Former U.S. Representative Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) has an op-ed in the Washington Post echoing everything we’ve been hearing recently about how college grads just aren’t critical thinkers with supple, creative minds any more (h/t RealClearPolitics.) Shockingly, she’s making this claim about applicants for the Rhodes Scholarship!
For most of the past 20 years I have served on selection committees for the Rhodes Scholarship. In general, the experience is an annual reminder of the tremendous promise of America’s next generation. We interview the best graduates of U.S. universities for one of the most prestigious honors that can be bestowed on young scholars.
I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years – not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America’s great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.
That’s odd–the whole “make up your own curriculum” fad is one I associate with the hippie-dippie days of the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s most colleges and universities had reinstituted a rigorous core curriculum (if they had ever let it go in the first place.) But, read a little further, and it becomes clear that Wilson’s complaint is political, not intellectual:
As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why. . . .
An outstanding biochemistry major wants to be a doctor and supports the president’s health-care bill but doesn’t really know why. A student who started a chapter of Global Zero at his university hasn’t really thought about whether a world in which great powers have divested themselves of nuclear weapons would be more stable or less so, or whether nuclear deterrence can ever be moral. A young service academy cadet who is likely to be serving in a war zone within the year believes there are things worth dying for but doesn’t seem to have thought much about what is worth killing for. A student who wants to study comparative government doesn’t seem to know much about the important features and limitations of America’s Constitution.
If I were the Rhodes Scholarship applicants described above, I would be pretty angry to see myself described as dull, incurious, or uninformed because I didn’t give Heather Wilson the answers she wanted to hear to what sound like political questions. I find it difficult to believe that the young aspiring physician had never thought why she might support health care reform, that the Global Zero founder had never thought about the policy or political implications of his movement’s possible success, that the military academy grad had never thought about “what is worth killing for,” and the comparative politics student was completely unfamiliar with the U.S. Constitution. Note that all of these “intellectual issues” just happen to be dog-whistles for contemporary Republican calumny against Democrats: The Job-Killing Health Reform Bill–now, with Death Panels! Democrats are soft on defense! Democrats don’t support the core mission of our military! Democrats don’t respect the U.S. Constitution!
I’ve always thought that there was a very straightforward reason for why university faculty and other highly educated people tend not to support Republican ideas: the more you know about the world, the dumber they seem. There’s no conspiracy at universities against conservative ideas–indeed, even Marxist Feminists like me teach about very conservative ideas all the time: patriarchy, hierarchy, Thomas Hobbes, the Divine Right of Kings, nineteenth century proslavery ideology, anti-women’s suffrage, anti-unionism, anti-communism, Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, Impeach Earl Warren bumper stickers, “free market” ideology, and the like. And you know what happens? When students read the primary sources laying out these ideas, they usually see them for what they are: brutally, coarsely self-interested, unfair, and un-American.
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I read that piece too, and had a similar response. As far as I could see, she seemed to believe that one should be disqualified from the Rhodes if one supported social welfare programs, did *not* support the primacy of military-industrial decision-making, and/or was unwilling to kill someone. Or, as you so aptly defined it, was not self-consciously brutal and unfair.
I find the column despicable.
Thanks, Squadrato. I think it would be fascinating to read articles by people who have been on the Rhodes committee for so many years commenting on the changes they’ve seen among applicants. I was fully open to hear what she had to say, but then the column took that unfortunately narrow, ideological turn.
It’s a shame that someone as well-educated as Wilson has ended up a despicable right-wing political hacke.
I had a student make it to the final round of the Rhodes competition for the state of Maryland, which, given its proximity to Washington, D.C., is a very competitive region. The student in question had accomplished some amazing things, both academically and as a public health advocate in Central America.
