Free speech with kinder words

January 20, 1995

Annabel Patterson asks that in the often intemperate exchanges over political correctness we should not forget its real achievements. In 1580, Gabriel Harvey, lecturer in rhetoric at Cambridge, published some letters he had exchanged with the poet Edmund Spenser. These included Harvey's "sharpe, and learned Judgement of Earthquakes'', occasioned by the quake of that summer. Towards the end of this irreverent treatise, which attributes earthquakes to flatulence of the planet, Harvey addressed some recent earthquakes in the academic microcosm:

"But I beseech you, what Newes al this while at Cambridge? . . . What?. . . Tully and Demosthenes nothing so much studyed, as they were wonte: . . . Aristotle muche named, but little read: Xenophon and Plato, reckoned amongest Discoursers, and conceited Superficiall fellowes: much verball and sophisticall jangling: little subtile and effectual disputing . . . al inquisitive after Newes, newe Bookes, newe fashions . . . ."

Having been recruited to write a brief account of supposedly catastrophic upheavals in higher education in the United States today, I begin with this diatribe from the end of the 16th century as a way of putting into perspective comparable outcries from contemporaries -- including the role of exaggeration in appealing to a broader public.

The crisis version of the story has been reported by people as diverse as Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind, 1987), Alvin Kernan (The Death of Literature, 1990), Dinesh D'Souza (Illiberal Education, 1991), Gerald Graff (Professing Literature), David Bromwich (Politics by Other Means, 1992), Nat Hentoff (Free Speech for Me -- But Not for Thee, 1992), and most recently, Harold Bloom (The Western Canon), and Richard Bernstein, (Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future.) The last two represent insider and outsider poles of the debate, though they agree on its seriousness: the one an eminent literary critic and doubly-chaired professor of English literature speaking in defence of a lifetime of reading, the other a reporter for the New York Times (though writing as an independent investigator) who might be seen as representing the right of the public to know what is happening in the institutions to which they send their children, or which, through their state taxes, they directly support. What some of these books demonstrate, disastrously for public understanding of these issues, is a convergence, for the purposes of debate, of different phenomena in American society and hence in its educational system -- phenomena which are related at the deeper levels of historical, demographic and economic change, but which are not simply different names for the same thing.

Particularly unhelpful are the grab-bag abstractions of "political correctness'' and "multiculturalism'', the ones on everybody's lips; and their ubiquity has been rendered more pernicious by the fact that they are frequently confused, even in litigation, with each other, with debates on "the canon'' as an ideal in setting or changing curricula, and with the newly newsworthy issue of "sexual harassment'' in the workplace.

"Political correctness'' is, in theory, an attempt to achieve reform of the social structure by creating restraints on language. Given the astonishing agency claimed for language by academics in the late 20th century (from structural linguistics, through the negative logocentrism of deconstruction, through Lacan's rewriting of Freudianism in linguistic terms, and feminist musings on an ecriture feminine), why should this new version of the linguistic turn seem threatening?

"Political correctness'' supposes that the social status and personal happiness of groups who are acknowledged to be underprivileged may be altered by changing the terminology by which they are referred. This concept is often, but not always, naive. Of course it is immensely silly to encourage undergraduates to become litigious over the verbal rough and tumble of dormitory life. But it is far from silly to observe that medical textbooks still in use refer to children with Down's syndrome as "mongolian idiots''. To cite Michael Berube, the proud father of a son with Down's syndrome who thrives in an infinitely more enlightened environment: "There surely were, and are, the most intimate possible relations between the language in which we spoke of Down's and the social practices by which we understood it -- or refused to understand it. You don't have to be a poststructuralist or a postmodernist or a post-anything to get this; all you have to do is meet a parent of a child with Down's Syndrome."

In the same magazine article Berube wrote about his neighbours, also the parents of a Down's baby, who told of going to the local library, ". . . to find out more about their baby's prospects and wading through page after page of outdated information, ignorant generalisations, and pictures of people in mental institutions, face down in their feeding trays. These parents demanded the library get some better material and throw out the garbage they had on their shelves. Was this a 'politically correct' thing for them to do. Damn straight it was. That garbage has had its effects for generations."

"Political correctness'' is only related to "multiculturalism'', fortuitously, by virtue of the fact that much of the sensitivity about epithets in the United States has focused, for good political reasons, on the large and underprivileged segment of society we are now learning to call African-Americans. But "multiculturalism'' has otherwise nothing to do with language or terminology; it refers to the movement in education at all levels to respond positively to the patchwork quilt of the population produced by four centuries of immigration.

