Defending freedom under attack in universities invariably gets defenders into a variety of trouble. The attackers almost always profess devotion to free speech themselves—except when it is carried to extremes, or is used by fanatics to discredit a cause they believe to be of greater or nobler or more urgent importance, or when it gives offense or pain or distress to people with enough troubles already. Resort to one or another, if not several, of these exceptions will be made in almost any dispute over the limits of free speech. After all, it is only in such instances, at least as perceived by those who resort to these exceptions, that the issue of free speech is likely to arise.
Another embarrassment to champions of the free-speech principle is that they often share sympathy for the cause, the idea, or the oppressed minority presented as the exception to justify violations of the cherished principle. How can just causes be defended without injury to inviolable principle? The awkwardness can be increased when the advocate of free speech finds himself thrust into alliance with those who do not share his sympathies for the exceptional cause and urge freedom for quite different reasons. Under these circumstances the politics of academic freedom can become a bit complicated.
In a commencement address at the University of Michigan on May 4, President Bush spoke out for freedom—freedom “to think and speak one’s mind,” perhaps “the most fundamental and deeply revered of all our liberties,” yet one now under assault “on some college campuses.” But two years earlier the President had proposed an amendment to the Bill of Rights against flag burning.
Dinesh D’Souza makes the word “politics” conspicuous in the title of his book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. His own political identifications have been and will undoubtedly be used to discredit his position on restriction of freedom and political abuses in the academy. Mr. D’Souza lines up on the right wing with a record of service to Reagan’s White House, a fellowship in the American Enterprise Institute, early service on the unsavory Dartmouth Review, and later as a contributor to other journals on the right. Yet his book comes with enthusiastic endorsements on the jacket by Eugene Genovese as well as Robert H. Bork, and praise from all points across the political spectrum, along with censure from the Village Voice, The Nation, and others. Negative reviews stressing the author’s politics seem to predominate and are sometimes used to dismiss his findings. But one need not be a right winger to be concerned about the problems D’Souza raises, however welcome he may be as an ally.
One charge that cannot be used against the author of Illiberal Education is that he is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He is in fact an immigrant from India with a secondary schooling in Bombay who did not arrive on these shores until 1978 and finds he “can still pass as a student.” The vast religious, tribal, and cultural heterogeneity and conflict in his native land give him, he believes, “a unique cultural perspective” on present problems of ethnicity, race, and sex in the universities of his adopted country. While he leaves quite a different impression, he claims “a special kinship with minority students,” especially their struggles for self-discovery, equality, and justice, “challenges I faced very recently in college and continue to face as a first-generation immigrant.”
Announced politics and skin color of the author aside, what of the credibility and reliability of his book and its findings, and the importance of the subject addressed? An assessment of the subject’s importance can better follow from the discussion below. As for accuracy of reporting and reliability of judgment, it would be wise to bear in mind that Illiberal Education is a polemical work written with strong conviction to condemn and to persuade, and that it is largely a collection of negative examples. Its moderation in tone and style may put readers off guard for its occasional stretching of evidence and logic to score a point. That does occur, but on the whole, for a subject so heatedly debated up to the last moment, the investigation seems reasonably thorough, the rhetoric comparatively temperate, and the documentation fairly detailed, if sometimes very selective. Nevertheless, this is probably the most extensive critical study yet made of an academic convulsion that has been treated evasively or disingenuously by its administrators and with much more strident polemics by its activists. Agree with it or not, Illiberal Education deserves serious attention.
D’Souza writes six chapters on as many universities to illustrate and dramatize the radical changes in higher education in response to minority revolts. The universities are Berkeley, Stanford, Howard, Michigan, Duke, and Harvard. The problems exemplified are those of admissions and recruitment of students; curriculum and the assault on the “Dead White Male” Western canon; racial conflict, embitterment, and black withdrawal from campus integration; “sensitivity” and political indoctrination and censorship of opinion and expression—these along with problems of housing, budget, grading, and double standards. The author believes that while some of the worst aspects of the revolution occur in the six institutions chosen to illustrate the phenomena, their problems are widely experienced on other campuses, and he offers persuasive examples as evidence.
The most critical issue raised by the current academic upheaval is the denial of freedom—freedom of thought, speech, and teaching—academic freedom. It is critical because freedom is the very lifeline of universities, the indispensable condition of their being and mission. That issue has been at the center of every major attack on the academy of the last half century and more. To recall briefly only two recent ones, both beyond memory of the present generation, might supply a historical perspective missing in the account of the attack currently addressed and also indicate its distinctiveness.
