Orthodoxy on the campus


Lynne V. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, issued a report yesterday condemning the politicization of the nation's colleges and universities. Humanities departments on many campuses, Ms. Cheney charges, have become bastions of "politically correct" thinking. As a result, conservative voices have been stilled, and academic standards have deteriorated. Following are excerpts from the report's first chapter, "Politics on the Campus." TO someone visiting one of today's scholarly conventions, inhibition of thought and expression might not seem a problem. At recent gatherings of the Modern Language Association, for example, papers have been presented on such topics as "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" and "Is Alice Still in Phallus Land?"

At the 1992 session of the College Art Association, one presenter illustrated her remarks with 10-foot color projections of female genitalia. At the American Academy of Religion's 1991 annual meeting, the vocabulary of one presentation was so unrestrained that the editors of a journal reporting on the convention felt obliged to distance themselves from its "scatological language."

But at the same time that faculty members have been expressing themselves thus freely, students have had limits imposed on their speech. In the 1980s and early 1990s, colleges and universities across the nation established speech codes for students -- rules about what can and cannot be said and sanctions for violations. A student could find him- or herself before a review board for an epithet shouted in anger. For a time, one university even prohibited "inappropriately directed laughter."

These codes have been widely condemned by groups ranging from the National Association of Scholars to the American Civil Liberties Union. Speech must be protected, even when it is offensive, these groups argue. Indeed, offensive speech is especially important to protect since it is exactly in this context that erosion of rights is likely to start. . .

A recent Supreme Court ruling may well force many institutions to abandon or recast their speech codes. But even if the impact of speech codes diminishes, the rationales that have been offered to justify them remain illustrative of the atmosphere on many campuses. Duke University's Stanley Fish, for example, has defended restrictions on expression on the grounds that free speech is not a neutral concept, but a "political construct" currently in the way of liberal-left purposes. . .

Speech codes are merely one example of how campuses have become politicized in recent years. . . In the last few years, people intent on using the curriculum and the classroom to advance a political agenda have become very frank about their purpose. In an article in Harvard Educational Review, a professor at the University of Wisconsin rejects the code words, such as "critical pedagogy," that have been used to veil politicized teaching. She insists that professors like herself be open about their intention "to appropriate public resources (classrooms, school supplies, teacher/professor salaries, academic requirements and degrees) to further various 'progressive' political agendas."

In some quarters there is no longer any question of whether to use the classroom for political purpose; the only question is how most effectively to do so. A professor at Princeton University tells the New York Times, "I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes." A teacher and graduate student at Duke University writes in College English that teaching students to think critically will not necessarily bring them to "radical visions of the world." To instill such a vision, "the teacher must recognize that he or she must influence (perhaps manipulate is the more accurate word) students' values through charisma or power."

These views of teaching -- and the ethic they imply -- are a sharp departure from the way faculty members have traditionally viewed their responsibilities in the classroom. They represent as well an entirely new attitude toward students and their rights. It used to be thought that they, like professors, should have academic freedom. They did not come to the college or university to be indoctrinated in the views of their professors. They came to learn about a variety of views on a host of subjects, to explore and challenge a wealth of ideas on how to live and what to value.

Students who find themselves in a classroom where the professor has a political purpose are unlikely to have this kind of experience. For one thing, debate between student and professor is by nature an unequal affair. A genuine clash of viewpoints usually requires a spirit of generosity on the part of the professor, a willingness, for example, to help students flesh out incompletely formed ideas, even if they are different from the professor's own.

Students can object to politicized teaching, of course. They can disagree with professors. But to do so is to take a risk. "Every effort by instructors to impose their own political orientation can pressure students to express ideas not because they believe them," observes Derek Bok, retired president of Harvard, "but because they fear they may otherwise get a poor grade or experience other unpleasant consequences." . . .

Orthodoxy in the classroom may not bring about as many conversions as its proponents would wish. But even when it does not change minds, it is cause for concern. How are students who have to sit through classes in which they cannot say what they think to learn about the value of intellectual honesty? How can students who have to tolerate teachers with whom they cannot disagree be blamed if they come to think of college courses as something simply to be endured, gotten over, gotten through, preferably with as little effort as possible?

If students hear repeatedly that all human endeavor is, at bottom, nothing more than a struggle for power, who can blame them for falling into cynicism? . . .

Not every student who experiences politicized teaching becomes a cynic, of course; but even those who do not pay a price. They are not learning how exciting intellectual give-and-take can be or how stimulating is a real engagement with ideas. In humanities classes, they are not even beginning to learn all that these disciplines have to teach. History, literature and philosophy are about the choices we have to make in life and the ways we give our existence meaning. They are about the delight we take in nature, the tragedies we inevitably encounter and about the power of human imagination to create beauty from all these things, even from despair. The humanities are about far more than race, class and gender, but many students never know it.

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