Black and white

January 7, 2000

I read the article by Nadia Lovell ("A case of mistaken identities", THES, December 10) with sympathy but no great surprise: she has unfortunately become a victim of political correctness in one of its most overt manifestations.

One of its key features - the "overly generalising tendencies" noted by Lovell - makes it both intellectually easier and emotionally more attractive than the rigorous debate and academic enquiry that are supposed to characterise the quality of discussion in higher education.

One reason I left my post teaching social policy and social work was precisely the kind of experience described by Lovell. Political correctness focuses on power and the alleged extent of white oppression of blacks. The fact that the debates take place in an historical and political vacuum makes it possible to side-step any inconvenient issues and provokes precisely the kind of polarised and simplistic world view ("us" and "them") identified by Lovell.

When all kinds of barbaric and uncivilised behaviour can be excused or even championed on the grounds that it is part of a cultural heritage then it is not surprising that attempts in the academic arena to question and explain such practices are denounced as oppressive, colonial or more mildly, discriminatory.

Lovell suggests that some sympathy could be extended to students because they "may view universities as an extension of essentially racist social institutions". I would advise her not to pursue this line of thought. If students are to enter higher education, they should be prepared to have their assumptions questioned and to defend their ideas with rational debate and critical analysis. If, on the other hand, they are motivated by envy, distrust and hostility towards the institution and its staff, they will inevitably sabotage the curriculum, undermine the lecturers and silence potential dissenting voices among students. The result is an impoverished and emotionally fraught learning environment.

My advice is: check applicants carefully and if they cannot accept the ground rules for studying, they should not be accepted on courses in the first place. In the early and mid-1990s, political correctness did a lot of damage to social work education and practice. I hope other disciplines can learn from social work's mistakes.

Frankie Heywood Brentwood, Essex

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