The assault on academic freedom called McCarthyism began in the 1940s before the senator from Wisconsin surfaced to become its symbol in the 1950s. The attack was nationwide and, while not confined to the academy, was extensively felt there in all respects. Careers were wrecked, scholars fled, institutes folded, journals collapsed, and books were censored, while the standards, values, and principles of higher education were subversively politicized. The most shameful thing was the frequency with which scholars under fire for their views and assertions were deserted by colleagues, administrators, and even the American Association of University Professors, their own defense organization. The oppression came from outside the university, had few active supporters within its walls, and was supported by cold war activists in the government—federal, state, and local.
Unlike the assault on freedom in the Fifties, that in the Sixties came from within the academy, was led by students, supported by many professors, and justified on moral grounds to silence defenders of unpopular government policies, notably the Vietnam War. For some years speakers favoring disapproved views risked being shouted down, insulted, or even physically abused at some universities. Yale was not the worst, but on its campus a Nobel Laureate scholar, a governor, a US secretary of state, and the US commanding general were prevented from speaking. All of them took the unpopular side. That continued until the trustees, on the recommendation of the president and faculty, adopted a code of university rules declaring a policy of “unfettered freedom” defined as “the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” And as cherished as civility and good fellowship are, the right of free speech, offensive as it might become, must be assured priority. Violations still occur at Yale, but miscreants face severe penalties and victims penalized for expressed opinions can appeal such decisions successfully.
In the present crisis the attack on freedom comes from outside as well as inside and is led by minorities, that is, people who speak or claim to speak for groups of students and faculty. Their cause is minority rights and sensitivities within the academy, instead of change in national policies. In behalf of their cause and to protect feelings from offensive speech they have, as we shall see, proved themselves willing to silence speakers and professors, abuse standards of scholarship, curriculum, and admissions, and impose conformity or silent submission on the campus. In these strivings they have often received support from university administrations. Their greatest asset, however, is a moral one: the demand for justice in behalf of groups that have long suffered injustice, discrimination, and deprivation. Some groups are larger than others and some have suffered more than others, but all have some claim on these grounds. Few would deny this. Another important asset is an ideological one: the very first of those truths in the Declaration of Independence said “to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—to which Lincoln later said this nation from the moment it was conceived was “dedicated.”
A perverse reading of the equality doctrine is frequently used to justify the revolution in university recruitment and admission of students. At Berkeley the new policy, in the name of “diversity,” takes the form of seeking a student body that approximates the proportions of blacks, Hispanics, whites, Asian-Americans, and other groups in California’s population. Proportional admission was impossible to reconcile with old policies (not always faithfully followed, to be sure) of acceptance according to merit and achievement, which would admit a disproportionately large percentage of high-scoring and rapidly increasing Asians and a very disproportionately low percentage of the black and Hispanic population. Chancellor Ira M. Heyman of Berkeley therefore resorted to what he called “a little social engineering.” Merit criteria would be applied only within groups, accepting stronger over weaker blacks and Asians, but admitting much weaker black over superior Asian and white students. Thus some minorities gained by affirmative action and some lost. Some were treated as more equal than others. Whites, now a minority, were underrepresented in the entering class of 1989. Quotas intended to include also exclude. Speaking of achievement in social engineering, Vice Chancellor Roderic Parks boasted that “Berkeley has a bellwether role.” Surely he did not intend one of the dictionary definitions of bellwether: “leader of a thoughtless crowd.” But followers Berkeley did have.
The social engineers seem to have produced more problems than solutions. For one thing they thrust affirmative action students, many of whom had not been given adequate preparation in elementary and high school, into situations in which they find it impossible to compete effectively at Berkeley. Thus fewer than 40 percent of blacks and fewer than 50 percent of Hispanics graduate. More than half drop out, about 30 percent of them before the end of their freshman year.
Highly selective as well as unselective universities continue to compete desperately in an ever-diminishing pool of talent for recruits of the proper skin color to fulfill some ideal of equality. There were indeed minority applicants with high qualifications and scores. Black scores in the Scholastic Aptitude Test for admission have improved slightly of late, but the overall white-black differential is still a huge 198 points in the aggregate, with only 116 out of 100,000 blacks who took the test in 1988 scoring over 699 out of 800 in the verbal section. As competition for qualified applicants sharpens, universities resort to inducements of high financial aid. An increasing number of universities restore subjective criteria and wave aside test scores.
