Peer Review, Winter 2000

Vol. 2, 
No. 2
Peer Review

Bombs Away

Like most non-profit organizations, AAC&U struggles to make ends meet. We enjoy support from a number of funding agencies and from hundreds of member institutions, and we've paid off the mortgage to our own building (a lovely house that once belonged to the Oliver Wendell Holmes family), but we're hardly rich. If we've got deep pockets, then they've got holes in them.

So we were surprised, recently, to receive a fund-raising letter from another higher education association, one that is well-known for its opposition to all but the most traditional of college curricula. "Please send us your generous contribution today," the letter urges. "And if your contribution is $100 or more, you will receive a personally autographed copy" of a particular best-seller, one that blames progressive thinking for a supposed decline in the nation's educational standards.

From AAC&U's point of view, such "back-to-the-basics" appeals are just plain backwards, so we would be unlikely to send this organization a check, even if we did have a fat bank account. The fund-raising letter does interest me, though, for the provocative quality of its rhetoric. And I mean "rhetoric" in the classical sense of the term, referring to the great oratorical tradition of Aristotle and Cicero, and having to do with the arts of persuasion, of speaking well, of crafting one's language so as to sway the intended audience. How do these authors go about trying to convince readers to make donations? What strategies do they use to win allies and discredit their opponents? Does AAC&U have something to learn from them?

In brief, the letter (mailed widely to policy leaders outside of academia) portrays higher education as teetering on the edge of disaster. Ignorant students are receiving diplomas, cry the authors; classrooms have become oppressively politicized; incompetent bureaucrats run the colleges; "ideologues" have gained control of the higher education organizations (including ours, no doubt). By contrast, their own association is "fighting back," holding off the "forces" of "mediocrity and indoctrination." In a barrage of military metaphors, they describe themselves as "leading the charge" against those who have "taken over" the academy. They have "struck a blow for academic excellence" and another blow "in defense of the free exchange of ideas." However, although they have fired a "shot across the bow" of inept college presidents, "the struggle is just beginning," and they need your support to keep struggling "on many fronts."

Have the donations come pouring in? Is this rhetoric effective? I don't know, but it's certainly a popular approach. Such battle cries for curricular change date back at least as far as the Soviets' 1957 launching of the Sputnik satellites. Admiral Rickover, self-appointed crusader for school reform, bluntly summed up the national response: "We are engaged in a grim duel." Our enemy had dealt "a devastating blow to the U.S. scientific, industrial, and technological prestige in the world," agreed a prominent senator, expressing support for the National Defense Education Act of 1958.

Twenty-five years later, The National Commission on Excellence in Education introduced its influential report A Nation at Risk with the warning that a "rising tide of mediocrity" threatened to overrun our schools. "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today," it went on to argue, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war....We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

Apparently, the public has an inexhaustible appetite for dire warnings about the schools. Either that or a very bad memory for false alarms. Whichever the case, it seems as though there's always somebody eager to beat the war drum, calling all hands to defend the campus from Russian rockets, French philosophers, or some other looming threat. The Cold War may be over, but its rhetoric lingers on.

Of course, everybody has access to these powerful linguistic resources. Like all rhetorical tropes and figures, images of invasion, doom, and heroic resistance belong to anybody who wishes to use them. That's why Aristotle called them "common-places," with an emphasis on common. Indeed, AAC&U has been known to lob verbal grenades of its own, from time to time. But we would prefer not to involve ourselves in an educational arms race, nor to treat every philosophical disagreement as a violent struggle between opposing camps. After all, we live in and around the campus, and we'd like to improve our neighborhood rather than littering it with barbed wire. Surely, academic reform requires a willingness to critique our shortcomings, but it also requires that we recognize and build upon our accomplishments. We do ourselves no favors by blowing either our successes or our failures out of proportion.

Knowing full well that crises command attention, some of higher education's detractors will always make a habit of leafing through the back pages of Jane's Defence Weekly, seeking ammunition for the next speech, or the next fund-raising letter. The question is, what will it take for the academic community to defuse such language successfully?

Rafael Heller is the editor of Peer Review.

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