As he tells the story, his whole interview revolved around his decision, while in high school, to travel to Cuba. It was clear that all the committee was interested in was grandstanding about why no real American would ever do such a thing. They were much more concerned about it possibly coming out later in the news than in evaluating the candidate on his own merits. Very disappointing for this student after years of work.
pkalkul, your comment suggests something that I saw in Wilson’s commentary but didn’t comment on, which is the role the committee has either in rewarding or punishing risk-taking by applicants. I will therefore comment now on this: If the Rhodes committee as a whole agrees that their applicants display the narrowness of training and intellectual timidity that Wilson describes, then I think they should also look to themselves as much as to undergraduate education in the U.S. as a whole.
As I’m sure you know better than I, applicants know full well who wins the big prize and who doesn’t, and they tailor themselves and their applications to resemble successful past applications. If the Rhodes committee wants to reward the young people who weren’t training for triathalons while founding non-profits but rather spent their afternoons reading great American literature in their tree houses or bedrooms, then they alone have the power to ratify that kind of unstructured, independent intellectual effort.
But somehow, I don’t think that’s going to happen!
As an unsuccessful Rhodes candidate back in the day, I found the process and the winners pretty impressive. Basically I agreed with the committee’s decisions, which made it hard to complain.
Since then I have worked with a number of Rhodes scholars–notably my wonderful colleague for many years, Bob Darnton, who is now working very hard to build a national digital library at an age when I hope to be doing very little except the reading that interests me (to be fair, Bob has a portrait in the basement that grows older, as he apparently doesn’t).
I wonder how much these committees have really changed. A student who has worked extensively with me won a Rhodes a couple of years ago. He’s a wonderful guy, grumpy, critical, a real intellectual with a passion for hard foreign languages and doing research in difficult places–exactly the sort who beat me out forty years ago. And he seems to have a lot of respect for the other members of his cohort.
Let’s hope that this is just a bleat of reactionary babble, as has already been suggested.
Darnton’s digital library work is extremely exciting and impressive. I’ve read some of his essays describing the project, and a nice interview on Diane Rehm last year or so–what a smart, insightful guy.
And, oh yeah: he wrote a few impressively great history books too. As Garth and Wayne would say, “we’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!”
This reminds me of the commencement address at my Ph.D. graduation: the speaker talked about how bad new Ph.Ds were in comparison to what they were when he finished. Wow, thanks. And if I had just won a Rhodes, I’d be really annoyed.
Perhaps the most interesting bit it the reference to the service academy: so it’s not just us pointy head liberals! Maybe it has to do with the expansion of available knowledge that means we all have gaps…
Thank you for such a refreshing rebuttal!I was particularly peeved by Wilson’s focus on quick decision-making rather than thoughtful deliberation and/or civil discourse.
You also wonder why people like Wilson are even bothering with the Rhodes. If the point of education is to parrot back conservative talking points, then why bother sending students to another country to broaden their mind? And another country, in fact, that is generally to the left of ours?
Can’t speak to the US Rhodes process but the one former Rhodes scholar I know won her country’s competition (a former British colony). She’s exceptional, and I just can’t see that the quality would drop off as steeply as Wilson suggests in the US.
It is important the remember that today’s right is in war with everything from FDR and on. They reject science, the current culture, modern political thought in developed countries, the middle class and the poor.
We are in an actual twins of the Republicans, the Talibans. The Republican are fanatic, anti-democratic, have their own (idiotic and simplistic) reading of the holy books (i.e. the constitution), etc.
Fighting them is political and shouldn’t be educational or culltural.
My apologies for the spelling error in the above comment; one of hands was trigger happy.
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From what I’ve heard, most European higher education systems are actually quite a bit more specialized than those in the USA. There isn’t much of a core curriculum after you leave secondary education, and you are immersed in your specialization almost immediately. From Wilson’s perspective, it would seem like education in Europe, including the UK, is even worse because it is so specialized. This makes me wonder about her involvement in the Rhodes Scholarship program – perhaps she has a very different view of the relative strengths and weaknesses of education in the USA vs. the UK from what I have.
On a totally different note, I tend to disagree with lumping “anti-communism” in with things like the divine right of kings and pro-slavery ideology. I think that there were plenty of good reasons to be anti-communist without being reactionary.
