The New University: Beyond Political Correctness

Joan Wallach Scott, October 1992

Editor's Note: In response to the continuing debate over "political correctness," the AHA Council reminds members of the following two Association policy statements, both of which were adopted in May 1991, and urges careful consideration of the points raised by Dr. Scott in the accompanying article.

Statement on Discrimination and Harassment in Academia: "The American Historical Association encourages educational activities to counter incidents of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic behavior (including speech) on school campuses, and also encourages school administrators to speak out vigorously against such incidents. At the same time, the Association disapproves of efforts to limit or punish speech on university campuses. We condemn the violation of academic freedom and First Amendment rights to free speech as well as the harassment and vilification to which some faculty and students have been subjected."

Statement on Diversity in History Teaching: "Course offerings and textbooks in history, whether for K–12, undergraduate, or graduate classes, should address the diversity of human experience, recognizing that historical accuracy requires attention both to individual and cultural similarities and differences and to the larger global and historical context within which societies have evolved."

The raging "culture wars" of the past few years should have finally put to rest the image of the university as an ivory tower operating in splendid isolation from political conflict. These battles do not represent just another round of academic squabbles about what universities should teach or how students should learn. A band of conservative journalists and politicians has raised the stakes, targeting programs of multicultural education and accusing advocates of changes in the curriculum of "political correctness"—an attempt to impose a new orthodoxy on otherwise free-thinking students. They present their campaign against political correctness as a cure for the corrosive effects of excessive left-wing moralism and affirmative action on freedom of speech in the academy. But in fact the conservative publicists who have mounted the campaign—Richard Bernstein, Dinesh D'Souza, Hilton Kramer, Roger Kimball, and Camille Paglia—represent a serious threat to the very institutions they claim to defend. Claiming to uphold "tradition" against all reform, they attack the traditional aspiration of universities to serve as places where widely shared assumptions are subjected to exacting critical scrutiny.

Under the guise of careful investigation of university practices—curricular change, admissions standards, fellowship awards, disciplinary codes, hiring and tenure procedures, teaching loads, "useless" time spent on research, accreditation standards—conservatives aim to undercut the legitimacy of an important philosophical and institutional base of social and cultural criticism. Indeed, the campaign against political correctness announces a new phase in the ongoing Reagan-Bush revolution. Having packed the courts and privatized the economy, the American Right now seeks to neutralize the space of ideological and cultural nonconformity by discrediting it.

The conservative strategy has many dimensions. By attributing "politics" only to reformers and critics, it denies its own political interest in controlling the knowledge produced in universities. Thus Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield, a new appointee to the advisory council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, seeks an end to what he deems the "politicization" of the academy. "It's ironic," he writes, "that conservatives have to use politics to rid the campus of politics, but we do" (Chronicle of Higher Education, October 16, 1991, p. A5). The conservative strategy also defends elitism in the name of democracy and it attributes devious subversive motives to those who disagree with conservative values and goals. But the most interesting—because most perverse—aspect of the conservative strategy is its appeal to anti-intellectual attitudes in American culture in the name of defending freedom of thought.

Anti-intellectualism—the distrust of and even contempt for scholars and academics—lies deep in the American grain. It has been studied most fully by the historian Richard Hofstadter, in his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Published in 1962 in part as a response to the anti-intellectual strains in McCarthyism, Hofstadter's book argued that fear of intellectuals was a long-standing feature of American life, "older than our national identity." The source of that fear was the critical relationship of intellectuals to society, their insistence on independence, and their freedom from practical restrictions.

Historically, suspicion of intellectual work and its critical impulses has come from many quarters: from evangelical religious leaders who stressed the power of spirit over reason, heart over mind; from cultural leaders who saw American uniqueness in its closeness to nature and the land; from businessmen who extolled practicality, efficiency, and a cult of action; and from politicians who insisted that education must serve the needs of democracy by providing a common denominator of "useful knowledge" for all citizens. What is most interesting from our perspective, however, is the tradition of educational reformers who have associated critical intellectual work with elitism.

