Stopping the Rot

Victor Stepien

Robert Maranto, Richard E. Redding and Frederick Hess eds., The Politically Correct University: Problems, Scope, and Reforms (AEI Press, 2009), 326 pages, US$25.

This collection of essays moves beyond the football game we have been watching for decades between conservatives and liberals on academic turf. Instead, the contributors, who include former college presidents, heads of think-tanks and renowned professors, are playing polo—an infinitesimally more distinguished sport. American professors have time and again been accused of being overwhelmingly left-wing, if not far-left. Studies by conservatives, reinvigorated by David Horowitz’s 2006 diatribe, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America and Evan Maloney’s 2007 mockumentary, Indoctrinate U, have denounced this esprit de corps as nothing but a fait accompli. This volume goes the extra mile, not only thanks to its high-calibre fact assessment, but also to the solutions it offers. While it is published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank par excellence, it is exceedingly ‘‘fair and balanced’’—or rather, methodological, analytical and quintessentially academic.

Academic as it is, this book is not fashionably liberal, an ideology so rampant on American college campuses that it has spread to every nook and cranny of intellectual output like an octopus for the past few decades. Indeed, contrary to the rest of the country, the vast majority of graduate students and professors are overwhelmingly and unashamedly liberal, as Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter demonstrate in their analysis of the North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS) and the Politics of the American Professiorate (PAP). Matthew and April Woessner suggest that relatively few conservatives enter a PhD program for a number of reasons: they may want to start a family early, or earn more money than academia will offer them. More alarming still, if they decide to take on the challenge of a doctorate candidacy, they may struggle to find mentors in graduate school who match their values.

Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern describe academia as a ritualistic allegiance to a tribe, where groupthink and ideological monoculture rule the day. They add that prior to tenure, everyone has no choice but to be a self-styled liberal, from graduate students to associate professors on to adjuncts; Republicans suddenly pop up in the full professor category. As insincere as it may be, self-preservation appears to be the catalyst for this pattern. Indeed, this is made worse by the recent economic recession, in which the oversupply of PhDs leads to discrimination against conservatives by the majority of overbearing liberals on hiring committees. The tyranny of department heads, straight out of Philip Roth’s Human Stain, compounded by deans who merely rubber-stamp their decisions, sometimes partisan and irrational, only makes matters worse. For Klein and Stern, we should not expect more than thoughtless reflex from American academics. Unable to look beyond labels and challenge their own ideologies, they will choose whoever looks like them, thinks like them, and reinforces what some decades ago we would have called with panache Lacan’s mirror stage.

Beyond depressing demographics and petty office politics (that is, if you happen to be conservative), this volume also takes a thorough and critical look at diversity—or, its by-product, political correctness. As William O’Donoghue and Richard E. Redding argue, diversity promotes a sense of victimhood at the expense of stoicism. Liberal critics, however, may accuse them of championing manliness à la Pericles as does Bill Bennett, the Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, in his most recent book, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (2011). Diversity, they seem to suggest, is a regime of feminine, if not gender-bending, lachrymosity and weak (post-) Freudian self-indulgence. Strangely enough, conservatives never have the right to be victims, even though they are a ‘‘minority group’’ on campus. Neither are religious groups, despite the Christian heritage of American universities, as James Piereson, the president of the William E. Simon Foundation, tells us. Not even the Israeli population, despite falling prey to Palestinian terrorism for over half a century.

Peter Wood reminds us that the construct of diversity requires a long history of oppression by a given group: most fashionably, women, gays or blacks. A case in point is John McWhorter’s chapter about “ebonics”, a type of English spoken by African Americans that has nothing to do with African dialects, despite what liberal academics have been trying to assert. Indeed, he shows that ebonics is closer to the broken English spoken by white indentured servants in colonial America—whom Thomas Sowell flatly calls ‘‘rednecks’’ in his 2005 study, Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Thus, diversity appears to be a biased ideological approach that leads to flawed analyses. For Paul A. Cantor, this could not be more true than in English departments, where aesthetics has been replaced by the templates of race, class, gender, sexuality, ad nauseam. Not only do English departments stop studying regional writers, for example in Southern colleges, but they apply the same lenses of reading to all texts. Truth be told, much has been learned from looking at the seeds and gaps denoting sexuality, gender or race in texts. Yet Cantor’s legitimate concern lies in the complacency of these axes of inquiry; they seem to have replaced the love of words. Similarly, John Agresto, the former Provost and Acting Chancellor of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, calls for a reform of the liberal arts by going back to an ethical search for truth and reason. 

This volume also offers a series of solutions to assuage, if not fix, the problems that come with political correctness. In a fairly dramatic overture, James W. Ceaser and Robert Maranto suggest that conservatives could decide to communicate through innovative think-tanks instead of traditional universities. This is after all what public intellectuals such as William Kristol and Charles Murray have done to avoid opprobrium as a result of their allegedly controversial stances. Meanwhile, some universities have crafted their own conservative bubbles, like the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions headed by Robert P. George at Princeton University, or the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. However, universities do not always let this happen. Stephen H. Balch, the chairman of the National Association of Scholars, reminds us that in 1995 Yale University returned a $20 million gift from Lee Bass, the Texas oil legacy magnate, to promote the study of Western civilisation. Apparently, the American mind had been closed and there would be no way to open it to our cultural heritage again. Yet in spite of academics’ brash criticism of Western civilisation, Victor Davis Hanson is quick to point out that their leeway to dissent publicly is a luxury only afforded by our free societies under the economic system of free-market capitalism.

Anne D. Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, suggests the two constituencies she represents should and could influence the political tone regnant on college campuses by speaking up whenever policies of political correctness come up, be it in the curriculum or beyond. This ‘‘people power’’ approach is also put forward by Hank Brown, the former Chancellor of the University of Northern Colorado and Congressman, John B. Cooney, the vice-president of the University of Colorado System, and Michael B. Poliakoff, the vice-president for Academic Affairs and Research at the University of Colorado. They argue for more transparency with regards to endowments and to the tenure system, since it is often difficult to know what universities do with their fees and grants, and why certain professors get denied tenure. More surprisingly still, they encourage college administrators to promote intellectual diversity by hiring more conservative professors and trying to veer class discussions away from the ubiquitous liberal bias. This is miles away from the advice offered by James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan, in his 2007 memoir, The View from the Helm: Leading the American University during an Era of Change, where he strongly encouraged college presidents to let it go and remain neutral, if not speechless about politics. Perhaps the times really are changing.

In all fairness, political correctness would seem like a worthy and honour-bound construct if academics were serious about it. Yet as we know, most professors are more interested in the pursuit of happiness by way of glib careerism, no matter what the practical abandonment of their intellectual ethics may lead to. Political correctness, thus, is a scam. For all intents and purposes, it is also patronising to the lower classes, minorities, and any group it pretends to champion. By singling them out, it assumes they will fit into a fixed category. Should they not do so, they will be shamed for being a misfit. A gay conservative, for example, will not always be taken seriously. Yet individualism and free agency does not lead to normative, fixed identities. Instead, it gives way to shifting subjectivities, engaged in what used to be fashionably yet aptly called différance. To deny this is at once sinister and dehumanising. 

Victor Stepien, a graduate of the University of Provence, lives in the US.

This review originally appeared in Quadrant magazine, Volume LVI, Number 3.

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