As demand grew and supply diminished, more ill-equipped students were admitted and among them frustration, failures, and unhappiness multiplied. So did racial tensions, suspicions, slurs, and stereotypes. Defensive withdrawal and self-segregation were growing minority reactions, often with the encouragement and aid of university administrators eager to advance “pluralism” and “diversity.” Minority dormitories, third world clubs, African centers, and “ethnic theme houses” line many campuses to provide minority students havens from distress and anxieties bred in part by failures attributed to white bigotry and, in some cases, to incomprehensible reading assignments or lectures. Increasingly they have thought of themselves as groups rather than as individuals, and their culture as determined by their race.
One form separatism has taken is an attack upon the curriculum as an expression of white racial arrogance and propaganda, an attack accompanied by demands for a curriculum of their own. Compliant universities responded in the name of “multicultural” enrichment, diversity, and pluralism. Valid reasons did exist for complaint of outrageous curricular neglect and distortion in university curriculums of minority contributions to Western civilization. But these reasons for complaint were used to denigrate and reject the whole heritage of Western civilization, the common culture to which they owed their very right to protest.
In a “message to the racist oppressors,” quoted by D’Souza, the editor of a black student journal at Stanford framed his own protest by writing “we are tired of your shit.” He was referring to a required course in the classics and history from the Greeks down. Jesse Jackson led a campus demonstration against the course on Martin Luther King Day in 1987, and a “Rainbow Coalition” of minority students and their supporters later occupied President Donald Kennedy’s office. Despite the opposition of the historian Carl Degler and a few others, the Stanford Faculty Senate by 39 to 4 voted in 1988 to drop the term Western and substitute a requirement of a three-course sequence of cultural mixtures. Late in 1990 the university adopted a new course on American diversity required of all entering freshmen and described as “focusing on the works of blacks, hispanics, feminists, and homosexuals.”
Universities across the country followed Stanford’s example, with variations of their own. Some required a third world or non-Western course but made no requirement of a Western course. D’Souza claims the text that “best reveals the premises underlying the new Stanford curriculum” is the study of I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. It is the transcription of an oral autobiography of an unlettered woman first published in 1983 telling how, after her parents were killed in a massacre, she turned against European culture, renounced marriage and motherhood, and became a feminist and a Marxist.
It should be added that in his article “The Storm over the University” in these pages, the philosopher John Searle, who also deplored the tone of the campaign to change the Stanford curriculum, took a different view of the reforms themselves. He wrote that seven of the eight different “tracks” of the required civilization courses from which students may choose
are quite similar to the originals. To the required readings have been added such texts as Confucius, and the Koran, but I would guess that about 80 percent of the readings are by writers who are the same as, or comparable to, those in the previous program, though the texts used are not exactly the same. If anything, these seven tracks look to me like a slight improvement on the original course in Western culture, because they retain enough of the core readings so that the educational purpose of the original is not lost, and at the same time they enrich course work with readings from outside the European tradition.
The new plan also offered members of the faculty the possibility of formulating a completely revised course and some teachers have done so, with the result that the eighth track is a course called “Europe and the Americas.” In this couse, the required elements of the European canon remain, but they are read along with works of Spanish-American, American-Indian, and African-American authors [including the work by Rigoberta Menchu discussed by D’Souza]. This eighth track presents a genuinely radical change from the earlier program, and it arouses the most objection.
However, it seems to me one can make a fairly strong case for the new course on purely educational grounds. Of eight tracks, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have one optional track where European civilization is taught as simply one civilization among others.1
Professor Searle believes that “coming to see one’s own culture as one possible form of life and sensibility among others” can have a liberating effect. He is not upset by a reading list that includes Frantz Fanon along with Karl Marx and finds room for Aristotle and Tocqueville. On the whole he considers alarmist reports “grossly exaggerated” concerning the required freshman courses at Stanford. “If I were a freshman at Stanford,” he adds, “I might well be tempted to take ‘Europe and the Americas.’ ”
Howard University is credited with producing more black professionals of distinction than any other university in the country and has wide influence at other black colleges. Its students militantly advanced the cause of an Afrocentric curriculum. D’Souza finds that “the dominant political and academic enterprise of the students and faculty at Howard is aimed at discovering a cultural past that blacks can be proud of.” To that end Howard’s Department of African Studies and Research lists sixty-five courses, including numerous African language and dialect courses and others on the foreign policy, revolutions, and literature of African states and Islamic culture and philosophy. A separate Afro-American Studies Program adds twenty-five more courses, and the French department has a strong Afrocentric bent, for a university total of more than a hundred courses.
