Publication Date

May 1, 1993

Perspectives Section


The rise of political correctness, as its critics have noted, is a consequence of the institutionalization within the academy of a cohort of New Leftists who came of age politically in the 1960s, who lecture on egalitarianism while practicing elitism, and who exert disproportionate influence through their organizational zeal and commitment to academic politics.1 Under the title “The New University: Beyond Political Correctness” (Perspectives, October 1992), the AHA Council recently decided to publish an article by Joan Wallach Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study. The Council urged “careful consideration of the points raised by Dr. Scott,” and by reprinting what was already among the most reprinted of recent articles (in one form or another, it had already appeared in Change, The Boston Review, October, and Radical History Review) the Council presumably intended that Dr. Scott’s words should be upon our doorposts and upon our gates. My purpose is to consider some of Dr. Scott’s points and the style in which she has raised them, and then to examine the increasing political correctness—amounting almost to a political cleansing—of the AHA Council.

Dr. Scott’s article exemplifies the style of intellectual intimidation characteristic of the politically correct, a style which seeks to delegitimate its opponents rather than debate with them. According to Dr. Scott, those who assert that the universities are increasingly under threat from political correctness are “paranoid.” In the version of her article that appears in the Radical History Review, those who protest against the hegemony of the politically correct are described as “paranoids, fetishists, and impostors,” as “marginal intellectuals” motivated to “imitate the objects of both their deep desire and their jealous resentment.” Dr. Scott, by contrast—who in her Perspectives piece further characterizes her opponents as “enemies of critical inquiry” and accuses them of hysteria, anti-intellectualism, antipathy to democracy, racism, sexism, and aiming “to control thought, to police its operations, and above all to rein in the unfettered, critical spirit that defines a truly free society”—is a model of reasoned discourse.

Scott’s claim that the new alarm over political correctness has been launched by conservative publicists outside the academy is doubly inaccurate. Some of the most articulate warnings about the dangers of political correctness have come from intellectuals within the academy who are not conservatives but liberals and socialists, such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Eugene Genovese, Irving Howe, C. Vann Woodward, and John Diggins. Of the five “conservative publicists” named by Scott, two are neither conservatives nor publicists. Richard Bernstein is a reporter for the New York Times who has written a skeptical article about political correctness in the academy. As for Camille Paglia, who idolizes Madonna, “worships” television and rock music, regards Robert Mapplethorpe as her “spiritual brother,” and describes herself as “radically pro-pornography, pro-prostitution, pro-abortion, and pro-legalization of drugs”:2 she can be classified as a “conservative” only in the sense that socialists who criticized the Stalinists were classified as “objectively fascist.” Moreover, Scott’s assertion that the politicization of education began recently is disingenuous, for it has long been the essence of Scott’s own writings that the politicization of scholarship is inevitable, necessary, and desirable.3

Critics of political correctness, according to Dr. Scott, are racist and sexist. Since elite academic institutions once gave priority in admissions to factors other than academic merit, Dr. Scott reasons, “Only racist and sexist attitudes can explain why there is now such vehement opposition to the `special treatment’ associated with affirmative action.” But is it racist to point out that the anticipatable consequences of many programs differ radically from their intended ones, so that affirmative action programs which result in the admission of black students with test scores much lower than their white or Asian counterparts into highly selective universities (such as Berkeley) create such a structural propensity for black educational failure which then serve to perpetuate racial stereotypes? According to Scott, to call into question the consequences or the intrinsic fairness of relative discrimination against the male offspring of white or Asian Americans in educational admissions and professional promotion is simply evidence of racism and sexism. Once again, the function of Scott’s rhetoric is to close off discussion of the substantive issues at hand.

Scott supposes that it is the recent movement of women, blacks, and Chicanos into the academy that has led to debates about the relationships between knowledge and group identity. “Does one have to be of the group to care about its history and literature?” she asks. “Are intellectual perspectives expressions of particular social standpoints?” Yet far from being new, these questions are old, and so are the answers. The claim that “insiders” of a particular social group have monopolistic access to certain types of knowledge (you have to be one in order to understand one) was a commonplace among elitist theorists before it became a mass doctrine in Nazi Germany (Aryan science) and Stalinist Russia (proletarian science). It is no truer now than it was then. Its recrudescence since the 1960s, as Robert K. Merton predicted, has led to the proliferation of “socially atomized claims to knowledge” and a “doctrine of social solipsism,” in which each socially defined group asserts that its history can be understood only by “insiders.”4

