Are We Stuck with the Politically Correct University?

Does “political correctness” predominate in American higher education? If so, is that a bad thing? And if it’s a bad thing, can anything be done about it?

A new collection of sixteen essays, The Politically Correct University, digs deeply into those questions. The editors (Robert Maranto of the University of Arkansas, Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, and Richard Redding of Chapman University School of Law) conclude that there is a serious shortage of conservative, libertarian, and neoliberal thinkers in the academy, leading to an education that for many students has gaping holes in some places and ridiculous over-emphasis in others.

Specifically, Maranto, Hess, and Redding identify four social costs to the fact that most college and university faculties are overwhelmingly leftist in their political and philosophical orientation. That leftist (i.e. politically correct) orientation:

  • limits the phenomena studied and questions asked when you have a faculty that is ideologically non-diverse.
  • delegitimizes academic expertise because many Americans now see the professoriate as biased.
  • hinders colleges and universities in their goal of producing capable, thoughtful citizens.
  • dulls the intellectual vibrancy of the academy because the monoculture of acceptable opinion at many schools repels some bright people who would have otherwise found the academic world congenial.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to demonstrating that the problem of imbalance and politicization is not merely a “right-wing myth” as some people allege, but is a reality. Some on the far-left dismiss it as a “Manufactured Controversy,” while others take a more nuanced position, as in the book Closed Minds? which I reviewed here. After reading The Politically Correct University, it would be hard for any objective individual to believe that there is no problem of ideological imbalance in our higher education system.

Several of the chapters the editors have included to make their case are rather familiar material—for example the data that voter registration shows a preponderance of leftist party affiliation ranging from substantial to infinite depending on the school and academic department.

I’m certainly not suggesting that such information isn’t enlightening, but I’ll concentrate on two chapters written by professors who blow the whistle on their own disciplines.

University of Virginia English professor Paul Cantor writes about the unfortunate effects of political correctness in college English departments. Today, under the influence of the diversity crusade, English departments teach a far wider array of works than they did 50 years ago. Unfortunately, Cantor maintains, they tend to teach everything the same way.

Cantor writes, “But unfortunately the broadening of what is taught has often been accompanied by a narrowing of how it is taught….[L]iterature on our campuses today is predominantly analyzed in terms of the categories of race, class, and gender. Authors are viewed as participating in the exploitation of various minorities and subordinate groups, or rebelling against it. Works of literature are generally not read as expressions of genuine insights, but as reflections of the racial, social, and sexual preferences of their authors….”

When Cantor was a student, he observes, English departments were known for lively infighting over the best analytical approach to take. Scholars used to struggle to extract new insights from a familiar canon of works, then argue why their interpretation of, say, King Lear should be accepted. Now they pretty much say “the same old thing” about a kaleidoscope of new works. The obsession with identity politics and victimization may be satisfying to professors who want their students to ape their political views, but it saps courses of intellectual vitality.

Equally revealing is a chapter by John McWhorter, who began his career as a professor of linguistics. (He’s now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.) His contribution shows how political correctness—specifically the notion that “black English” must be connected with African languages—has absurd and damaging results. McWhorter explains that this politically correct idea leads academics to suppose that black students are in a sense “bilingual” and “in need of special assistance in learning to read the foreign tongue they encounter in school.”

Therefore, instead of recommending reading instruction methods that work well, such as the phonics-based system developed by Professor Siegfried Engelmann, the black education establishment wastes time on nonsensical ideas like starting black children off with “black English” materials and later transitioning them into standard English.

McWhorter puts his finger on the essence of the problem, namely that many black academics feel that to be “authentic” they must be oppositional. That mindset has adverse consequences in college classrooms and beyond.

The book’s case that political correctness is a malignancy doing serious damage to our higher education system will, I believe, persuade almost anyone that this is a real problem. But what can be done? The last section of the book deals with possible remedies.

Steve Balch, founder and now president emeritus of the National Association of Scholars argues that the politically correct “nearly closed intellectual shop” that we find at many schools could never have come about except for badly deficient oversight by those responsible for running them. Administrators and trustees blithely went along with the idea that the professoriate could be trusted to police itself. Now that we know otherwise, what to do?

Balch says that we must educate trustees, donors, and administrators that they need not sit around like potted plants while the faculty becomes increasingly radical and politicized. Trustees need to understand that their responsibilities don’t end with fundraising and cheerleading. Donors must learn that they can do more than just “walk away in disgust.”

One of Balch’s suggestions that I think particularly fruitful would be for boards of trustees to take the initiative by creating academic advisory councils composed of distinguished scholars. Such councils would be charged with investigating the state of intellectual practice at the school. When organizations like the National Association of Scholars or the Pope Center say that a college’s faculty is so saturated in PC that it is doing a disservice to the students, the criticism is often pooh-poohed. If it came from senior academics it would carry far more weight.

In her chapter, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, writes that alumni can and should be energized to “keep a vigilant eye on the breadth and quality of academic programs.” Concerned alumni can blow the whistle when they see that their alma mater is falling into the swamp of political correctness. For example, a group of Macalester College alums have formed the “Macalester Alumni of Moderation” and seek to restore the kind of balanced teaching they knew as students. (Roger Peterson wrote about the Mac Mods here.)

Another way for alumni to combat PC domination is for them to target their donations, earmarking the funds for specific programs that aren’t in the PC empire.

In the book’s concluding chapter, former St. John’s College president John Agresto makes a plea to professors in the liberal arts. Agresto observes that many of those professors seem interested mainly in telling their students that certain ideas are good and other ideas are bad. Instead, he suggests, “Let’s go back to an older understanding of the liberal arts as the home not of sophistication but of naivete. Let us again see the liberal arts project as an attempt to draw from books and ideas and statesmen and philosophers all the wisdom they might offer.”

Socrates, Agresto points out, questioned people because he truly wanted to find out what they thought and why. That tradition, he admits, won’t be easily rekindled. “None of this will change the mind of even one professor who thinks that deconstructing literature, debunking history, or dethroning all idols but his own is what his job is all about. But at least we can tell students that those professors who think that their views are wisdom itself are the enemies of their education.”

In sum, there is no quick and easy cure for PC, but only a variety of long, hard battles.