May 1993By Philip E. Devine
Philip E. Devine teaches philosophy and Western civilization at Providence College in Rhode Island. He is the author of The Ethics of Homicide and Relativism, Nihilism, and God.
Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. By Gerald Graff. Norton. 214 pages. $19.95.
The academic world has been haunted by the specter of political correctness. In some eyes, the academy has become an "island of repression in a sea of freedom" in which leftover 1960s radicals use speech codes and accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and even "insensitivity" to impose as an orthodoxy a mutant form of Leftism which took Nietzsche rather than Marx as its standard bearer. Others argue that the whole business has been a red herring from the Right, designed to distract us from the persistence of racism and other social ills.
At a small state college where this reviewer once taught, the politically correct procured a "consent decree" requiring faculty attendance at indoctrination sessions. More recently, an attempt to hold a discussion of contraception at Jesuit-run Boston College was disrupted by a history professor distributing condoms. And Brown University has invited to its campus a radical feminist "philosopher" who believes that dialogue between men and women is impossible, and thus refuses to take questions from males at her lectures. The p.c. phenomenon is real, though my impression is that it was most powerful before it received its name.
The politically correct did not invent academic intolerance. Nor did they prevent something of a conservative renaissance, which has enjoyed the patronage of powerful foundations and think tanks and until recently the support of the federal government (the notorious battle between the neo- and paleo-conservatives in part involved struggles over patronage). Indeed, the prominent role of the followers of Milton Friedman in departments of business and economics is not entirely due to the strength of their arguments.
A dispassionate examination of the academic scene reveals a complex and many-sided war, in which the power of the politically correct varies from foundation to foundation, publisher to publisher, campus to campus, and department to department. There is no truth in the notion, promoted by both the politically correct and their bitterest opponents, that almost all academics or intellectuals think the same way.
Gerald Graff is a founding member of Teachers for a Democratic Culture, an organization formed to protect politically correct academics from attacks. And he follows the politically correct line in some respects: He denies the reality of the political correctness phenomenon, sees nothing but intolerance in objections to the use of public money to fund slashing attacks on the sensibilities of hard-pressed taxpayers, and rejects as offensive the question, "Is Homosexuality a Disease?" But if we define political correctness as a sanctimonious and intolerant form of relativism -- one that preaches diversity but anathematizes believers in traditional values -- then he has broken decisively with this sort of educational philosophy.
Graff is no relativist, and believes firmly in the capacity of truth to triumph in a free and open encounter. And, far from attempting to impose some sort of political line on struggling students, he wants to control the pressures that impel them to conform to their professors' ideologies -- to write Marxist papers for Marxist professors, conservative papers for conservative professors, and feminist papers for feminist professors. Against those who would turn the American educational system into one or another form of consciousness-raising, he poses a devastating question: What do we do with students and colleagues who don't want their consciousness manipulated?
Graff has two main arguments, one of them far stronger than the other. One is a defense of the primacy of theory (and politics) over literature. He himself, he reports, only became interested in literature by reading critical debates over Huckleberry Finn and noticing the larger social issues at stake in these debates. And his teaching of Conrad's Heart of Darkness focuses on the charge that Conrad's racism deprives his writing of its supposed universal relevance.
Indeed, there is nothing wrong with discussing political themes as they arise in literature, in a way that engages political sympathies. I cannot see how one could teach Yeats or Brecht without doing so. But one can love the poetry of Pound and Shelley while finding their politics abhorrent or (perhaps a harder case) silly. If one has a feeling for literature, politically (or theologically) inspired criticism can expand one's understanding of it, and even lead to an enjoyment of texts that once seemed opaque. But at some point, critical debates have to take second place to an appreciation of the text in and of itself, to an unblinkered recognition of what it has to say.
Graff's better argument concerns the structure of the university and the failure of dialogue there and elsewhere. The movement from the homogeneous college devoted to the transmission of traditional culture to the heterogeneous university at least equally concerned with dissonance or innovation has proceeded by growth in size. New schools of thought have been given departments of their own -- a process that has produced departments of black and women's (the next step is gay/lesbian) studies. But resource constraints and the impact of so much diversity on the student mind -- which is ill-prepared to understand, let alone evaluate, so many conflicting perspectives -- have made this solution no longer feasible. Thus Graff joins with Alasdair MacIntyre in proposing a system of higher education that will enable us to take conflicts seriously and address them intelligently, rather than covering them up with enforced conformity or unstructured diversity.
But a difficult issue remains. What issues are debatable, what points of view are worthy of consideration, what intellectual equipment is a condition of taking part, and what argumentative tactics are legitimate? More importantly: Who is to decide these questions, and by what criteria? Any answer risks excluding legitimate viewpoints, but failure to give an answer means not debate but acrimony and chaos. An educational institution without a center is not even tolerant: rather, students and junior faculty end up caught in the ideological crossfire. Moreover, no one is in fact limitlessly open-minded.
The influence of John Dewey threatens two sorts of indefensible exclusion: a forgetfulness of classical antiquity, including the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, and the silencing of voices representing the Christian and Jewish traditions, particularly when they threaten to obstruct the prevailing p.c. agenda. The duty of politically incorrect intellectuals, including those involved with the NOR, is clear. We must accept Graff's invitation and express our views as eloquently and as charitably as we can, supporting them with the best arguments of which we are capable. The alternative to reasoned dialogue is either the stifling of important voices or frenzied and destructive cultural war.