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Awards & Honors: 2007 National Humanities Medalist

Stephen H. Balch

Stephen H. Balch was a professor at John Jay College in New York City when he noticed something big happening to American higher education. A certain dispiritedness had taken hold, and it was growing. Colleges and universities across the country seemed to be losing their sense of purpose. This change was affecting the curriculum too, or perhaps the changing curriculum was its source. With the increase of specialization and the rise of political correctness, fewer schools were addressing the broad range of human achievement whose rough contours had once defined a college education.

Balch was happy where he was, teaching John Jay’s unique mix of traditional undergraduates and New York City policemen fulfilling their credit requirements. But, in 1987, he left the classroom to found the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a membership organization for university and college faculty that seeks to strengthen teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. NAS has worked to rekindle the sense of wonder that Balch, who serves as the organization’s president, felt was vanishing from America’s colleges and universities.

Over the last twenty years, NAS has grown into an important voice in debates over intellectual diversity, politicization, and freedom of expression on campus. Through Balch and other spokesmen, and through research reports and the quarterly journal Academic Questions, NAS has become a major source for information and ideas in the effort to promote reasoned debate and academic pluralism.

“Balch rallied the forces of those opposed to political correctness in the universities,” says Harvard professor of government and 2007 Jefferson Lecturer Harvey C. Mansfield. “He didn’t just take a stand, he organized a stand in favor of academic standards. He’s tried to restore the impartiality of American universities, and he has succeeded in making this effort powerful and visible, if not always successful.”

In 1999, Balch coauthored a major study on the changing nature of literature studies. “Losing the Big Picture: The Fragmentation of the English Major Since 1964” examined course catalogs to report a diminishing emphasis among English departments on classic authors and texts and an increasing preference for the trendy and obscure. This was a follow-up to another important report cowritten by Balch, “The Dissolution of General Education: 1914–1993,” which documented the purging of many survey courses in the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences from graduation requirements at colleges and universities nationwide.

In addition to raising alarms, Balch and NAS have done a lot of quiet work too, especially in the area of programming reform. To rebuild some of the intellectual heritage that has been dismantled in recent decades, NAS has pioneered the concept of creating academic programming to champion the study of Western civilization and free institutions. The organization has provided intellectual and logistical support to professors who so far have established twenty-five such academic centers.

NAS has acted as an incubator for other reform organizations. In addition to its forty-six state affiliates, NAS helped bring about the creation of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the American Academy for Liberal Education. ACT works with trustees, alumni, and donors to support many of the same goals NAS itself pursues: liberal arts education, high standards, and intellectual freedom on campus. AALE, an accrediting agency that emphasizes high-quality general education at the university level, has distinguished itself by conditioning accreditation not simply on the organizational or financial integrity of academic institutions, but on the quality of their curricula.

Balch was born in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn. He received a bachelor’s in political science from Brooklyn College. At the University of California, Berkeley, he earned a master’s and, in 1972, a PhD in political science. After a couple of years of teaching on the West Coast, he returned to New York, where he took a job at the CUNY Graduate Center before being hired in 1974 by John Jay College.

The institution he passed through that best expressed his academic ideals, however, was Brooklyn College. It was not, he says, a perfect education, nor would it be a model education for everyone, but it had one very desirable characteristic: “It was serious.”

Balch served as chairman of the New Jersey State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights from 1985–1990, and was a member of the Committee from 1990 to 2005. He was also a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education from 2001 to 2004.

The animating spirit of his work, Balch says, is to “revive intellectual pluralism on campus” and “bring back a philosophic sensibility that has become too rare.”

By David Skinner