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The Culture Wars

But the Times article devotes two paragraphs to the views of Daniel S. Hamermesh, an economist then at Michigan State University, whose own study shows that

on average, women make up 10 percent of the professors in the Ivy League. In the next two ranks—associate professor, which also usually carries tenure, and assistant professor, which can lead to tenure—women are much better represented, with an average of 30 percent of each of those positions. These figures lead universities to hold out hope that, in time, women will move into the most senior positions.

It takes a lot of time,” Hamermesh is quoted as explaining, “to feed through the academic system.”2

It is one thing to identify a “multiculturalist” complaint—for example, that the reason there are relatively few female full professors is that women are discriminated against—and to produce data you believe show that the charge is unfounded. But Bernstein wants to do more than that: he wants to convict the press of multiculturalist fellow-traveling, and this leads him to ignore evidence—in this case, the Times‘s citation of an explanation identical with his own—that might make his claim less persuasive.

In 1992, to take another example of what Bernstein regards as media complicity, an organization called the American Association of University Women issued a report it had commissioned which showed that girls are “shortchanged,” because of bias and discrimination, in the American school system. Many newspapers covered the report on their front pages. In taking issue with the report, Bernstein takes issue with the coverage as well.

The absence of skepticism shown toward the report on girls was remarkable even for journalists operating under deadline pressure,” he tells us.

The organization that actually carried out the study was not some neutral institution with an unimpeachable record of disinterested scholarship on the status of women. The Wellesley Center for Research on Women, while not perhaps widely known to reporters, might by its very name and location have suggested a certain partisan attitude on subjects central to feminists’ concerns…. [But] none of the press reports identified the Wellesley Center as feminist. Few of them (with the New York Times again an exception) sought any opinions contrary to those in the report.

Now here is the lead paragraph of the article in The Washington Post—a paper whose very name and location, to borrow a phrase, might have suggested a certain partisan attitude:

The most comprehensive report to assess the gender gap in American schools found widespread bias against girls in tests, textbooks and teaching practices—findings that set off an immediate controversy among educators.

The second paragraph quotes the president of the AAUW, defending the report. The next four paragraphs summarize the views of people who dispute its conclusions, including that of the Department of Education, which said the report “lacked perspective and hard data,” and comments by Diane Ravitch, then assistant secretary of education, who asserts that “this is a period in history in which there have been the most dramatic strides for women,” and who provides two paragraphs’ worth of statistics to back up that claim.3

Bernstein says he is particularly concerned that, whatever its merits, the report’s focus is on the wrong problem. “Absent from the report, and from the press accounts of it, were some figures on a far more alarming inequity in the educational system,” he explains. “A far larger gap than that between American boys and girls exists between American students of both sexes and the students of many other countries…in math and science,” and he cites some international rankings released by the Department of Education suggesting the existence of such a gap.

But Bernstein’s initial assertion is false. The AAUW report does include figures on international rankings in math and science, and it expresses concern about the standing of American students. It also emphasizes quite explicitly the importance of placing statistics indicating a gender gap between American boys and girls in that larger context.4

If, by noting the absence of figures reflecting those international rankings in newspaper stories on the AAUW report, Bernstein means to imply that the press is eager to run stories alleging gender discrimination but is less interested in stories about more dire inadequacies in the American educational system, this implication is false as well. The Post ran its article on the study of international achievement in math and science from which Bernstein draws his figures on the front page. (“Students Test Below Average: In World, US Fares Poorly in Math.”) The Times‘s story appeared on page A14; it cites the president of the Educational Testing Service as warning “that the rankings were suspect because of differences in the student populations tested.”5 This “contrary opinion” is missing from Bernstein’s recitation.

Bernstein also maintains that organizations whose duty it is to protect dissent are themselves dominated by multiculturalist partisans. One of these is the American Association of University Professors, whose mission is the protection of academic freedom. But here, again, he has been selective in his reporting.

He devotes his final chapter to a controversy at the University of Texas at Austin over a proposal to make all sections of a required composition course adhere to a uniform curriculum, which was to consist of readings on racial and sexual discrimination. The proposal was approved by the department and accepted by the administration. But a few professors objected, on the legitimate grounds that it was a bad idea to impose an overt political content on a course 40 percent of Texas students have to take. They carried their campaign to the university at large. Memoranda and petitions were circulated, student journalists got involved, and the atmosphere became, by all accounts, extremely contentious. One of the dissenting professors wrote a letter to the local newspaper in Austin, in which he announced that the approval of the course meant that students at Texas “will begin having their social attitudes as well as their essays graded by English Department instructors in what has to be the most massive effort at thought-control ever attempted on the campus.” National attention followed,6 and the proposal was eventually dropped. The course has never been given.