I also don’t think it’s as straightforward as “well-educated people realize that conservatives are stupid” – otherwise, there wouldn’t be well-educated, thoughtful conservatives, which there certainly are, even though they’re not the ones who make most of the noise.
Finally, the really hard-core conservatives today probably remind me of the John Birch Society more than any of the other conservative groups that you listed. The idea that any expansion of government power for any reason other than national security is “Communism”, and the idea that they are the last defenders of the true ideals of the country against enemies within who are working to destroy them, seem to be very similar between the two groups.
She was a Rhodes Scholar.
I don’t know where the unsourced idea that “by the mid-1980s most colleges and universities had reinstituted a rigorous core curriculum (if they had ever let it go in the first place)” came from. All signs are that the core curricula, where they still exist, have gotten weaker and weaker, and have scarcely done better than to follow Harvard’s idea that mere distribution requirements (teaching ‘ways of thinking’ in different disciplines rather than any common knowledge even within a discipline) count as a core curriculum.
Paul: good point about the narrowness of British university training vs. U.S. unis. About anti-communism: I didn’t mean to suggest that all conservative ideas were equal. I agree with you that there were lots of great reasons to be against the authoritarian communism as practiced in the Soviet Union–and there were a lot of anti-communist Cold War liberals who opposed communism. But there were those unfortunate excesses of anti-communists like HUAC, McCarthy, and Richard Nixon’s early career. . .
And William: my comments are just my impression based on being in higher education for the past twenty-five years–but they’re by nature idiosyncratic. What are your sources that core curricula are getting weaker and weaker everywhere?
@ Susan: That is amazing: “Congratulations… but don’t forget you still kinda suck.” Yeesh.
“There’s no conspiracy at universities against conservative ideas–indeed, even Marxist Feminists like me teach about very conservative ideas all the time: patriarchy, hierarchy, Thomas Hobbes, the Divine Right of Kings, nineteenth century proslavery ideology, anti-women’s suffrage, anti-unionism, anti-communism, Father Coughlin, the John Birch Society, Impeach Earl Warren bumper stickers, “free market” ideology, and the like. And you know what happens? When students read the primary sources laying out these ideas, they usually see them for what they are: brutally, coarsely self-interested, unfair, and un-American.”
Ahm. Had the marxist feminists indeed tried to teach you about ideas which today are called “conservative”, you would be reading Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Sowell, and Ayn Rand. Based on the list of crap that was presented to you as “conservative”, I can quite reasonably conclude that you know less about conservatism than you know about quantum mechanics – and I am sure as hell marxist feminists did not teach you the Schrödinger equation.
“I’ve always thought that there was a very straightforward reason for why university faculty and other highly educated people tend not to support Republican ideas: the more you know about the world, the dumber they seem.”
How do you know that what you know about the world is true? I am a EE engineer – my knowledge of the world is tested in the real world everyday in the lab. And, let me tell you, most engineers are conservatives – which is partly because they cannot afford to be wrong – it’s in their job description. Engineering is not like “marxist feminism” – it needs much more critical thinking.
You do realize you’re making no sense at all, right?
Your post aptly demonstrates exactly what Wilson was talking about – severe lack of critical thinking.
Yeah, well Hyphenated American, I don’t go on EE blogs and bitch that they don’t know what they’re talking about now, do I?
Any history of conservativism that fails to consider the world before 1900–except for their titular saint, Adam Smith–is hardly history. It’s a fairy tale. (And BTW–Smith was a “liberal” in his day. Did you know that?)
“Yeah, well Hyphenated American, I don’t go on EE blogs and bitch that they don’t know what they’re talking about now, do I?”
You are more thana welcome to come to my blog and try to prove that I don’t Electrical Engineering. Just draw a couple of dif. equations and we can start talking…
“Any history of conservativism that fails to consider the world before 1900–except for their titular saint, Adam Smith–is hardly history. It’s a fairy tale. (And BTW–Smith was a “liberal” in his day. Did you know that?)”