It is likely that some of the new Howard courses on African history, culture, and influence are legitimate and stimulating innovations. (It was little more than half a century ago that new courses in American history and culture struck Oxford and Cambridge as rather bizarre.) Side by side with African courses at Howard courses of the older sort continue to be taught. But it is the Afrocentric studies that are still the most popular. Frank Snowden, professor of classics at Howard, is worried about misuse and distortion of ancient history and lore “to develop black pride.” While that is understandable, Snowden says, he insists that “what we need is truth.”
A new black scholarship relies heavily on appropriating achievements of ancient Egypt and claiming that Africa was schoolmaster to Greece and Rome. These ideas are currently popularized throughout the country and have become an article of faith among many black students at American universities and colleges. For scholarly authority they rely heavily on Martin Bernal, a Cornell professor of modern Chinese politics and his book, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. The purpose of his book, writes Bernal, is “to lessen European cultural arrogance” by arguments that Egyptian civilization was “fundamentally African,” and that there were numerous “pharaohs whom one can usefully call black.” However “useful” these claims or those for Egyptian origins of Greek and Roman ideas may be for political purposes, they have certainly not convinced classical scholars.2 Perhaps their vogue among blacks will diminish with the realization that, as David Brion Davis points out, in Egypt black slaves were “far more numerous than in the Roman Empire,” that Muslims began African slave trade one thousand years before Europeans, and that Saudi Arabia did not abolish slavery until the 1960s.3 Or they may eventually recall James Baldwin’s words in The Fire Next Time: “The Negro has been formed by this nation, for better or worse, and does not belong to any other—not to Africa, and certainly not to Islam.”
Duke’s plunge into the mainstream of academic fashions stressed star faculty appointments in several fields. On the black side it made a fine start by recruiting John Hope Franklin, the best historian in his field, for the last years of his teaching career. Then things took a new turn beginning in the spring of 1988 when a series of speakers, including Abbie Hoffman and Julian Bond, came on campus to whip up protest among minority students and faculty, who demanded that all departments of the university appoint a “minority professor.” President Keith Brodie resisted on the ground that it would be cynical to make promises that could not be kept in order to gain favor, that qualified blacks were not available for all fields, that compulsory hiring would result in appointees who could not make tenure, and that no one stood to gain from lowered standards. Three black faculty members joined with President Brodie in the opposition, one saying there were not enough black Ph.D.s in the sciences, and two on the ground that the appointments would place a stigma on all truly qualified black faculty. White faculty opposition on the Academic Council persisted. But there were more angry minority demonstrations. At one of them President Brodie appeared, apologized for his earlier remarks on lowered standards (“They sound foolish, which they were”), and surrendered. Next day the Academic Council switched their votes one by one and by 35 to 19 committed Duke to have at least one minority professor in each department by 1993. Not a racist school, Duke—not any more.
That left several departments to find recruits who did not exist or were in very small numbers. Blacks receive only a little more than 2 percent of Ph.D. degrees; and about half of them are in education. The number has been declining—precipitously for black men. For numerous major fields there is a dearth of black doctorates and for some subjects scarcely any at all. In 1987 one was added in computer science, two in philosophy, three in chemical engineering and political science, four in mathematics and religion. In 1988 none was added in eight of the sciences, in European history, in classics, in comparative literature, or in the literature of five major countries. Under these handicaps and such feverish competition as characterized the hunt for black students, the mandated recruitment of minority faculty went forward with difficulty and it became stalled in places.
Four years before the commitment on compulsory minority faculty recruitment, Duke decided to recruit expensive superstars leading the then fashionable school of critics of the humanities who were known as deconstructionists. The university enjoyed remarkable success in attracting well-known scholars, one of whom told D’Souza that no other American institution “can boast of the line-up of home run hitters at Duke.” This is no place to consider the brief and tormented history of deconstructionists and the belated revelations about one of their founding fathers. The question here is what relation, if any, exists between their influence and the recruitment of minority faculty and the criteria of a multicultural curriculum.