Bernstein’s account makes it plain that there is blame enough to go around, and that disputants on both sides had reason to feel that their academic freedom had been chilled—in particular, by the practices of accusing colleagues of unprofessionalism and misrepresentation and of conducting the debate about the course in public forums that were hardly appropriate for a clarifying discussion. Alan Gribben, the professor who had written the letter accusing his colleagues of wanting to exercise “thought-control,” felt so ostracized by the other members of his department after the affair that he left Texas for a less prestigious school. “One of the most disturbing things about Gribben’s case,” Bernstein writes, “is that none of the major academic organizations, those supposedly watchful for freedom of expression, took up his cause. Indeed, they took the other side in the Texas battle.” The AAUP is one of the two organizations he includes in this indictment.

The AAUP’s president, according to Bernstein, “tried to interest the staff at the AAUP, particularly the staff of Committee A, which is concerned with academic freedom, in investigating the situation at Texas. Ernst Benjamin, who is the senior permanent member of the AAUP staff, got together a committee to look into [the Texas course] and a few other matters…. [But] the committee visited no campuses. It met for a single day and then issued a report, not on Texas or any other university, but on the subject of political correctness…. The AAUP committee, supposedly considering the imbroglio at Texas, ended up making a pronouncement on political correctness in entire agreement with the PC point of view.” (This report accused opponents of political correctness of being motivated by an “only partly-concealed animosity toward equal opportunity” for women and minority group members on campus; it was published in the AAUP’s journal, Academe.) Under these circumstances, Bernstein concludes, Alan Gribben “was not likely to think that if he brought a complaint to the AAUP, it would get an impartial hearing.”

But his account is incomplete. The committee which produced the report on political correctness (though Bernstein does not make this clear) was not connected with Committee A, the group officially charged with investigating violations of academic freedom for the AAUP. It was a small, ad hoc group, appointed by Ernst Benjamin at the request of the AAUP’s president; it was not investigating the Texas incident, but was responding to the debate over “political correctness” generally; and the release of its report was not authorized by any standing committee of the AAUP. Committee A had declined to investigate the Texas case in part because the dispute was still in the internal faculty governance system at the university, which is ordinarily allowed to run its course before the AAUP intervenes. When the AAUP’s executive council met shortly after the release of the report on political correctness, it ordered that ad hoc committee reports could not in the future be released without the approval of a standing committee; a forum consisting of responses critical of the report was published in Academe; and a year later the AAUP issued a statement unequivocally condemning campus speech codes. It is misleading to say that the AAUP “took the other side in the Texas battle”: it specifically did not take any side. And it is wrong to suggest that the AAUP is a politically partisan body.7

Bernstein’s report on the Texas affair is also important because of a story he tells, elsewhere in his book, about an incident at Dallas Baptist University. In 1992, an assistant professor there named David Ayers was invited to speak at a faculty colloquium. He gave a talk critical of feminism, and, since it excited interest, a response to it, by an English professor named Deborah McCollister, was arranged and was presented at another meeting of the same faculty gathering. Following the second talk, Ayers distributed copies of his article and of McCollister’s remarks in class and made comments critical of her views.

Ayers had distributed McCollister’s remarks without asking her permission.8 The talks were evidently supposed to be closed to students, and when news of Ayers’s conduct reached the ears of the administration, the dean of his college, John Jeffrey, was ordered by the vice-president for academic affairs to conduct an investigation, and it was made clear to him that he was expected to arrange an apology to McCollister. This Jeffrey declined to do, citing the principle of academic freedom. When it became apparent that neither he nor Ayers intended to act as the administration wanted, both were advanced a year’s pay and dismissed. “It seems that the administration was so terrified of feminist wrath at Dallas Baptist University,” Bernstein says, “that they preferred to pay Ayers and Jeffrey full salaries to do nothing rather than have them around and risk further debate about the feminist ideology.” Bernstein tells us that he has drawn his description of this incident from an article by Joseph Salemi, which appeared in a magazine, not widely known, called Measure, “modifying it somewhat in light of my own interviews.”