Dr. Scott appears to believe that the process of incorporating groups other than Anglo-Saxon men into the academy is a new phenomenon, which by its very fact must produce changes in the content and definition of worthwhile historical knowledge. The unarticulated assumption here is that those of a particular ethnicity, sex, class, etc. are only or primarily interested in their own history, where the definition of what is one’s “own” depends on the shifting criteria deemed valid by the politically correct. Women and African-Americans, Scott tells us, “argue that the interests of white males are advanced when their lives are taken as historically typical and, therefore, more significant than others.” The assumption is that our intellectual and political orientations should be guided by such characteristics is common among the politically correct, and it tends to the balkanization characteristic of the National Women Studies Association, in which there are constant tensions between heterosexuals and lesbians, whites, blacks, and Asians, Jews and non-Jews, eco-feminists, and their various permutations.5

Had earlier generations of historians held such assumptions, we would not have had (to cite a few illustrative examples) the world of southern slaveholders illuminated by the son of Sicilian immigrants, New England merchants in the seventeenth century or black slave hymns in the nineteenth explored by New York Jews, the transformation of French peasants traced by an immigrant from Romania, or our understanding of Acton, Darwin, and John Stuart Mill advanced by the daughter of Yiddish-speaking parents. The real anti-intellectualism lies in Scott’s tacit assumption that our academic interests cannot transcend our own origins. For widely understood historical reasons, women, the children of socially subordinate classes and ethnic groups have had less access to higher education than their male, elite counterparts. As a result, relatively few of the most distinguished works of literature and thought have been produced by these groups. Yet there is nothing more anti-democratic than to insist or insinuate that contemporary women, blacks, etc. should focus their attention on the second- or third-rate works of the past simply because these were produced by writers who share some currently favored attribute.

Let us turn to Dr. Scott’s more positive prescriptions. She asserts that all identities are historically fluctuating and that the task of the educator is to impress upon one’s students that all identities “are subject to redefinition, resistance, and change.”6 According to one of her clearer statements, “difference and the salience of different identities are produced by discrimination, a process that establishes the superiority or the typicality or the universality of some in terms of the inferiority or atypicality or particularity of others.”7 Yet any “identity” worth maintaining acquires its worth precisely because it is not imposed by discrimination from without: why be a Jew for the sake of the anti-Semite, or a mother for the sake of the enemies of motherhood? Dr. Scott’s affirmative program is the ontologization of (Groucho) Marx’s dictum that he would not want to belong to any club that would admit him. Is it antidemocratic for the parents and taxpayers who fund the college education of children to doubt whether they want to spend thousands of dollars to have the identity of children deconstructed and reconstructed by Dr. Scott and her cadres, especially when her own conceptions of identity are so confused?

On the grounds that “the unfettered, critical spirit defines a free society,” Dr. Scott inveighs against Lynne Cheney and others who assert that there is a shared core of knowledge and shared standards of excellence which ought to be conveyed within the college curriculum. She recommends, as an alternative, that we place our differences and the struggle for power at the center of history. To teach about otherness, for Scott, is the end of humanistic study—without the possibility of arriving at criteria on which to decide that some ways of life are to be preferred over others.

What conclusions can students reasonably draw from Scott’s program? That some groups do things one way, others in another way, and that there are no grounds for deciding the superiority of one way over the other. That since the group struggle is always hierarchical and contested, they must remain vigilant in the struggle to preserve their interests over others. If intellectual life is merely a mask for the will to power of particular groups, and if the end of education is the casting aside of the mask, why bother with intellectual life at all, since it is political power that one is really after? It is difficult to arrive at a more principled anti-intellectualism than Dr. Scott’s program.

Scott repeatedly asserts that the role of the university is to specialize in ideological and cultural nonconformity, which she equates with subjecting existing assumptions to critical scrutiny. Indeed she even attributes to Richard Hofstadter the notion that “critical” intelligence equals “a dissenting, non-conformist spirit.” This is a key conflation in Scott’s piece, and it is characteristic of her ideological posture. In fact, to subject assumptions to scrutiny means to inquire into the reasons and logic of comparative institutions and cultures, with an aim to offering good reasons for the preservation, reform, or elimination of existing arrangements. Such an examination would reveal that some historically developed institutions are actually better than others, or better under prevailing conditions. One function of education is to convey the reasons for preferring some institutions over others, reasons that are often derivable more from historical experience than from abstract, deductive logic.

Scott’s article, by contrast, is redolent of the hackneyed stance of alienation from existing institutions as the sine qua non of creative life. As Hoftstadter wrote in the book she cites so selectively, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, this stance “oversimplifies history and offers a delusive prescription for the conduct of intellectual life.” To identify intellectual life with the stance of what Scott calls “nonconformity,” Hoftstadter wrote, is to treat the moral task of the intellectual “as a responsibility primarily to repudiation and destruction; so that the measure of intellectual merit is felt to lie not in imagination or precision, but in the greatest possible degree of negativism. The responsibility of the intellectual is not seen, in the first instance, as a responsibility to be enlightening about society but rather to make an assertion against it—on the assumption that almost any such assertion will presumably be enlightening, and that in any case it reestablishes the writer’s probity and courage.”

