Down with DWEMs

John Sutherland

  • ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education by Charles Sykes
    St Martin’s, 304 pp, $9.95, December 1989, ISBN 0 312 03916 6
  • Tenured Redicals: How politics has corrupted our Higher Education by Roger Kimball
    HarperCollins, 222 pp, $9.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 06 092049 1

The American press is waging a campaign against American universities, assisted by a barrage of muckraking books. It would be naive or dishonest to claim that there are no follies or crying abuses in the country’s higher education. Few institutions can have given their enemies more ammunition than American universities have over the last few years. Nevertheless the critics propose drastic remedies that go beyond any rational scheme of reform into political vendetta and witch-hunt. In the worst of worlds, the result could be a repeat of the Fifties purge which emasculated the higher education system for a generation.

The basic problem is much the same as it was in the Eisenhower years. America has for a decade had a confident conservative administration which sees the academy (with certain exceptions like business schools and religious colleges) as a stronghold of liberalism, out of step with the average voter and taxpayer. The ideologues who frame the party’s program and its election issues are provoked by the fact that universities are perceived to have moved faster than the centre of American society in implementing title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enjoining equal opportunity and affirmative action to achieve it. Three successive Republican administrations have studiously neglected this ordinance. It comes down to gut feelings. At its simplest, liberals like ‘diversity’ while conservatives hate ‘quotas’. At its most abstract, the debate touches on the degree to which American culture is unitary – a blanket or a quilt. At its most complex, the issue is how to adjust the traditional curriculum, particularly the Humanities curriculum, to the needs of a changing stock of American humanity (the latest census reveals that ethnic minorities, particularly in young age groups, are growing explosively).

The recent attack on universities was triggered by freshman requirements at an élite West Coast university. Allegations that the Western Culture course at Stanford was ‘racist’ began to surface in 1986. Like other institutions on the Pacific Rim, Stanford had so many ‘minority’ students as to make the term meaningless: this year, the college’s entering class of a thousand or so breaks down as 25 per cent Asian, 17 per cent Hispanic, 10 per cent African American, 1 per cent Native American. Should not the foundation course reflect – or at least gesture towards – the diverse cultural origins and gender mix of the students obliged to take it? Whose foundation is it? Objectively, the argument raised issues which were in themselves useful for the students to debate. Why are Great Books courses dominated by male writers? Where is the centre and where the margins of American culture? Why is the canon mainly a Humanities problem? (Scientists don’t agonise about their great texts being predominantly Anglo-European.) Can an African-American read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a ‘great book’ and nothing more?

There was much agitation. Banners were unfurled (mainly for the benefit of the press) proclaiming ‘Get your racist education at Stanford.’ The acronym DWEM (dead white European male) and the neologism ‘freshpeople’ were giggled over at dinner parties. Jesse Jackson visited the campus and was greeted by five hundred students chanting ‘Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Western Culture’s got to go’ (the course, they meant – but it sounded more ominous than that). William Bennett, Secretary for Education, also came to visit the campus. He is the author of To reclaim a heritage: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education (1984). Bennett thought that Western Culture had to stay and said so, face to face with Stanford’s President on public television.

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