It seems safe to assume there was no intended connection and that their coming together was more or less fortuitous. It is only fair to concede that anything like full agreement on the tenets of deconstruction theory is rare and that its followers do not claim in any unified way to have a political view and that they have many differences among them. That granted, it can be said that the burden of the movement’s impact in some universities was a challenge to minimal standards of merit in faculty qualifications, and the content and quality of what should be read and taught. Recurrent themes were the impossibility of objectivity, the futility of the search for truth, and the absence of authority for designating any works whatever as classics or part of a canon. The rhetoric of some deconstructionists is carried to the point of trivializing the idea of the humanities. Given the necessity for the sort of curriculum some minority faculty desired, it is hard to imagine rhetoric better suited to their personal needs.4
The example of Duke in the construction of minority faculties by compulsory goals was, with variations, followed by Wisconsin, Purdue, Northern Illinois, Williams, Hampshire College, and other Eastern institutions. As competition for the extremely limited supply of minority teachers intensified the quality of those employed diminished and the salaries sometimes soared. “We black scholars are enjoying our new marketability,” a Duke professor who was soon to be lured to Harvard told D’Souza. Yet such was the shortage of Ph.D.s that the number of full-time black faculty continued to decline. Courses in the name of “diversity” tended to become more bizarre.
Departments in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering are less affected than others, and much teaching in the social sciences and humanities goes on as before. Ethnocentric programs and courses are often independent departments, and while some of them seek diversity to enrich a common national culture, a growing number insist that no culture is common or desirable to diverse Americans, and that one’s culture is determined by one’s race. The idea of a common culture is dismissed as white or Eurocentric propaganda.
Universities that were once centers of civil rights activists and advocates of racial integration are now reported not only by D’Souza but by colleagues who have written to me and to such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union to be places where instances of bigotry are frequent. Anomalies multiply with the number of racial tensions, incidents and conflicts. The more liberal the tradition and the more deference to protest, the more incidents are reported. Seemingly the more policies to promote harmony the greater the perception and complaint of racial hostility. Offenses are not exclusively from one race, but are perceived as racial only when the victim is from a minority group. However defined, by far the greater number of racial incidents occurs at northern universities, with those in Massachusetts leading them all. It is doubtful that the tide of withdrawal of minority groups into segregated dormitories, dining halls, student unions, clubs, fraternities, sororities, and even to an extent into separate curriculums has promoted racial harmony. Yet university presidents have regularly welcomed, applauded, and financed such resegregations. President Harold Shapiro of Michigan (now president of Princeton) said that he could not grant all black professors tenure, but as demanded by Jesse Jackson, he agreed to give financial support to a new black student union and appropriated $27 million to increase minority faculty and student presence on campus.
Universities have thrived on controversy for centuries (when not asleep with orthodoxy and conformity), even when opposing sides were as sharply divided and intractable as in the present instance. Agreements sometimes emerged from gridlocked stalemate after vigorous debate when solutions seemed unavailable. But that has been possible only when both sides were free to have their say and speak their minds, even at the risk of being misunderstood, hurting causes they cherish, and bruising the feelings and sensibilities of friends. In the confrontation now at hand those essential freedoms are rapidly diminishing in many quarters and in some the ancient right of disputation has already yielded to the practice of indoctrination.
Curtailment or discouragement of free speech came, as often happens, to promote worthy moral causes. After some ugly slurs against blacks by white students, the University of Michigan developed more than a hundred programs of consciousness-raising and sensitivity-training for whites and plastered the campus with posters to protect minority feelings and stop white harassment and verbal attacks on blacks, including anonymously circulated statements recommending violence against them. When blacks held the programs themselves to be racist and white hostility continued, the next step was to adopt a code of racial etiquette and penalties for speech that violated it. Feminist and homosexual groups weighed in to add “sexist language” to the code of prohibitions. The policy adopted as punishable
any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Some faculty grumbled a bit about violations of classroom freedom, but most faculty and students acquiesced.
The only national organization to challenge Michigan’s violation of the First Amendment was the American Civil Liberties union. The ACLU filed a suit on behalf of an anonymous instructor in federal court, which struck down the entire Michigan policy as unconstitutional. US District Judge Avern Cohn declared that “the Supreme Court has consistently held that states punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overbroad.”