Now, Dallas Baptist University is a religious institution. The administration’s instructions to Jeffrey indicated that an apology was the appropriate way to resolve a dispute between “Christian brothers and sisters,” and although Salemi, in the article Bernstein cites, makes many unsubstantiated claims about the influence of radical feminists at Dallas Baptist, the evidence makes it seem most likely that the dismissals were prompted by the conviction that a refusal to apologize under those circumstances was un-Christian. I doubt that feminism had anything to do with the matter.

But the dismissals bear all the marks of a violation of academic freedom. In fact, Jeffrey and Ayers appealed on those grounds to the AAUP, which immediately intervened on their behalf, expressing concern in letters to the university’s administration and dispatching an investigative team to the campus. The AAUP’s intervention ended when Ayers and Jeffrey agreed to a substantial cash settlement with the university, with which they were evidently happy, for their lawyer sent a letter to the AAUP stating that the matter could not have been resolved so satisfactorily without its efforts on his clients’ behalf. Having gone out of his way elsewhere in his book to charge the AAUP with multiculturalist bias, however, Bernstein never mentions its role in the DBU case. But he knows about that role for the same reason I do: because it is reported in Joseph Salemi’s article.9

Dictatorship of Virtue is a baffling book. Bernstein accuses multiculturalists of distortion, exaggeration, and the suppression of evidence that shows things are not as bad as they say they are, but he resorts to the same methods himself. “It takes no bravery to be a multiculturalist,” he writes. There are some circles in which that may be so. But there are other circles in which it takes no bravery to attack multiculturalism, and the second kind of circles are still a lot bigger than the first. It really is preposterous for Bernstein to pretend that his colleagues in the mainstream press are insufficiently critical of multiculturalism. The mainstream media has been hammering away at this stuff incessantly since the early years of the Bush administration. The subject could use the attention of a journalist who can distinguish hyperbole from principle on both sides, and who does not feel the need to manhandle—excuse me, to personhandle—the evidence in order to give his book an exciting thesis.

A great deal of multicultural talk is facile posturing; but outrage at the mere idea that cultural assumptions might be questioned only encourages greater stridency. American life is not, contrary to multiculturalist boilerplate, more diverse today than ever. From a bird’s eye view, it is far more integrated and homogenous than ever. Thirty years ago men and women, black and white Americans, homosexual and heterosexual people, and members of many ethnic groups tended to lead, culturally and socially, largely segregated lives. Today they do so, for the most part, only as a matter of choice.

Down on the ground, though, there is a lot of friction, since people who have never worked side by side before are finding themselves in situations of professional intimacy unimaginable (or only imaginable) a generation ago. We can use more honesty and flexibility in adapting to these changes than we seem to have in supply at the moment. But given people’s natural desire to live productively together, things ought to shake out. Meanwhile, if Bernstein keeps insisting on finding a radical multiculturalist under every bed in America, he’s going to scare himself silly.


Culture Wars November 17, 1994

The Culture Wars’: An Exchange November 3, 1994

  1. 2

    Anthony DePalma, “Rare in Ivy League: Women Who Work As Full Professors,” The New York Times, January 24, 1993, section 1, p. 23.

  2. 3

    Mary Jordan, “Wide Gender Gap Found in Schools,” The Washington Post, February 12, 1992, p. A1.

  3. 4

    How Schools Shortchange Girls: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1992), pp. 25-26.

  4. 5

    Mary Jordan, “Students Test Below Average,” The Washington Post, February 6, 1992, p. A1; “American Children Trail in Math and Science,” The New York Times, February 6, 1992, p. A14.

  5. 6

    Documents relating to the controversy are reprinted in Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, edited by Paul Berman (Dell, 1992), pp. 249-68.

  6. 7

    Information about the ad hoc report comes from my interview with Linda Ray Pratt, former president of the AAUP. My sense of the absurdity of trying to paint the AAUP as a politically correct body comes from my understanding of the facts, reaffirmed by my own recent experience arranging a lecture series on academic freedom for some of its meetings. This is not a group dedicated to the protection of political correctness.

  7. 8

    McCollister told me she had not intended her talk to be heard by students. She also told me Bernstein never spoke with her.

  8. 9

    Joseph S. Salemi, “Political Correctness at Dallas Baptist University: The Firing of David Ayers and John Jeffrey,” Measure, No. 108 (August- September 1992), pp. 1-13. The article is a polemical account, based on information provided by Ayers and Jeffrey; but it praises the AAUP for responding “promptly and vigorously” to their complaint, and quotes from two of its letters to the DBU administration (p. 11). Information about the settlement is from my interview with Linda Ray Pratt.

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