The good news is that more people are paying attention to the bad news. In the past year there has been an encouragingly widespread discussion of the role played by Politically Correct (PC) opinion on American campuses. Sundry “speech codes” aimed at limiting free expression and adopted in the name of “racial and gender sensitivity” have come under severe criticism. We are pleased to note that even the ACLU seems to have rediscovered the meaning of authentic liberalism and is pressing the seemingly obvious truth that the free exchange of ideas requires the free exchange of ideas.
Those inclined to be cynical say that liberals are reacting to the tyrannies that they once condescendingly tolerated because now their oxen are being gored. There is a measure of truth in that, no doubt, but it would not be the first time that self-interest complemented what is just and right. The National Association of Scholars was launched by neoconservatives (i.e., authentic liberals), and its ranks are now growing with an influx of academics who have discovered that leftist fun can turn nasty.
There is also reason for hope in the reception accorded two recent books that carefully document the moral shambles of the contemporary university: Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (HarperCollins) and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (Free Press). Both books provide for many academics what social theorist Alfred Schutz called an “Aha experience.” That is, they convincingly articulate what many people suspected was going on but were either reluctant to acknowledge or unable to put into words.
Illiberal Education is a withering critique of the lies and hypocrisies that have corrupted almost every aspect of higher education—from admissions policies to campus life to curricular “reform.” It is the more withering because it is so temperate in tone. In part because D’Souza is from India and therefore “a person of color,” administrators, faculty, and students convict themselves by being remarkably candid with him about the politics of race and sex on campus. Systematic discrimination against whites and—notably in California—Asians is privately admitted and described in detail, although of course such discrimination is publicly denied. While publicly declaring that their schools do not “lower standards” in order to recruit blacks and Hispanics, presidents and deans privately acknowledge that they have no choice but to lower standards.
The alarm raised by these and other writers is for the sake of liberal education. D’Souza cites John Henry Newman. The purpose of liberal education, said Newman in The Idea of a University, is “that true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.” Or, as Matthew Arnold put it, the goal is to introduce students to the best that has been thought and said. The liberal tradition always understood that there would be and must be continuing argument over what is the best. The new thing today is that those in control of many universities deny that there is any such thing as the best. The PC position is that the exchange of ideas is nothing more than a power struggle between interest groups that are defined by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference.
While the alarm is raised for the sake of liberal education, it is raised at least equally for the sake of those who have turned out to be the real victims of what D’Souza calls “The Victim’s Revolution on Campus.” Blacks and Hispanics in particular are victimized by the cruel hoax of affirmative action, quotas, and other racialist policies. Those of them who make it in the academic mainstream forever live under the shadow of suspicion that they did not make it on merit. Others assume and, more painfully, themselves suspect that they are the beneficiaries of racial discrimination putatively aimed at ending racial discrimination. In other cases, those who manage to get through college do so by avoiding the mainstream and isolating themselves in politically contrived “disciplines” of racial and ethnic studies. Most devastating, however, are the statistics on the very small number of blacks and Hispanics who make it through college, or even the first year of college, at all. Never mind, say administrators, quota practices in admissions prove that their schools are not “racially insensitive.”
Prestige schools raid black colleges for the relative handful of available black PhDs (degrees mainly earned in education or ethnic studies) in order to fill their faculty quotas. The raising of “race consciousness” has resulted in turning liberal universities in the North into probably the most racially segregated institutions in our society. Interracial housing and social activities are becoming the exception. Race-related instances of violence have become commonplace on these campuses. The solution proposed by pusillanimous presidents and deans is more of the same—“sensitivity training” that consigns individuals to a collective racial identity, thereby reinforcing the self-contempt of blacks and Hispanics who are encouraged to understand their lives in terms not of what they do but of what has been done to them. Radical feminists and homosexual activists, claiming to be the real “niggers” of our oppressive society, jump aboard the victimhood bandwagon, thus further trivializing the genuine injuries of racial injustice in America’s past and present.
In the past twenty years, the administrators and faculties of our universities have turned out to be cowards on a monumental scale. That being said, it must also be said that many of them know exactly what they are doing. They are conducting “the long march through the institutions” that began in the 1960s. The radicals who then turned against liberalism as the ideology of capitalist, imperialist, militarist oppression are now often in charge, and they intend to make the most of it. D’Souza suggests, however, that most of the timorous presidents and deans in question do not really have revolution at heart. They are, quite simply, scared to death that they might be accused of violating PC orthodoxy.
The answer is not to go back to the way things were in, say, the 1950s, even if that were possible. It is morally and politically unacceptable that so many American young people are denied the opportunities of higher education. Affirmative actions are required, but they should be nonracial affirmative actions. Positive programs can be devised to help young people as individuals, not as members of “entitlement categories” defined by race and sex. Most important, unless the idea of liberal education itself is rescued from the current shambles, going to college will be of little benefit to anyone—black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, or white.
Precisely because we are becoming an increasingly multicultural society, justice and prudence require that students have a common frame of reference for understanding and working through our differences. This means resisting the segregationist politics of race and sex and curricular fads such as “multiculturalism” and “Afrocentrism.” Without such resistance, a multicultural society will surely succumb to the racial, ethnic, and sexual warfare of which the contemporary campus is an ominous portent. The good news, as we said at the start, is that more people are paying attention to the bad news.