critically without settling on a single dogma. The massive economic, political, and cultural expansions that have marked the West since antiquity have been closely accompanied by thought and writing on their meaning as well as on ways of conceiving completely unfamiliar persons and phenomena. The greatness of the West (which is not the same as its goodness) has been its growth to the point that it does much more than touch almost every society on earth. Its history is one of cultural contacts and interchanges, which have fascinated some of the most compelling writers in the Western tradition.

Obvious examples include Homer and Herodotus; Montaigne, who wrote amazing essays on the New World as a deep challenge to the self-assuredness of Western knowledge and morality; and Shakespeare, who in The Tempest extended Montaigne’s observations and elsewhere in his work regularly returned to interactions bearing on race, language, and nation. Art Pope’s venerated John Locke, according to historian Jerry H. Bentley of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, all but certainly became interested in epistemology, a field of which he is one of the most important foundational figures, when he read Hayy Ibn Yaqzun (Living Son of the World) by medieval Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufayl.

By reading philosophical, historical, and literary works that reflect on these contacts, from a selection of any number of authors, no one of whom is indispensable, students develop abilities to adapt and expand their own understanding of the world. Education for this purpose must encompass, then, not simply a set of great authors and books but large segments of the countless varieties of cultures, writings, and art forms that throughout its history the West has made it its business to encounter.

Fie on Intercultural Connections

It may strike many as unnecessary to rehearse this quite traditional proposal in the pages of Academe, but in “The Culture Chasm at UNC,” Jane Shaw explicitly rejects the value of “intercultural ‘conversation’” as “demot[ing] or cavil[ing] with the benefits of the Western tradition,” whereas genuine consideration of the matter makes clear that such conversation is just what the West is about. To claim, as the Pope Center does, that the West is defined not by this expansiveness and continual transformation but rather by a restricted set of values—values that have made their heroic way from fifth-century Athens to present-day Washington or Raleigh and are best expressed by a restricted set of authors—isolates the West from its best achievements.

Instead of teaching students to think, to be capable of apprehending unfamiliar phenomena, this treatment of the Western tradition demands to be accepted as authority, indeed as authoritarian. It is a desperate attempt to bestow a backdated venerability on the self-interested use of government for the unregulated accumulation of private fortune, and it has no place in a serious college curriculum. (By all accounts, to be clear, Larry Goldberg’s Elements of Politics course is far removed from such an approach.)

Regrettably, though, administrators facing budget crises don’t always acknowledge the interests behind donations, at times opening their hands and closing their eyes to the strings attached to philanthropy. Pope and his think tanks have shown not just their willingness but also their ability to affect curriculum planning through donations; when they don’t succeed, they have issued attacks on the supposedly radical haters of the West within university faculties.

The Pope Center also keeps busy making recommendations for budget cuts to the seventeen-campus UNC system in the spirit of the far-right narrative of underworked and overpaid public employees. An April 2011 Pope Center proposal called for increasing all faculty teaching loads to a minimum of three courses per semester and eliminating reductions for administrators. Such circumstances, though not doing away with faculty research entirely (the proposal leaves sabbaticals alone), would seriously curtail broad reflection on the disciplines and on the decisions made as to what to include in the curriculum. Instructors would be much more likely to depend on the sort of ready-made curriculum in Western civilization that the Pope Center advocates. Even partial success in this endeavor would be far more tragic to education, critical thinking, and citizenship—and, yes, to Plato, Shakespeare, Locke, and Jane Austen—than anything a current or future UNC–Chapel Hill professor is likely to propose.

Hassan Melehy is associate professor of French at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His principal research on the Anglo- French Renaissance is complemented by continuing interests in cinema, critical theory, and the Beat Generation. This article expands on a guest blog post he contributed to the Chronicle of Higher Education at the invitation of Mark Bauerlein. His email address is [email protected].