Proving Naomi Riley’s Point
As I said earlier, I don’t think Naomi Schaefer Riley (who, btw, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard) was booted from the Chronicle of Higher Education blog because of the sloppiness of her post about Black Studies. She was booted because the Right Thinkers decided she was racist for having criticized the field. Her (white) CHE blog counterpart Laurie Essig even called NSR’s post “hate speech,” which probably tells us more about the intellectual climate inside that herd of independent minds called Academia than any half-ass comment NSR made.
Having some familiarity with NSR’s work, my guess is not that she finds “Black Studies” groundless in principle, but that she objects to it being agitprop masquerading as scholarship. Her recent book expands on her objection to the tenure system in colleges and universities, arguing that it’s designed not to promote real scholarship and intellectual innovation but rather to stifle same. As the commenter Richao points out in my earlier thread, this statement by a group of Northwestern University Black Studies graduate students in protest of NSR’s blog entry does their side no good. Here’s what it says, in part:
As black people living in the United States we do not need conspiracy theories or white bogie men to explain the disparities that separate and distinguish the life chances of white people compared to those of African Americans, even with a black president sitting in the White House. We understand that these conditions are driven and shaped by racism and real white men who exercise power and influence in the economic, social and political institutions that govern this nation. Before the dirt has fully come to rest on the grave of Trayvon Martin, black men and women, in the academy or outside of it, have never needed Harvard educated white women to lecture us about the conditions in the communities we live in—and we certainly do not need it now.
Our work is not about victimization; it is about liberation. Liberating the history, culture and politics of our people from the contortions and distortions of a white supremacist framework that has historically denied our agency and subjectivity as active participants in the making of the world we live in.
Our work is … about liberation. Got that? It’s not about disinterested scholarship, but about using the methods and prestige of scholarship to pursue political ends. These grad students don’t even make a pretense of it.
UPDATE: I just spent half an hour reviewing NSR’s postings on the CHE blog going back a year. Have you seen them? Look for yourself. They are generally quite good — cogent, varied, and not at all the conservative hackery many of her critics claim she writes (in fact, in one post she denounced Dinesh D’Souza for taking the NYC Evangelical school The King’s College down a narrow, right-wing political path). One thing she comes back to a lot is how much college costs, how much debt students pile up to get their degrees, and whether or not it’s worth it. This is the context in which her controversial post condemning Black Studies should be read. I have said it was not a well-written post, but given the quality of her work over time, it should have absolutely been forgivable by the CHE editors. They could have slapped her wrist and told her to do better next time. Considering the breadth and quality of her blog postings at CHE’s Brainstorm blog, it’s hard to believe that she was thrown out for anything other than political correctness run amok.
UPDATE: Alan Jacobs is not as sympathetic to NSR’s plight:
I know and like Naomi, but I think her post was way out of line — especially written for a periodical run by and for academics. If there’s one thing that all academics ought to be able to agree on, it’s that you don’t criticize stuff you haven’t read. You just don’t, not ever. And while many of Naomi’s critics were definitely demanding political correctness, there were also many who made legitimate complaints about the bad form of declaring whole book-length works (and the programs they come from) worthless on the basis of two- or three-sentence descriptions. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes at the Chronicle, but I suspect that Naomi would still have that gig if she had copped to the legitimate criticisms. Instead, in her follow-up she doubled down on her original post. That was disappointing, and made it really hard for anyone who wants to uphold basic intellectual standards in academia to support her.