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Uncivil discourse



The message cried out from posters around the University of Maryland College Park campus. Had it declared, "All men are potential rapists," and that had been all, few would have noticed.

But these posters, distributed by nine women calling themselves the "Women's Coalition for Change," included a list of men's names taken at random from a student directory. These posters were noticed.

The women, who refused to give their names to the Diamondback, the campus newspaper, explained to a reporter that they "felt very angry" about assaults on women and "wanted to redirect the blame to the men."

None of the men, according to the paper, had ever been charged with assault. At least one has threatened to sue.

The women are all students in a course called "Contemporary Issues in Feminist Art," taught by Josephine Withers, an associate professor. The Diamondback, in reporting the stunned reaction to the postings, quoted Ms. Withers as declaring the project "wildly successful . . . It was intended to open up dialogue. Sometimes that dialogue can be painful . . . That's OK. It's OK for people to be mad."

Ms. Withers' course and the project are products of a movement that began about 25 years ago with "women's studies." While the program opened important new perspectives in higher education, it also fostered acrimonious and unseemly debate.

Some campuses, to keep a semblance of balance, moved to institute "men's studies," which feminists dismissed as absurd. Any courses not part of women's studies, they claimed, were men's studies by definition. At College Park, a male professor was bumped from an honors course because the administrator felt the students needed a female "role model."

Then there were the attacks launched on classical love poetry written by men. No such expression, some feminist critics and teachers contended, could be sincere since men ultimately express erotic affection only through "penetration" of the loved one.

In the '30s, the politically correct party line required teachers and students to determine how well a text served "the working class." Today, the politically correct line requires that a text, a course, a discipline be measured by how well it serves minorities or women.

Academic fashion commonly changes in reaction to error. The current favoring of women and minorities contrasts dramatically with the nearly universal past prejudice against both groups. The enormity of guilt in the academic community accounts, in good part, for the widespread modern excesses of tolerance that excuse misconduct.

Further eroding classical academic values was the post-World War II boom in higher education. Rogue professors proliferated, getting away with plagiarism, laboratory fraud, distortion of credentials, abuse of students, failure to teach or perform normal duties and other ethical lapses.

Inept, callow administrators protected them to the extent that the public came to believe that professors possess a unique immunity from normal accountability.

Most seasoned faculty and deans, supported by sensible students, deplore the disintegration of the classical curriculum, the degeneration of civil discourse. A sober editorial in the Diamondback, in response to the action by Professor Withers' students, expressed the hope that "the campus does not get consumed in the politics" of this absurd designation of the entire male student population.

Certainly it would be a travesty if the Women's Coalition for Change jeopardized the proposed establishing of a degree in women's studies at College Park, a course of studies presumably not shaped by the extremists. Ever since American studies established itself, a half-century ago, as a powerful and respectable way of integrating learning across disciplines, leading institutions have sought to promote comparable "area studies."

The ambition of College Park to take its place among academically superior universities calls for responsible campus forces to take decisive measures against this barbaric provocation, to remind offending students and faculty that all owe loyalty to civilized principles.

Morris Freedman is a retired professor of English at the University of Maryland College Park and a former editor of Commentary.

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