COVER

A WAR OF WORDS

ACADEMICS CLASH OVER 'CORRECTNESS'

D’ARCY JENISH May 27 1991
COVER

A WAR OF WORDS

ACADEMICS CLASH OVER 'CORRECTNESS'

D’ARCY JENISH May 27 1991

A WAR OF WORDS

COVER

ACADEMICS CLASH OVER 'CORRECTNESS'

It was intended to be the academic equivalent of a pep talk. Last September, Yale college dean Donald Kagan urged a group of first-year students to study the history of Western civilization. Kagan argued that the freedom and civil liberties enjoyed by the West have led to “a tolerance and respect for diversity unknown in most cultures.” Rather than applause, Kagan’s remarks triggered an outburst of criticism from students. The undergraduate newspaper, the Yale Daily News, later quoted students who denounced the dean as “racist,” “sexist” and “out of touch,” while black campus activists called for a complete review of what they called the university’s “racist curriculum.” Kagan’s offence: he had praised a culture that many American blacks, feminists and visible minorities say is an oppressive creation of white males.

To praise Western civilization, as Kagan discovered, is to challenge the informal, un-

structured but powerful “political correctness” movement that has swept U.S. university campuses. Proponents of what has become known as political correctness, primarily leftleaning academics, feminists, minority-group leaders and student activists, say that they want to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination against blacks, women, the disabled, homosexuals and members of other identifiable minority groups. Many U.S. universities have expanded their affirmative-action programs to increase the number of faculty members from a variety of minority groups, and other institutions have adopted codes of conduct to govern on-campus behavior.

But some university professors contend that freedom of speech, one of the cornerstones of American democracy, is being stifled in order to defend minorities and victims of discrimination. They argue that in attempting to promote openness and tolerance towards women and

minorities, the advocates of political correctness are merely creating new forms of intolerance. The critics received powerful support on May 4 when President George Bush delivered a speech during the University of Michigan commencement exercises at Ann Arbor. Said Bush: “Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our Bill of Rights, we find free speech under assault throughout the United States. The notion of ‘political correctness’ has ignited controversy across the land. What began as a cause for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”

On the campuses, professors who say that political correctness constitutes an attack on academic standards and traditional curricula have banded together to form the National Association of Scholars. The organization, based in Princeton, N.J., has about 2,100 members. Said association research director Glenn Ricketts: “The politically correct people want to change the entire curriculum. Race and gender have to be integral to every subject. The movement is sinister because of its flat-out totalitarianism.” However, Duke University English professor Stanley Fish, one of the leading advocates of the changes now sweeping through American campuses, argues that opponents of the reforms are merely trying to protect themselves. Said Fish: “New voices are being heard in the universities, and that makes some people feel very uncomfortable. People find themselves living in a world they never bargained for in 1955 or 1960. It’s intergenerational anxiety.”

Sexism: In the United States, the political correctness campaign has developed many forms, and sometimes involves new definitions of discrimination. In the fall of 1990, the office of student affairs at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., distributed a list of what it called “Specific Manifestations of Oppression.” Besides identifying widely accepted forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism and anti-Semitism, the student affairs office added “ageism,” which it defined as “oppression of the young and the old by young adults and the middle-aged.” It also included “lookism: the belief that appearance is an indicator of a person’s value.”

On some campuses, student activists have launched anonymous attacks on professors for making what they say are discriminatory state-

ments during lectures. During the 1987 school year, the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., ran several articles in which unidentified students accused Stephan Thernstrom, a respected author and historian of racial and ethnic relations in the United States, of racial insensitivity. The students claimed to be offended by Thernstrom’s use of the word “Indian” rather than “native American,” and his use of the phrase “Oriental religion” to refer to such Eastern creeds as Buddhism. As a result of the subsequent controversy, Thernstrom decided to discontinue his undergraduate course on the “Peopling of America.”

Said Thernstrom: “It’s like being called a commie in the 1950s. Once accused, you’re always suspect.”

Critics of the campaign for political correctness say that they have been harassed, intimidated and picketed by blacks, feminists and homosexual activists on some campuses merely for expressing their views. Ricketts said that there are many ways academics can be penalized for holding “politically unacceptable” ideas. He said that a faculty member may be denied tenure, or a job applicant may be passed over because his beliefs are regarded as objectionable. In the late 1970s, University of Toronto political philosophy professor Thomas Pangle was denied tenure at Yale largely because of his beliefs. “I was regarded as too conservative,” he said.

For his part, demographer Reynolds Farley

said that he withdrew his course in race relations at the University of Michigan after black and white student activists criticized the content of the course in a student newspaper. Said Farley: “I experienced considerable hostility from a small number of people. It was too much of a hassle to teach the course.” Ricketts added that the movement’s impact on recent textbook publishers can be seen in the scarcity of books containing objective critiques of feminism or affirmative action.

Besides trying to eliminate discriminatory behavior and attitudes among students and faculty, the new activists also question, criticize and in some cases denounce the intellectual and historical foundations of Western thought. Asa Hilliard, a professor of Afro-American history at the Atlanta-based Georgia State University, contends that many of the philosophical and I scientific advances attributed A to the ancient Greeks were I actually stolen from the " Egyptians, who he claims were black Africans. Egyptologists generally believe that although there were blacks in ancient Egypt, the majority of the population consisted of indigenous Hamitic and Semitic peoples who eventually mixed with migrants of Arab stock.

The belief that Western culture has historically been responsible for the oppression of women, blacks and disadvantaged groups has led some universities to abolish the formerly required courses on the rise of European and North American society. At Stanford Universi-

ty in California, a mandatory undergraduate program on Western culture was replaced by a program entitled “Culture, ideas and values.” Besides studying the traditional great theories on government contained in Plato’s Republic and Machiavelli’s The Prince, Stanford undergraduates now read books that include I, Rigoberta Menchu, an autobiographical work by a Guatemalan peasant woman who became a supporter of socialism and feminism.

Dissent: Advocates of the changes now sweeping American universities contend that their opponents are merely intellectual conservatives determined to protect their privileges. Duke University’s Fish describes his Sc adversaries at the National ^ Association of Scholars as “racist, sexist and homophobic.” For their part, members of the association and other academics who oppose the push for political correctness contend that they are defending academic standards and freedoms. According to association research director Ricketts, politically correct academics are indoctrinating their students rather than teaching them to be open-minded and inquisitive. Ricketts added that the leading proponents of the movement are middle-aged, tenured academics who were students during the 1960s, a decade of protest, dissent and intellectual ferment on American campuses. He contends that after spending two decades acquiring academic credentials and building their careers, they now possess substantial power within the universities. And they are using that power to put their beliefs into effect. Said Ricketts: “Our central concern is the growing politicization of American campuses.”

Critics also maintain that the most disturbing element of the new movement for political correctness is its intellectual rigidity. Camille Paglia, a faculty member at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, said that the new politically correct campus activists rely on harassment and intimidation, rather than open debate, to impose their views on others. Said Paglia: “It’s fascism of the left. These people behave like the Hitler Youth.” Added Harvard’s Thernstrom: “This is a new McCarthyism. It is more frightening than the old McCarthyism, which had no support in the academy. Now, the enemy is within.” Whatever the perspective on the issue, the war over words and actions has turned American campuses into battlegrounds that are unlikely to be silenced for years to come.

D’ARCY JENISH with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

WILLIAM LOWTHER