President James Ruderstat of Michigan had pronounced his university “a model of how a diverse and pluralistic community can work for society,” and many institutions patterned their codes of speech control on that model. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, policies restraining offensive language or conduct regarding race or sex have been adopted at Emory, Chapel Hill, Middlebury, Brown, Penn State, Tufts, and the Universities of California, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Some of these codes, however, have been modified because of court decisions. Two professors at Stanford Law School urged censorship, one of them on the ground that the First Amendment had presupposed “the absence of societally created and culturally ingrained and internalized racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Stanford adopted a rule restraining offensive speech in 1990. Another lawyer pointed out with some irony that such rules and prohibitions were used a generation ago against students advocating racial equality and desegregation.
The Harvard program for propagating “sensitivity” includes several devices, one of which is AWARE week, an acronym for Actively Working Against Racism and Ethnocentrism. Organized by the assistant dean of minority affairs, it “designated race relations tutors” for each Harvard house, who were to report “violations,” “monitor the racial atmosphere,” and “raise consciousness.” Harvard published an Affirmative Action Newsletter to expose myths such as one that affirmative action “means applying a double standard,” which is denounced as “a proposition that is totally baseless.” Committees of ethnic groups police courses and report professorial infractions of the code.
Such activities can be discouraging for teachers in the classroom. When Professor Stephan Thernstrom described Jim Crow laws and their effects in a history lecture in February 1988 members of the Black Student Association denounced his “insensitivity” in the Harvard Crimson. They claimed he said that Jim Crow laws were “beneficial” and that “he read aloud from white plantation owners’ journals” that gave a “benevolent” picture of slavery. They took their complaints to the Committee on Race Relations set up by President Derek Bok to handle such matters. Instead of coming to Thernstrom’s defense, Dean of the College Fred Jewett issued an open letter the following week saying, without mentioning Thernstrom, that “recent events” compelled him to “speak out loudly and forcefully against all kinds or prejudice, harassment and discrimination” and stress the need for “warnings and clear messages about the inappropriateness and insensitivity of such behavior.” A month later the dean of the faculty assured Thernstrom that no disciplinary action would be taken against him, and praised his accusers as “judicious and fair.” It remained for President Bok to say Thernstrom had a right to teach as he wished, but that professors should avoid “possible insensitivity.” Thernstrom has stopped offering the course he taught with Bernard Bailyn. “It just isn’t worth it,” he said.
His was not the only such case at Harvard. In 1989 a visiting law professor was attacked in an “open letter” by the head of the Harvard Women’s Law Association for “promoting a dangerous misperception” because he quoted from Byron’s Don Juan in his textbook. He defended himself at length, arguing that the quotation aptly illustrated a point of law. He said that if the Harvard Women’s Law Association would supply “an equally concise, apt and literate quotation” that made the same point “without sex identification,” he would use it in future revisions of his casebook. But he was attacked again in the Harvard Women’s Law Association’s newsletter. The administration remained silent and a few months later, according to D’Souza, Harvard released guidelines on “Sexism in the Classroom,” saying “teachers should not focus attention on sex characteristics in a context in which sex would otherwise be irrelevant.” The professor soon left Harvard commenting that while some of his colleagues had made “private supportive gestures,” the university was failing to recognize dangers to academic freedom.
Women and homosexuals do not receive nearly the proportion of attention suggested by the title of D’Souza’s book. He does point out several relations, similarities, and differences between racial and sexual movements and their tendency to isolate their programs on the campus. Starting in 1970, women’s studies has come to be a separate program or independent department in more than 500 American colleges and universities, while Afro-American studies has expanded from 78 programs in 1978 to about 350 now. One reason for this disparity is that many more qualified white female Ph.D.s than black Ph.D.s were available. Yet it is women who are seen to benefit from the momentum gained by black studies rather than vice versa. Professor Glenn Loury of Harvard complains that “feminists used the civil rights [race] issue to seize power in the universities” and to gain tenure and position. “Although we helped this to come about, yet we blacks have reaped very thin gains.” Homosexuals as well as American Indians, Hispanics, and foreign students also gained attention for these complaints. Feminist extremists can hold their own with black extremists in competitive absurdities. For example, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis holds an “ovular” rather than a seminar, and one at McGill who refuses to use the adjective “seminal.”
