Princeton Diary

Alan Ryan

The academic scandals and quarrels that filled last year’s newspapers have been driven off the front page by more urgent matters: President Bush’s troubles with Pat Buchanan, General Motors’ record-breaking losses of $4.5 billion, and the usual va et vient of an election year, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education has lost its lustre as his horror stories have been found not to stand up to dispassionate investigation, while Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals catches less attention now that the tenured radicals are spending less time poisoning the minds of the young than dealing with deficits which could reach $50 million a year or more at Yale and Columbia.

The quarrels rumble on, however, with a thin trickle of books, articles and news stories on Political Correctness – whether it exists, where it was last spotted, who is lying about whom. (The best guide is Paul Berman’s Debating PC, culled from the contributions of George Will, Dinesh D’Souza, Stanley Fish, and others of the usual suspects.) The National Association of Scholars, formed to fight the illiberal plague, keeps up a light drizzle of complaint; Stanley Fish and friends have halfheartedly organised a resistance. But the life has gone out of the row; when universities are trying to keep a roof over the syllabuses they presently teach, there’s less room for stand-up conflicts over the content of ‘Civ 101’.

The mood in academic life is sour. There are innumerable practical problems at every level of higher education, and their intractability probably does more to spoil the atmosphere than intellectual disagreement does. Like everything else in America, educational problems are made nastier by the social disintegration of the black community. Getting enough black students through high school and into college seems beyond us. Every black schoolchild knows that a young black male has a higher chance of ending up in jail than in college, while for those inclined to blame everything on the kind of family in which black children are increasingly reared – no permanently present, fully-employed adult males to provide role models – the fact that black women are now making it into college while black men are not, is just one more symptom of the gap between female competence and employability and male fecklessness. Once black students enroll, they are more likely to drop out than are white students, and more likely to have academic and other problems while enrolled, and nobody knows what can be done about it. Well-meant programmes to help black students through college only add to the pressures on those students, but ‘benign neglect’ isn’t an option.

Even aside from race, doubts about affirmative action and shortage of money, universities and colleges are plagued by anxieties about the ability of their students to benefit from higher education. The quality of most students who do make it to college is dreadfully low. The top 5 per cent of American high-school graduates is as good as the college-going cohort anywhere in the world, and American graduate education is the world’s best. But with forty-odd per cent of school leavers going to some sort of college or university, the spectacularly underprepared outnumber the good and the adequate by about three to one. A lot of higher education is higher only in the sense that students get it after they have left high school. The City University of New York has finally rebelled against awarding baccalaureate degrees to students who can’t pass high-school maths and history courses – though the price of doing so is that the university will be even more heavily embroiled in remedial teaching than it already is.

These are the miseries of university systems with high standards and great traditions. There are more sordid problems. All over the country, colleges offer business studies and commerce courses at a standard that would disgrace an old-fashioned secretarial college – and those are the places that bother to offer courses at all. There are hundreds of suits against fly-by-night operations which have taken students’ fees, often paid out of borrowed money, and decamped without even pretending to teach their victims anything. Though it is true that the American higher education system is vastly better than the British in terms of its accessibility to the hard-up and the rough diamonds, it is plagued by corruption and incompetence.

Yet the American belief that Helvetius was right, that l’éducation peut tout remains intact. It’s not just that Harvard alumni smirk about having gone to the world’s best university, Princeton alumni burst into tears at the sound of ‘Old Nassau’, and Chicago alumni believe they are defending Western civilisation against the barbarian hordes. There is a widespread belief that what goes on in universities matters enormously, that if universities lose their way, the republic is in danger. It is a strange belief for a generally anti-intellectual society to hold, but it explains why the ‘political correctness’ debate arouses such passion.

The conviction that unites Left and Right (though these terms don’t really pick up the distinction any more than ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ do) is that what happens in the humanities departments of colleges and universities is pregnant with great good or great evil for society at large. The fate of ‘the canon’, the prospects for multicultural education, the prevalence of feminist interpretations of literature generate an astonishing excitement. Rows about ‘political correctness’, campus speech codes, the membership of the council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the grant-awarding policies of the National Endowment for the Arts raise a colossal noise.