The politically correct are our newest herd of intellectual nonconformists. Among the topics it is politically incorrect to explore are: 1) how things are made; 2) why a market-based economy produces more and meets the needs of consumers better than a socialized one; 3) why, for those concerned with the continuity of generations, gender is not an arbitrary construction; 4) the place of political structures and military power in the preservation of political liberty; and 5) how children are transformed into responsible spouses, parents, and citizens. All too often, their assertions make up in their emphatic and threatening tone what they lack in intellectual cogency.

But the strength of the politically correct lies not in the intellectual forum but in the committee room. As John Diggins notes, “If Wall Street depends upon capital accumulation, the Academic Left depends upon cohort accumulation.”8 A striking example of this phenomenon is provided by examining the research interests listed by nominees on the most recent AHA ballot . Out of nineteen candidates nominated for office (not including the candidates for the position in public history, which necessarily has a political focus, and for the Teaching Division, where the emphasis is on pedagogic works), five of the nominees specialize in class/labor, ten in women/feminism/gender/sex, and seven in race/African-American/minorities. In calling attention to these statistics, I do not mean that these are subjects unworthy of study, or that scholars who specialize in these areas ought not to be actively represented on the Council of the AHA. But we are now far beyond that point: through a process of self-recruitment, work on the holy trinity of race/gender/class has now become a virtual prerequisite for nomination to the Council of the AHA. The nominees include no historians of the corporation, no economic historians, no historians of international relations, no military historians, no historians of science, and no historians who have written major works for a nonacademic audience. That is what “diversity” means in the Orwellian discourse of the politically correct. Is it surprising that the people who put together this “diverse” list of candidates recommend Dr. Scott’s much-reprinted article to us? Or that the newly-elected AHA Council chosen from this list began by adopting a series of highly partisan resolutions unrelated to the historical profession?9

For a variety of reasons, many of those who are aware of the intellectual vacuity of the politically correct fail to challenge them: younger historians out of concern for academic promotion, established scholars out of a fear of social ostracism within the academy or simply out of weariness. A major obstacle to challenging the organizational hegemony of the politically correct is that most of us enter the profession because we love to read, teach, research, or write history, not in order to further some political aim. We are disinclined to take time out from these valued activities in order to clear away the conceptual froth of political correctness; more disinclined still to confront the politically correct on their favored turf of the committee room.

For the moment, the hegemony of the politically correct remains more organizational than substantive: much good historical work continues to be done that is either untouched by politicized currents or in which contemporary concerns are channeled and disciplined into objective and illuminating scholarship. Yet unless liberal, conservative, and independently-minded radical historians are willing to contest the organizational dominance of our new hegemons, we risk the institutional basis of what remains, for how long we cannot be sure, an intellectually thriving profession.

It is really not up to me but to the AHA Council to respond to Dr. Muller’s article, since it is ultimately the Council’s policies and its membership that are under attack. I would simply like to observe that Dr. Muller’s self-diagnosis as a paranoid hysteric is accurate; he at least got that much right about my article. As for the rest—his willful misreading of my arguments about knowledge and group identity (I do not claim that membership in a group gives one exclusive knowledge of it, quite the contrary); about the anti-intellectualism of such publicists as Richard Bernstein, Camille Paglia, and Dinesh D’Souza; and about the philosophical limits to claims for objectivity in the loving pursuit of history—I will leave it to the readers of Perspectives to assess the merits of our respective cases.



  1. John Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (New York, 1992), 290. []
  2. Camille Paglia, Sex, Art and American Culture (New York, 1992), ix, 38, 244. []
  3. See, for example, Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (1988) and “History in Crisis? The Others’ Side of the Story,” AHR (June 1989). []
  4. Robert K. Merton, “The Perspectives of Insiders and Outsiders” (1972) reprinted in Merton, The Sociology of Science (Chicago, 1973). []
  5. See Courtney Leatherman, “Women’s-Studies Group, Hopes to Heal Wounds, Finds More Conflict,” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 1, 1992), A13–14 and Christina Hoff Sommers, “Sister Soldiers,” The New Republic (Oct. 5, 1992), 29–33. []
  6. “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Identity,” October (Summer 1992), 19. []
  7. Ibid., 14–15. []
  8. Diggins, 294. []
  9. Perspectives (Feb. 1993), 10. []

Jerry Z. Muller, associate professor of history at The Catholic University of America, is the author of Adam Smith in His Time and Ours and The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism.