Political Correctness and Higher Education: British and American Perspectives

April 9, 2009

In Anglo-American universities where it was born, "political correctness" spurs self-righteousness and bile. For the progressive Left - a politically correct term to exclude social democrats - political correctness is a reactionary assault on colleagues who work for policies to support access to a public institution that long excluded all but the privileged few. For the Right and the old Left, the term PC signifies the fundamentalist deconstructionists who shifted the focus from the art and overt message of a "text" to the author's imputed underwear or, better, "unaware". Having demolished the logic of any curriculum, the progressives next insisted on removing the amplifying skills of the middle classes (numeracy, deft handling of standard English, geography) from the grasp of the varied students now arriving.

John Lea, a sociologist who has spent three decades in higher education in Britain and the US, has chosen, through his seven chapters on the US, to minimise and deflect reflex passions. However, he does acknowledge that the stakes can be high in the war of political correctness in both countries.

The foreword by Jonathan Zimmerman evokes the tragic protagonist of Philip Roth's novel, The Human Stain, to limn the consequences of politically incorrect speech - mere speech. And then there is Lea's book cover. It reproduces the colourful 15th-century painting by Pedro Berruguete of Saint Dominic gently presiding over an auto-da-fe.

In the seven US chapters, Lea says his focus is on "what the term (PC) itself invokes", rather than on exploring PC behaviour. He says he will cover the years when PC became part of "the everyday discourse of educational debate", namely the late 1980s through the early 1990s.

However, to leap forward, when Lea reaches the UK in chapter 8, his unit of analysis becomes institutions, and he draws heavily on Times Higher Education's reporting, protagonist authors being too few. He provides the reader with a convincing take on how the UK Government has handed influence over the academy to quangos, a relentless bureaucracy that is closed to appeals and beyond influence by the higher education constituency or the electorate because it is "independent" of the Government, and thus the electorate and the cite universitaire alike. These surveillance organisations, Lea says, perform social engineering by scripting communication and so limiting it, and by a choice of success indicators followed by surveillance. These four chapters are a valuable analysis and should be read by UK academics.

In the US section, Lea examines the meanings of American "political correctness" through the writings of significant academics on both sides of the canon, and of selected polemicists. Following his overview, which touches on the postmodernist denial of truth and objectivity, he examines the reactions of his chosen six scholars to PC and to the conservative counter-attack, following which the political contours of the debate are extracted and elaborated. He also devotes chapters to free speech, illiberal multiculturalism and the victims of reverse discrimination, ending his consideration of the US with a chapter of selections from semi-structured interviews with eight US educators about such policies.

However, an even-handed use of long quotations for the material of the American chapters, followed by a calm excavation of meaning, albeit with some recourse to major subject scholars, cheats the reader of Lea's far more incisive and wider-ranging voice. "Fulcrum" topics including the generally unqualified born-again relativism of the activist American Left, or Kantian versus consequentialist ethics, where Lea could have used a wider and deeper but not necessarily more dense literature, need more concentrated exposition. His choice of method means Lea cannot delineate the role of massification in the US conservatives' complaint that higher education was being diluted. After all, administrators in North America opened doors to the disciplines that could be taught to huge classes - the PC disciplines - and not to the rationed professions or to science, technology, mathematics and engineering.

One can question, moreover, the utility of Lea's bookends for political correctness taken as temporal, lived reality. In 1975, Malcolm Bradbury published The History Man, a satirical tale of a self-servingly radical sociologist that inoculated its many readers in Britain's post-1950s universities against charismatic celebrity figures who were consciously postmodern in work and politics, but who held exclusive secret rights to a standpoint from which to reduce other people to socio-political-sexual stereotypes.

For the present, I have a news item from November 2008, when the student union's executive council at Carleton University in Ottawa voted unanimously to abandon its long-time support for a cystic fibrosis charity when wrongly informed by a male science student that cystic fibrosis was a disease of white males.

Political Correctness and Higher Education: British and American Perspectives

By John Lea. Routledge, 296pp, £80.00 and £24.99. ISBN 9780415962582 and 2599. Published 20 November 2008

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