At the primary and secondary levels of education this movement is driven by pedagogic necessity -- the necessity of instructing students from immigrant families where English is barely spoken -- and involves complex experimentation in how best to motivate the children and communicate with their parents. Will Mexican children learn mathematics better if instructed in Spanish? Will classrooms where the teacher sends notes home in seven different languages function better at the social level if all the ethnic holidays are celebrated in class and their cultural significance discussed? Such experiments are limited by profound disagreements as to what we are trying to accomplish by education. Is the objective to preserve every single cultural heritage intact, or to assist these children in being assimilated? But given the low priority given to primary and secondary education in the US budget, and recent warning signals that the ideal of assimilation will turn politically nasty (as in the recent California vote to deny the children of illegal immigrants both education and health care), the structural effect of such debates is probably slighter than it should be.

At the post-secondary level, pedagogic necessity is replaced to a large extent by guilt and self-interest: guilt in the form of an unspoken reparation programme, by which higher education is to make amends for the damage sustained in the past to black slaves and their descendants, and, as an extension of the former, to the native populations of both Americas; self-interest in the form of groups of fully-assimilated and quite privileged students and teachers who believe that their "culture'' constitutes a subject of historical interest and importance, for which time, space and resources ought now to be provided. In this context "culture'' has become indistinguishable from "identity'', in part due to the historical role of feminism in legitimising separatism on university campuses, an achievement rapidly extended not only to African-American but also to gay or queer "studies''.

Latin-American, Asian-American, Native American studies share a similar rationale, and in theory the sectarian process could continue indefinitely. In practice it is, and will continue to be, limited by pragmatic concerns. Proponents of these developments call it diversity; opponents call it tribalism. But the rhetoric on both sides is in excess of the facts. The 1993 MLA Directory listed around 85 African, African-American or black studies programmes, (out of over 2,000 universities and colleges), and only 16 American-Indian programmes, 14 Chicano, 13 Latin-American or Caribbean, and seven Mexican-American, most of these based, unsurprisingly, in California, Texas or New Mexico.

As with most "programmes'' created in the interstices between established departments, "line'' appointments exclusively to the programme are the exception rather than the rule. This entails for those who head such developments, and must bargain for faculty time with other administrators, a state of permanent curricular and fiscal uncertainty. When "line'' appointments are made possible, recruitment is hampered by a shortage of qualified candidates (because of the youth of the field as a field), the need to inveigle them away from other institutions (thereby intensifying the market aspect of the transaction), and, perhaps most debilitating for programmes that celebrate ethnic rather than sexual identity, the debate about whether you have to be what you study in order to legitimise your perspective. It is at such moments the ideal of "multiculturalism'' may indeed encounter "political correctness'', as the anxiety of the recruitment process produces a restraint of debate that encourages mutual suspicions. In my experience, the majority of faculty genuinely support the existence or formation of such programmes in principle, so long as their own projects or priorities are not thereby significantly constrained.

Where, then, do "we'' stand today? As myself an "alien resident'' of the United States, though brought up in Britain and a product of the Canadian university system, I inhabit by circumstances and temperament several, but I hope not all, of the categories clustered at the end of Gabriel Harvey's diatribe: double-faced Jani, changeable chameleons, Jacks of both sides. To me it appears that both "political correctness'' and "multiculturalism'' (clearly understood as separate issues) have had as many beneficial effects on higher education as they have given rise to excessive, erroneous or shabby behaviour. Such behaviour, the source of favourite anecdotes by neoconservatives and liberals alike, is becoming rarer. Federal courts in Michigan and Wisconsin have already struck down as unconstitutional the "speech codes'' established at those state universities. And when the Christmas book displays feature a witty collection of children's fairy tales retold in politically-correct language, one infers that the public temper is self-correcting.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that serious damage has been sustained by individuals. Injustice was done to the young Israeli student at the University of Pennsylvania, who was disciplined for calling his disruptive African-American female colleagues "water-buffaloes"; more serious injustice was done to the 63-year-old professor of religion at the Chicago Theological Seminary who was formally and publicly reprimanded for "creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment'' in his classroom because one woman complained that a Talmudic case study he had cited to illustrate the concept of accidental sin, was offensive to her as a woman.

And implicitly under the banner of reparation or revenge, pain is inflicted constantly in the academic press on those who are taken, however symbolically, to represent the bad old days, by those who no longer feel themselves bound to observe the civilities (or the rules of evidence) that used to pertain. Heresy in manners once more accompanies the reign of hearsay as, according to Harvey, it did in Cambridge at the end of the 16th century. It can only be hoped that these 1990s earthquakes of the mind are also the harbingers (or the costs we must prepay) of another era of exuberance in many of the arts and knowledges.

Annabel Patterson is Karl Young professor of English at Yale University.

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