Ahm. Classical liberalism (good old British ideology of small limited government), from Adam Smith to Hayek and Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. Yap, that’s what today is to a very large extent called “conservatism”. Surely you know (maybe you don’t, you never know, really, with marxist feminists) that Hayek and other classical liberals of the 20th century openly said they were following the ideas of British liberalism. To put together American conservatism with “patriarchy, hierarchy, Thomas Hobbes, the Divine Right of Kings, nineteenth century proslavery ideology, anti-women’s suffrage, Coughlin” is quite peculiar. As for your study of bumper-stickers – if that counts as serious scholarship today – well, then we got a huge problem with US liberal arts.
Lasat but not least – when you present Father “FDR must nationalize major industries and support unions” Coughlin as an American “conservative” – well, you are really pushing it…
Conservatives love to embrace “classical liberalism,” but what does that mean, actually? Versus mercantilism and the various other forms of protectionism in the 18th C, Smith was the liberal.
Your point about Coughlin is a good one, and it illustrates the complexities of tracing the genealogies of American intellectual history. What was a “liberal” in one century looks awfully hidebound and reactionary in the next. Mark Twain once said that “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” This has happened in my lifetime to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The man conservatives reviled as an evil communist troublemaker is now the man they most like to quote about race relations in the U.S., especially the part about people not being judged by the color of their skin but “by the content of their character.”
I stand by my (admittedly) cocktail napkin sketch of the history of conservative thought in the United States. You’re free to disagree–but you can’t tell me that women’s suffrage, antislavery, and the 8-hour day and the weekend were conservative ideas. They simply weren’t, and conservatives of their day spent a lot of time, money, and spilled a lot of other people’s blood in order to prevent those ideas from becoming law.
“Conservatives love to embrace “classical liberalism,” but what does that mean, actually? Versus mercantilism and the various other forms of protectionism in the 18th C, Smith was the liberal.”
The too leading “conservative” (they called themselves classical liberals) theorists of the 20th century are Hayek and Friedman. Both (particularily Hayek) were quoted and had a major influence on 4 major “conservative” leaders – Churchill, Goldwater, Thatcher, Reagan. If you want to discuss modern day “conservatism” – let’s discuss it, and not arbitrarily choose previous discarded ideas and declare them “conservatism”. Based on your logic – were Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot and Kim Ir Sen liberals?
“Your point about Coughlin is a good one, and it illustrates the complexities of tracing the genealogies of American intellectual history. What was a “liberal” in one century looks awfully hidebound and reactionary in the next.”
But who decided it’s “liberal” today and it’s “reactionary” next year? Why not be a tad more consistent and put same names on same ideologies? That way I will support ideas that I support, and you will support ideas that you support.
Mark Twain once said that “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”
So, any support for status quo is conservatism? Milton Friedman proposed to give vouchers to parents instead of schools. Reagan proposed to privatize social security. Does it mean that people who opposed them are conservatives? Obama is trying to mimic what most nations do – government run medical care. American right tries to preserve a system, which is quite unique. Does it make them “liberal”?
“This has happened in my lifetime to the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. The man conservatives reviled as an evil communist troublemaker is now the man they most like to quote about race relations in the U.S., especially the part about people not being judged by the color of their skin but “by the content of their character.”
And liberals today are appalled when conservatives ask that the government treats everybody irrespective of his race. How things change. Who is the liberal then?
“I stand by my (admittedly) cocktail napkin sketch of the history of conservative thought in the United States.”
But your qualification of pro-slavery, pro-socialism, pro-royalty as “conservatism” is meaningless (and arbitrary). How exactly are you going to prove that Hayek and Friedman (and Reagan, Thatcher) are wrong if your emphasis was on slavery?
“You’re free to disagree–but you can’t tell me that women’s suffrage, antislavery, and the 8-hour day and the weekend were conservative ideas.”
