Political Correctness: My Top Ten

When commentator John Stossel was at ABC News, he said that talking to his colleagues about their bias was like talking to fish about water—“What water? It’s just what we live in.” Academia, too, lives in a sea of bias—called political correctness—and its members have trouble seeing it.

The term “politically correct” comes straight out of the Soviet Union, which ruthlessly enforced the expression of only “politically correct” attitudes. But the term has lost its distinction. It’s just “what we live in.”

To restore some insight, I’d like to share with readers my top ten “politically correct disasters” in academe. Some people won’t see anything wrong with these, but others will understand.

10. Approaching the Qur’an. Sensitivity and tolerance are supposed to be hallmarks of today’s “diverse” university. But sensitivity to the survivors of the jihadist attack on the World Trade Center was missing when, just months after 9/11, incoming freshmen at UNC-Chapel Hill were required to read Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations, by Michael Sells. This book gives a rosy and unbalanced view of Islam’s holy book.

As George Leef wrote at the time, “Nothing of value is learned from a study of the pleasant parts of the Qur’an.”

9.  The American Indian Advantage. Elizabeth Warren, now a senator from Massachusetts, claimed to be an American Indian while at two universities, Harvard and Penn. The blonde, blue-eyed law professor may or may not have used her ethnic status to advance her career, but she did claim to be 1/32 Cherokee, without supportive evidence, and Harvard reported her as a minority in its federally mandated statistics.

Similarly, Ward Churchill’s meteoric rise at the University of Colorado’s flagship campus (even though he had not earned a doctorate) was undoubtedly aided by claiming to be a member of an Indian tribe—also without documentation. Churchill’s career later fell with a thud after his flamboyant writing about 9/11 led to a state investigation that turned up plagiarism.

These two stories illustrate that academics are hell-bent on ethnic diversity (and in Churchill’s case seemingly oblivious of plagiarism until it is put before their eyes).

8. Replacing the Constitution. In 2007, Judith Blau, a sociology professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, organized a student convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. As Jay Schalin reported at the time, the new constitution’s preamble had phrases like “working for collective rights will create a more harmonious society.” Its body, wrote Schalin, “consisted of a litany of liberal causes, including abolition of the death penalty and the promotion of multiculturalism, gay marriage, and environmentalism.”

Instead of getting rid of our Constitution, Blau and her students might usefully have explored why it is the oldest written constitution still in effect.

7. Critical Thinking. Is any phrase more over-used on campuses than “critical thinking”? As retired Temple University professor Stephen Zelnick has written, “critical thinking” was supposed to separate “developing good thinking habits from the study of any particular body of knowledge.” But today critical thinking is primarily thinking that is “critical of American values and institutions, a mode of thought that reflects the left orthodoxy of the university community itself.”

To illustrate his point, Zelnick discussed a freshman composition course that used an anthology called Rethinking the Color Line. It had writings by many leftists, but not by a single African-American conservative such as Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele.

6. Yale Sex Week (and other campus Sex Weeks). Officially justified to promote safe sex, in 2010 the nine-day event featured pornographic filmmakers, sex consultants, a sex therapist, and sex workers (one of whom has been an escort, a stripper, and a “professional dominatrix”). Nathan Harden gave a day-by-day account on the Phi Beta Cons website. One speaker’s goal was to “challenge gender norms through porn,” while another discussed masturbation and “educated students about an array [of] sleeves and plastic gizmos designed to enhance solitary bliss.”

Duke University has a sex week, too, and it used to showcase the Sex Workers’ Art Show (now defunct). Jay Schalin reported on the art show at Duke in 2008. One of the tamer acts: “A bare-breasted stripper sang a lewd song about Saint Bridget of Ireland, with lyrics mocking the act of ascension as she climbed to the top of a stripper’s pole.”

5. “Residence Life” at the University of Delaware. This university took campus thought reform to new lows with mandatory indoctrination sessions for students living in residence halls. The aim, wrote Adam Kissel, then vice president of programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), was to “psychologically ‘treat’ and correct the allegedly incorrect thoughts, attitudes, values, beliefs, and habits of the students.” In one-on-one discussions, women were asked such questions as, “When did you discover your sexual identity?”

4. Affirmative Action. Senator Hubert Humphrey once said that he would “eat my hat” if affirmative action turned into quotas—and they did (but he did not). Well-intended efforts to open up education to minorities have turned into catastrophe. They hurt the students who are rejected and those who, with an admissions boost, are accepted.

As Richard Sander and Russell Nieli have made clear, to bring in students who are significantly less capable than the average student at that school means that such students will rarely stand out. They will not become the favorites of professors and they will not do as well as if they had been in a more congenial academic environment. Some of these students would be at the top of the class if they attended a school that had not used quotas or “points” to admit them. Faculty and administrators ignore the logic of what Sander and Nieli say because it undermines the push for diversity, the Holy Grail of politically correct behavior on campus.

3. The Global Warming Campaign. Faculty normally decry any inroads into their control over curriculum. But they didn’t make a peep when 665 college presidents signed a promise to address climate change by cutting down on carbon emissions and “integrating sustainability into their curriculum.”

The intellectual corruption caused by the global warming campaign is, well, chilling. In 2009, leaked emails (“Climategate”) showed that prominent professors did not hesitate to keep works of scholars they disagree with out of peer-reviewed journals. They even tried to boycott a journal for publishing too many skeptical articles.

In a review of climate change research, the respected MIT scientist Richard Lindzen wrote, “In brief, we have the new paradigm where simulation and programs have replaced theory and observation, where government largely determines the nature of scientific activity, and where the primary role of professional societies is the lobbying of the government for special advantage.”

2. The Duke Lacrosse Case. In 2006, three members of the Duke lacrosse team were charged with rape of a black woman whom they had hired as a stripper at a party. The horrendous story fit right into a politically correct narrative—privileged white boys viciously attacking a black female student (from a different school). Tossing out the presumption of innocence, eighty-eight faculty members signed a letter publicly condemning the men and their actions as symbolic of the racism on campus. The president and provost, too, hung them out to dry. But the story was a hoax, the woman has since been arrested for murder, and Duke had to pay millions to settle a libel suit.

The faculty members who had used the occasion to whip up alarm about racism never apologized and were never reprimanded, and Duke’s trustees blithely renewed the contract of the president a few years later.

1. The Larry Summers Affair. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In academia, hell hath no fury like women who have been treated “insensitively.”

In 2005, Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University (a good Democrat, having been treasury secretary under President Clinton) gave an impromptu talk in which he suggested that one possible reason for relatively few women in the high ranks of math and science was genetic. At the top (and bottom) ends of the bell curve of scientific aptitude, there are more men than women, and that might be one factor in underrepresentation of women.

A female biologist at MIT was so outraged that she walked out of the conference, and the National Organization of Women (NOW) demanded Summers’ resignation. Not much later, Summers did resign. Other factors were in play, but this was the spark that ignited the fire that wouldn’t go out.

So, the score: Political correctness: 10. Objectivity and good taste: 0.

(Editor’s note: Readers are encouraged to send in their own nominations for the most politically correct activity in higher education [for possible publication on our site]. The author of the best entry received by April 17 will be sent a copy of Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza or Education in a Free Society, ed. by Anne Husted Burleigh. Send your description to shaw@popecenter.org.)