The American Scholar is the house magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa honorary society, with the journal’s name taken from a speech given to that society by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837. It’s published a number of distinguished articles, but a new one stands out: “On political correctness: Power, class, and the new campus religion“. It’s by William Deresiewicz, a widely published author and literary critic; and I wish I’d written the piece.
It’s long, and covers a lot of territory, but I highly recommend it. Its thesis is that “political correctness”, which Deresiewicz defines as “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas”, is proliferating in American private universities (not so much in public ones), and has many pernicious effects, including these
- Homogenizing the student body, so that anyone with dissident views (read: conservatives, religious people, moderate feminists, pro-Israelis) is afraid to express them for fear of being demonized
- Turning liberals into a group unable to defend its own arguments
- Masking “deeply legitimate concerns” about racism and sexism by diverting them into trivial channels about microaggression, trigger warnings, language policing, and so on
- Completely ignoring class differences, which aren’t the subject of the campus liberal agenda
- The perpetuation of class differences by “laundering privilege”: preferentially accepting students who are largely well off, and from the upper classes
- Turning private colleges into “socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma.”
- Suppressing free speech, coming with the presumption that liberals know what speech can and should be suppressed. This leads to the inability to make progress (see below):
Now many of these ideas aren’t new, but Deresiewicz has a new take on them. He himself is a liberal, but decries the authoritarian mentality of today’s students—and their professors. You may disagree with some of Deresiewicz’s arguments, but I found this a fascinating and compelling read. There are so many good ideas and quotable sentences in it that I can’t even give a flavor of the piece by quoting excerpts. I’ll give just two:
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.
If you want to see an example of a well-schooled conservative shredding the views of unthinking Leftists, simply look at some of conservative writer and speaker Ben Shapiro’s videos on YouTube. It’s cringe-inducing, but is a perfect example of what Deresiewicz says in the last paragraph. Shapiro has done his homework (not that I agree with most of what he says), while his questioning opponents are simply mouthing pieties of the Left that they haven’t examined.
And the piece’s end:
Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.
Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”
And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.
Selective private colleges need to decide what kind of places they want to be. Do they want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry? When we talk about political correctness and its many florid manifestations, so much in the news of late, we are talking not only about racial injustice and other forms of systemic oppression, or about the coddling of privileged youth, though both are certainly at play. We are also talking, or rather not talking, about the pathologies of the American class system. And those are also what we need to deal with.
h/t: John T.