Again, you are lump together 3 very different ideas, and declare that they cannot be “conservative”. Well, but what is conservatism? Is it simply the preservation of the status-quo, and liberalism is the movement to change the world? By this definition, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Osama bem Laden are rank-n-file liberals. What’s more, today’s arch-conservatives like me become uber-liberals, because we want to abolish labor laws, social security, medicare, medicaid and welfare. Now, I have no problem with being called a “liberal” – in fact I used this term for many years to explain my phylosophy – but then how can you then claim any consistency? Anti-slavery was surely a “conservative” idea – just as any free-market, small limited government idea is conservative. And let’s not forget, “liberals” and “radicals” like Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot and Ho chi Minh implemented slavery in the countries they run – which makes your point even more difficult to argue for.
Anyway, as a classical European liberal (read: “right-wing extremist”, “utra-conservative”), I reluctantly support woman’s suffrage, I strongly support anti-slavery and I am against labor laws.
“They simply weren’t, and conservatives of their day spent a lot of time, money, and spilled a lot of other people’s blood in order to prevent those ideas from becoming law.”
That’s depends how you define “conservatism”.
Yes indeed, it all depends on how you define conservativism, and clearly you and I will never agree about how to understand the history of conservativism.
I’m so relieved to know that you support women’s suffrage, however reluctantly, and are resolutely against slavery. What does it mean to be “against labor laws,” I wonder?
Sorry for all the spelling errors – my wife was hurrying me up, the dinner was ready.
“Yes indeed, it all depends on how you define conservativism, and clearly you and I will never agree about how to understand the history of conservativism.”
But won’t it be easier if I tell you what I (and Hayek, Mises, Friedman, Thatcher, Reagan) believed in – and then you can mount your attack on these views? Cause you ain’t studying Hayek, when you are reading the views of supporters of slavery. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. And it’s illogical to claim that Hayek was wrong – based on your conclusion that slavery is immoral.
But let’s move a tad further – were LeninStalinMaoHitler conservatives or liberals? By all means these four were revolutionaries and enemies of the status quo…
“I’m so relieved to know that you support women’s suffrage, however reluctantly, and are resolutely against slavery.”
Well, you made it a point to claim that you were against slavery – as if it was some kind of radical point of view. But all in all, I am not sure you are as much against slavery as you think you are.
“What does it mean to be “against labor laws,” I wonder?”
That’s simple – I want to abolish all labor laws – except some laws that limit hiring of children. And yes, that includes ALL other laws.
BTW, my opposition to labor laws makes me a radical, an you are a conservative in this equation. Correct?
Thanks for playing, Hyphenated American. I tried to engage in an honest exchange with you, but you clearly see this as some kind of cage match, when it’s actually my virtual living room. This was not a post about the views of Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek–it was a post about baseless complaints about recent applicants to the Rhodes Scholarship.
The history of American conservativism is not just a history of a few selected intellectuals. I understand that conservatives don’t like to be reminded of the fuller history of the consequences of conservative ideas, but I think that as patriotic Americans we owe it to ourselves and to the nation to confront that history, as disturbing and troubling as it frequently is.
I guess our discussion is getting too long, and indeed it is your blog, and you can do whatever you want with it. Sorry for bothering you.
What upsets me most is that liberals very often flat out refuse to debate the pros and cons of conservative ideology, and instead prefer to fight with the strawmen.
Instead of listening to honest critique of conservatism, we hear denouncements of wacky ideas of the past, which have no connection to conservatism. Just as you called pro-slavery movement “conservatism”, I can say that naziism and communism and benladeism are part of the history of liberalism. I know world history pretty damn well to make whole lot of factual connections, and we can play this game non-stop. But then – does it REALLY help you to understand the ideas that I believe in? Does it REALLY make you confident that you are correct, and I am wrong (let alone dumb and evil and un-American)? And honestly, between you and me, I need to tell you that if you truly were convinced that American conservatism is wrong, you would have debated it head on, instead of indulging in critism of evil ideas of the past, ideas which have nothing, absolutely nothing in common with American conservatism. I don’t know if it is patriotic or not to abandon the strawmen (I am a bit idiosyncratic of the word “patriotic” for the reasons we don’t have to discuss now), but it surely is intellectually honest to do so. But then – who cares, really, we all will be dead in 3 million years.