Hofstadter, for example, charts the early nineteenth century efforts to perpetuate an ossified classical curriculum in liberal arts colleges in the name of "tradition." For the patrician or "mugwump culture" of the time, educational reform meant resistance to change, the inculcation of "correct taste" and "sound morals"—"where taste and morals were carefully defined in such a way as to establish disapproval of any rebelliousness, political or aesthetic, against the existing order. Literature was to be a firm custodian of 'morality'; and what was meant by morality was always conventional social morality ... " (p. 402).

Today's "mugwumps" are not defending a declining patrician class. But they are pushing an anti-intellectual orthodoxy in the name of educational improvement. The foundations for the now-conventional conservative argument were set out in William Bennett's 1984 report on humanities education in America—"To Reclaim a Legacy." Then chair of the NEH, Bennett complained that the classic texts of Western civilization were being criticized and sometimes replaced by texts of lesser quality and dubious importance. According to Bennett, these criticisms endangered a legacy of timeless truths and values that must be transmitted intact from generation to generation.

Since taking over as chair of the NEH, Lynne Cheney has further elaborated these themes. In 1988, she attacked the "politicizing" of the humanities by groups asking for the inclusion of their experience in representations of history and literature. Their demands, she wrote, ignore the timeless truths "transcending accidents of class, race, and gender [that] speak to us all." In her 1990 report, "Tyrannical Machines: A Report on Educational Practices Gone Wrong and Our Best Hopes for Setting Them Right," Cheney continued to stress timeless truths, defining the primary role of education as the transmission of them. While the report pinpoints a number of genuine problems in schools and universities, its solutions rest on a vision of education that illustrates many of Hofstadter's themes.

For example, while Cheney acknowledges that research is an important function of the universities, she also blames it for diverting professors' attention from teaching. In itself this is not inaccurate; many universities unfairly reward only publication as professional achievement. But Cheney's definition of teaching reveals the anti-intellectual agenda. According to Cheney, teaching involves the diffusion and transmission of knowledge, not its production. Moreover, her conception of the relevant knowledge is striking; it is information purveyed through "comprehensive treatment of important subjects," "rigorous and coherent curricula," and a core curriculum. She seems unaware of the sharp conflicts about what is "important" and "comprehensive" and she nowhere acknowledges the widespread disagreement about just what makes a curriculum "coherent." According to Cheney, the test of a university's commitment to teaching is the existence of requirements for broad-based courses that introduce students to "the great deeds and ideas that have shaped the world." Cheney places no value on the interpretation of texts, the exploration of new ideas, or the opening of the mind to new ways of thinking. Teaching means the induction of the student into the received wisdom and into a canonical list of "great deeds." The word "critical," in Hofstadter's sense of a dissenting, nonconformist spirit, is translated by Cheney into a question of taste, an ability to appreciate (she quotes William James here) "the excellent and the durable," to "admire the really admirable," and to scorn "what is cheap and trashy and impermanent." These attitudes, she says, must be inculcated into citizens if democracy is to work. But her refusal to grant validity to more than one viewpoint, her single-minded denial of different standards and interests, and her failure to address conflict among them all mark her position as profoundly anti-democratic.

The tone of Cheney's report is judicious and calm. It bears little resemblance to the hysterical pronouncements of members of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) who talk about fending off the "barbarians" now storming the gates of academe. But if Hofstadter was right—and I think he was—Cheney, the NAS, and the highly visible band of journalists and publicists who are promoting the conservative agenda have a common aim: to control thought, to police its operations, and above all to rein in the unfettered, critical spirit that defines a truly free society. Following the tradition of American anti-intellectualism, these new enemies of critical inquiry pursue their project in the name of democracy. But no democracy worthy of the name rejects criticism, suppresses disagreement, refuses to acknowledge difference as inevitably disruptive of consensus, and vilifies the production of new knowledge.

In typically paranoid fashion, the leaders of the campaign against change in universities have labelled all critics and advocates of change "thought police." While it is surely true that some university faculty—on the left and right, and in the center—would impose their ways of thinking on everyone else, they do not represent the majority and they have never gained control. One of the tricks of the publicists has been to conflate serious criticism and intolerant dogmatism under the label of "political correctness" and thereby discredit all critical efforts. This conflation misrepresents intellectual life and intrudes upon it by, for example, mobilizing extensive support in the form of alumni gifts (such as George Bass's $20 million to Yale) to support courses upholding "the values of Western civilization" as defined by conservative scholars.