On the face of it, this seems more or less mad. Construed sociologically, it really is mad. The fact that 60 per cent of the science doctorates awarded by American universities are awarded to foreigners will have more impact on the 21st century than whether the Divine Comedy is optional or compulsory for students of Civilisation at Stanford. The issue is more nearly religious than sociological, however: not a practical matter of turning out a workforce that will design and manufacture better cars and computers than the Japanese, but a struggle for the American soul. Even then, it’s a very peculiar struggle, since it forces the contending parties to appeal to ideas and principles which don’t really suit their purposes.

It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth: that it was unjustly distributed, that its holders wanted this overlooked and purchased all sorts of intellectual disguises for the purpose, that it would be an uphill struggle getting the truth in front of the public, but that that was what had to be done. Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you’ve had it. Those with power have ‘truth’ on their side, and the old radical hope that we can undermine power with truth is incoherent. But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess.

Conversely, the conservative vision of society has never been very hospitable to liberal ideals of free speech, open competition, impartial rules of procedure, and so on. Most conservatives have hoped to preserve a hierarchy of inherited authority, have thought freedom of speech second best to decorum and order, and have thought that gentlemanly understandings were of the essence in making universities civilised places. In the good old days before the war, Jews knew better than to apply for jobs at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and almost everywhere professors whose leftwing views displeased presidents and trustees were told they had no prospect of tenure. Liberals attacked all this in the name of the universal and impartial principles which they supposed the Constitution to be built on.

Recent assaults on free speech, open competition for jobs, and academic freedom in general have come from the Left. Many campuses have so-called ‘speech codes’, which in their most harmless and most common form don’t do much more than insist that everyone must refrain from racial and sexual abuse. Some go further and emulate the Canadian race relations code which forbids speech that brings ‘identifiable groups’ into ridicule and contempt, and encourage students to report fellow students and teachers who may offend. The same tenderness towards oppressed minorities has led many universities to explicit or implicit racial quotas for student admissions and faculty appointments. Now, the liberals are deeply riven, and the conservatives are talking strange talk.

Some of the Left hang onto the view that free speech is sacred. Their argument in favour of speech codes then takes a contorted form: real free speech, they say, can only be had when the tyranny of the repressive speech of whatever target you have in mind has been quieted. Feminists have long argued that pornography silences women, and they must have it silenced to be heard. Some campus liberals argue that if minority students are ever to speak up, they must be protected from the silencing effects of ‘scientific’ racism or homophobia, let alone from real abuse, insult or intimidation. The opponents of political correctness have not surprisingly taken their stand on a plain interpretation of the liberal verities – free speech, the sanctity of fact, promotion on merit and so on.

The average British observer would be startled by all of this. The idea that drunken undergraduates can appeal to the First Amendment to protect their right to yell ‘Fuck you, nigger’ in the middle of the night is just about as mind-boggling as the idea that students should be encouraged always to be on the qui vive for slighting references to anyone other than heterosexual white males – for whom it remains open season. I find that to be both a foreigner and in the middle of it is mildly disturbing. It is, for one thing, quite impossible to trust either side to the debate. I constantly think that both Right and Left must be joking; whether you wish to bring the present order of things to its knees or prop it up, it is simply impossible to believe that American culture is seriously threatened by literature departments teaching their students ideas that have become entirely unfashionable in their native France. Indeed, the French seem to be embracing a very American enthusiasm for liberal democracy and human rights – all Rawls and Fukuyama.

Given that, one looks for other motives. The most obvious, as always, is the scramble for jobs. If you can establish to your own satisfaction that only Latino lesbians can teach the literature of Latino lesbianism, you have done a lot to narrow the competition for the next job in comparative literature. The idea that each sufficiently self-pitying view of the world is entitled to expression in the syllabus and that only a bearer of the grievance qualified by natality can teach it, is simply the application to universities of the old American custom of parcelling out political favours to one interest group after another.

But the other reason why silly ideas make headway is that the disciplines which should tackle such issues don’t. Philosophers tackle questions which are suited to the analytical techniques that have been in vogue for the past couple of decades – whether our brains are superior computers and the mind a sort of program – and when they turn to political philosophy, the least regarded of subjects in most philosophy departments, they write about universal rights, not mucky issues like race, gender and the unobtrusive forms of power. The better they are at philosophy, the less likely they are to be willing to wade in the soup of cultural criticism and literary theory. The same complaint can be levelled at the social sciences. Social scientists prove their respectability by killing their students’ interest in society and teaching them ‘methods’ instead. The result is that the number of people who combine intellectual toughness with even a modest political radicalism is pitifully small. Which, in a country that has George Bush as President and Danforth Quayle lined up for 1996, is not very funny.