Anyway, here is the rub. On what basis did you decide that Father Coughlin, a revolutionary socialist, was a conservative? On what basis did you conclude that pro-slavery was part of conservatism? On what basis would you NOT qualify the 21st century movement to abolish social security, welfare, medicaid and medicare as non-conservative? And what about Hitler-Mussolini-Lenin-Stalin-Mao – these 5 were clearly the revolutionaries – so are they conservatives or liberals? And if the popular point of view, a point of view which was dubbed “conservatism” some decades ago, is according to its very supporters, fundamentally, irreversably, standing in defense of individual liberty, small limited government and justice – then why are you are discussing ideas which run contrary to the essense of American conservatism – and assume these two are identical?!
I understand why you believe that this discussion may seem to be only tangentially tied to the issue of Rhode scholarship. But in reality it is not – about 40% of what you wrote was devoted to the rather bizzarre claim that conservatism is “brutally, coarsely self-interested, unfair, and un-American”. I assumed that you took some time to think it through, before accusing 30% of American population of being (let’s be honest here) dumb scumbags. Was I wrong?
I don’t have any experience with Rhodes scholarships, but I remember lo those (somewhat) many years ago when I had a Fulbright under Bush II there were grumblings in the upper echelons of the Fulbright program that the whole thing should start incorporating more of a “service” element. It was unclear what any of that meant, but at the end result (most likely intentional) WAS clear: ie, a reduction of the intellectual and scholarly focus on the Fulbright. I don’t think any of this actually bore fruit, but it’s troubling that it was raised anyway. Every bit of government funding for intellectual pursuits and the arts is decimated by conservative governments. The amount of funding available to academics in Europe, for example, compared to the US is staggering. I hope that’s not too OT.
Hyphenated American, here’s where you’re not getting at all how historians approach the past, especially historians like me, who write about the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:
“What upsets me most is that liberals very often flat out refuse to debate the pros and cons of conservative ideology, and instead prefer to fight with the strawmen.
Instead of listening to honest critique of conservatism, we hear denouncements of wacky ideas of the past, which have no connection to conservatism.”
Slavery is no straw man, and it’s no “wacky idea of the past.” (In fact, to paraphrase Faulkner, it’s not even past.) You don’t get to pick and choose your personal history of conservativism. Slavery–and all of the traditional exploitative hierarchies that structured the early modern and modern worlds–was an idea with real-world consequences, and we still live with the consequences of it today. Read some Edmund Burke–most American conservatives claim him as one of their Founding Fathers, and what we now see as the fundamental unfairness of life for most people in the 17th and 18th centuries was perfectly OK and even desirable from Burke’s point of view.
I understand that my post and conversation with you are unsatisfying. I am not a modern U.S. intellectual historian–undoubtedly you’d have a different conversation with someone with that background instead. I am a social and cultural historian, so I’m uninterested in the history of ideas without examing their real-world consequences. The real-world consequences of ideas are what I write about. You seem more like a libertarian or a conservatarian, from the figures you discuss. They’re just in my view a very incomplete–or even eviscerated–vision of the history of conservativism.
Perpetua, I’m glad you won your Fulbright anyway!
I’ve always wondered about the sports requirement for the Rhodes. It always seemed like a way of weeding out women and “sissies.” From what I understand, individual sports like running qualify, not just team sports, which seems a little more fair. But, still. Very few Rhodes Scholars end up being remembered for their athletic prowess rather than their intellectual or political brilliance.
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Wow. The scattershot dominionism of self-professed EE grads with a technocratic bent never fails to disappoint….
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