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The Modern University: Giving Honors to the Dishonorable

RGN Montpelier '07If you want an illustration of what is wrong with higher education today, a good one is what I had to sit through when my daughter Deborah graduated a few months ago.

Deborah is a native Montanan, born when my wife and I lived in Missoula. She recently received her masters degree from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. (There’s no period after “St”—in keeping with British writing style.) The school is widely considered the best university in that country and one of the best in Britain. St Andrews also was the principal alma mater of the American Founder James Wilson, who was second only to James Madison in his imprint on the U.S. Constitution.

I was proud that Deborah was at St Andrews, and as a constitutional scholar I’m grateful to the university library for making James Wilson’s library records available to me.

But my view of St Andrews soured when I attended Deborah’s graduation ceremony: It was there that the school granted an honorary degree to Noam Chomsky, of all people.

Chomsky is an ultra-left, anti-American, anti-Israel crank. But his political views matter less than the fact that he’s a smear monger whose political statements bear tenuous, if any, connection to the truth. In case you think I say that only because I’m a conservative and he’s a leftist, then read how respected left-leaning scholars have assessed Chomsky.

For example, here is what Alan Dershowitz, the celebrated Harvard law professor, has to say. And the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a committed liberal—and one of America’s most respected historians—was so disgusted with Chomsky’s misrepresentations that Schlesinger pegged him as an “intellectual crook.” Illustrative of Chomsky’s style is this attempt to smear George W. Bush with Nazism.

“Okay,” you might respond: “Was there anything Chomsky did that might justify the degree?”  Yes—long ago, he did distinguished work in linguistics. But the St Andrews faculty member who introduced him made it clear that he was being honored primarily for his politics.

“Okay,” you might add: “That’s only single example, and not even from an American school—so what?” Here’s so what: As Chomsky’s introducer pointed out, this was the 28th time a college or university gave Chomsky an honorary degree! (Chomsky’s Wikipedia biography lists more.) By comparison, the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, received 19. (And Chomsky is still alive, and probably will get more.) Among the American schools granting him their highest honors are such mainstream American institutions as the University of Maine, Georgetown, Amherst, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania.

You might well ask: “Why is a political figure whose tactics are so corrupt receiving any honorary degrees?” The answer lies in another kind of corruption: The political corruption that has deeply compromised our system of higher education, and renders it imperative that state legislatures couple any further appropriations with fundamental reforms.

Rob Natelson