Among students and teachers identified with the majority, the response to minority demands and accusations of bigotry has been mixed and is of late in a state of transition. Responses to the appeal of sensitivity sessions to stand up and confess bigoted impulses and prejudices are not so forthcoming as they have been. A few years ago a Dartmouth student at such a meeting burst into tears as he confessed to being a homophobe, while fellow students sighed and applauded, and a Yale student had a seizure of repentance and remorse for his concealed racial biases. Of late, however, signs of boredom or sullenness have appeared among white students that threaten the coming of an ugly backlash and what D’Souza calls a “new racism.” The old type of racism continues, but it was based on ignorance and is morally and politically discredited, whereas the new racism grows out of confrontation. The new racism, with its resentment of preferential treatment of blacks, often reinforces the old bigotry. A “White History Week” has appeared in reply to Black History Month. University-sponsored white student unions begin to turn up, and the protest from black student unions provokes amusement. The new racism is unrepentant and scornful of sensitivity indoctrination. Tactics developed to combat the old racism don’t work against the new.
Another new racism has emerged among the minority groups, though it is not so identified by D’Souza. One of its effects is an awareness of administrative condescension that intensifies black insecurity. Whatever the public denials of a double standard, intelligent students can see what preferential treatment means, and they perceive the tacit administrative assumption of their inferiority, and the cynicism underlying it. It grows harder, in maintaining the status of victim and using the moral capital involved, to tell one’s friends from one’s flatterers. The flight from competition with better-prepared students in courses termed “white” to take refuge in black studies has not always proved satisfactory. Some students must have read the earlier warnings of Roy Wilkins, Kenneth Clark, and Bayard Rustin against “racial breast-beating,” and Rustin’s warning against using black studies “to escape the challenges of the university by setting up a program of ‘soul courses’ that they just play with and pass.”
Others come to realize that the major works of black American scholars including W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain L. Locke were written before black studies departments came along. None of these three eminent scholars wanted their work isolated or their careers and fields of study determined by race. Yet John Hope Franklin, after pointing out that this was just what happened, writes:
This was a tragedy. Negro scholarship had foundered on the rocks of racism. It had been devoured by principles of separation, of segregation. It had become the victim of the view that there was some “mystique” about Negro studies, similar to the view that there was some “mystique” about Negro spirituals which required that a person possess a black skin in order to sing them. This was not scholarship; it was folklore, it was voodoo.5
Was it possible that the presumed beneficiaries of the new minority policies are really its victims, deprived of the liberal education they were promised, fed too often with political pablum, and graduated without preparation or deepened understanding and appreciation of the culture to which they were born and in which they are destined to live their lives?
One of the crueler ironies of the new racial policy of our universities is the stigma it has placed upon the black scholars of superior ability and intelligence who have honestly won high status and rank by their books and achievements. How often are the hard-won distinctions and honors they have gained smugly attributed to “affirmative action”? To cite a personal experience, I think of four former students who have gained admiration and praise for their books and won tenure in four of the most distinguished American universities. Not one of them has entirely escaped the assumption on the part of whites or blacks that all this is to be accounted for by the cynical politics of academic racial policy.
How are we to recover the humanism and understanding that are the goals of liberal education? How are our universities ever to pull out of the resegregation, the blatant tribalism, and competitive racial chauvinism they have inflicted upon themselves or permitted to grow and take over within their walls? How are they to encourage students not to substitute politics for learning? How can they weed out curricular nonsense, restore free speech, and revive standards? It will certainly not be easy. Genuine dilemmas and hard choices persist, conflicts between commitment to justice and commitment to intellectual integrity and quality. Administrators are hard pressed and have sometimes proved to be easily intimidated. D’Souza’s “modest proposals” of nonracial affirmative action, no racial segregation, and a return to the classics, non-Western classics included, address long-range goals rather than immediate emergencies and measures.
For restoring or maintaining standards of scholarship it is natural to think of the associations with power to grant accreditation and to withhold or deny it to institutions that do not live up to standards. Loss of accreditation can be devastating. But the two associations with authority over Middle Atlantic states and Western states have recently announced that vigorous commitment to preferential recruitment of faculty students and multicultural curriculums are essential criteria for accreditation. Not much help is to be expected from there. Nor from the American Association of University Professors. Then there are the national honorary societies such as Phi Beta Kappa, which only extends membership to those universities and colleges meeting scholarly standards. But, alas, some of the worst offenders are institutions with the highest scholarly prestige.
There remain the national associations of the scholarly disciplines, but some of those have fallen under leadership whose concerns are more political than scholarly, and a few, such as the Modern Language Association, are noted for clownish charades. The incoming president of the MLA, Houston Baker of the University of Pennsylvania, thinks “reading and writing are merely technologies of control” and considers “literacy” the menace. One can appeal for protection of First Amendment rights to federal courts, and they have proved useful on occasion, but they have not really halted attacks on those rights.
Despair is common. A friend at Michigan State writes me that
standard after standard has fallen. Every course must be gender-and-race related; chairs are awarded on the sole ground that the occupant would be a good “role model” for this or that constituency, etc. etc. So I keep to myself.
A Wesleyan professor, Jeremy Zwelling, published an open letter to President William M. Chase telling of hostile attacks by students in three recent courses that he taught. In one, members of his own faith accused him of assigning anti-Semitic readings from the Old Testament. In a second women students “successfully sabotaged a seminar” with charges of “emotional rape” and “lethal misogyny.” And a third course “almost collapsed” under abusive protests that he was racist and elitist. President Chase came immediately to his defense last April with an appeal for “genuine freedom of speech” on the campus.
If salvation is forthcoming it must come from within the academy. And for those with wide and longtime acquaintanceship in its walls there is reason for hope. American universities retain much of their old stamina. Academics of integrity, courage, and conviction are still present in numbers around the country. Many come to mind. They are of varied ages, races, and political views. It is good to see Eleanor Holmes Norton of Georgetown Law School denouncing the new racial separatism as “exactly what we were fighting against—it is antithetical to what the civil rights movement was all about.” It is reassuring to find Arthur Schlesinger deploring “the fragmentation of our culture into a quarrelsome spatter of enclaves, ghettos and tribes.” (He discusses these questions in The Disuniting of America, just published.6 )
One of several at Harvard to speak out is David Riesman, who in retirement is saddened by “a kind of liberal closed-mindedness’ in which “everybody is supposed to go along with the so-called virtuous position.” At Duke forty-odd colleagues, black and white, support Professor James David Barber’s declaration that “what’s going on in universities now threatens everything that a university is supposed to be about…. Students’ minds are supposed to be trained, not converted politically.” And from Eugene Genovese at the University of Georgia in Atlanta, Georgia, comes a ringing denunciation of “the new wave of campus barbarism” and a strong call for “the defense of academic freedom…an all-out counterattack by a coalition that cuts across all the lines of politics, race, and gender. It is time to close ranks.”
University presidents and administrators have generally distinguished themselves for their acquiescence, timidity, and silence rather than for courageous resistance in the face of campus anarchy, violence, and barbarism. Fortunately there are a few exceptions, and one is President Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., of Yale. In a public address in New York on March 20,7 he spoke out against the present “flabbiness of the tradition of liberal education,” deplored “an institution that doubts its fundamental purpose,” and any university leadership “that is queasy about defending academic values.” As an authority on the First Amendment, he regretted the “pall of conformity on many campuses” and “the complacency with which many are responding.” His own response was anything but complacent. He firmly reiterated the rule of “unfettered freedom” on his own campus, and continued: “Some of the finest universities in this country have adopted rules which empower groups of faculty and students with roving commissions to punish offensive speech.” When this happens, he concluded, “a lethal and utterly open-ended engine of censorship is loosed.” Its greatest damage is not to those punished, but to “the vastly greater number of speakers who will steer clear of possible punishment,” and the “chilling effects of vague powers to punish offensive speech.”
With support of this sort for freedom and sanity from academics of learning and influence, there is reason for hope that the current aberration in the academy may be halted before it is too late. It would be easy to add to those already mentioned many names of scholars who would also rally to the defense of free speech. What is needed is that they too stand up, be counted, and speak out. The time for this has indeed come.
July 18, 1991
December 6, 1990, p. 39. ↩
For example, the review by Jasper Griffin, “Who Are These Coming to the Sacrifice?” The New York Review, June 15, 1989; and Frank Turner, “Martin Bernal’s Black Athena: A Dissent,” in Molly Levine, editor, “The Challenge of Black Athena,” a symposium in the fall of 1989 issue of Arethusa. ↩
David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Oxford University Press, 1966). ↩
David Lehman, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (Poseidon Press, 1991). ↩
John Hope Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938–1988 (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 99 pp., $11.95. ↩
Whittle Direct Books (Knoxville, Tennessee). ↩
Excerpts were published in The Wall Street Journal on May 6, 1991. ↩