The scare tactics of conservatives deliberately misrepresent intellectual life within universities. Individuals and groups, of course, compete for predominance and resources and there are conflicting notions about what to teach and how best to teach it. But universities are also unusually open spaces in which criticism and self-criticism flourish. The more open the space, the better the process works; the more constricted the space, the less well it operates.

A commitment to pursuing truth lies at the heart of the intellectual enterprise. To be sure, that pursuit aims at an ever-receding horizon that is approached through a communal enterprise of hard work, conflict, and argument. This communal enterprise takes place in classrooms, seminars, lectures, faculty meetings, and conferences that are scenes of exploration and disagreement. These are places where critical ideas are tried out, often in extreme, dogmatic, and outrageous form. Lectures on "the lesbian phallus" or "Jane Austen and the masturbating girl," used by conservatives as examples of degenerate radicalism, are in fact serious, deliberately provocative explorations of psychoanalytic themes in literary studies. Such lectures advance new interpretations, but psychoanalysis has hardly taken over the academy as a result. It remains one of a number of theoretical approaches used by literary scholars.

Recent expressions of concern about gender and race taking over the entire curriculum rest on similar mispresentations and exaggerations. For example, a recent study by Alexander Astin at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute shows a striking disparity between perception and practice in this area. According to Astin, about a third of faculty at universities and colleges in the country thought that many courses in current curricula include a minority perspective. It turned out, however, that only 11 percent of the faculty questioned actually used readings related to race or gender in their undergraduate teaching. (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 8, 1991, p. A15).

As these figures suggest, multiculturalism is a minority movement, very much on the defensive, and only beginning to have an impact on the university curriculum. The charge that its proponents have taken over and that "political correctness" is a "crisis" of "major proportions" is at best wrong and at worst a deliberate attempt to prevent even minimal attention to serious issues of diversity and difference—issues that are the inevitable expression of the social, demographic, political, and intellectual changes of the last generation.

Universities have changed dramatically since the 1960s, and the real roots of the present culture wars lie in those changes and in the halting efforts of universities to adapt to them. When I was a graduate student in the 1960s, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation had a policy of awarding no more than one-fourth of its graduate fellowships to women. In 1960, 94 percent of college students were white; the figure was 96 percent for private universities. Of the remaining 6 percent, a third attended predominantly black institutions. A number of public and private universities did not admit blacks at all and some of the most highly regarded educational institutions did not admit women. Colleges tended to be white male enclaves for students and faculty: 63 percent of college students were men; 90 percent of Ph.D.'s were men; and 80 percent of university faculties were men.

In 1991, 20 percent of all college students were non-white or Hispanic, and 55 percent were women. (These figures are cited by Louis Menand in "Books: Illiberalisms," New Yorker, May 20, 1991, pp. 101–107.)

Women made up over a third of all graduate students and were even more highly represented as Ph.D. candidates in the humanities; they now represent about 27–28 percent of university faculties.

These striking changes in university population follow in part from the general increase in college attendance during the past several decades, and in part from accompanying changes in recruitment policies. The expansion of the university has not so much altered admission standards as added more considerations to them and made them more visible. Even at the most prestigious schools, admission was never based on academic record alone. Rather that record was one among many factors including athletic skill, wealth, geographic location, and family connections to alumni, the famous, and the powerful. The special treatment that came with high social status never seems to have been seen as a compromise of university standards; only racist and sexist attitudes can explain why there is now such vehement opposition to the "special treatment" associated with affirmative action.

The new populations in the universities bring their own histories with them and those histories have not been part of the traditional curriculum; their presence challenges many of the prevailing assumptions about what counts as knowledge and how it is produced. This is so first because of the sheer numbers, as well as the new kinds, of students and faculty on campuses. Critical thinking becomes a dangerous proposition when masses of students are attending college, and not only the children of elites. And it is a far riskier undertaking in heterogeneous communities that can no longer be counted on to share elite assumptions.

But the changes at universities over the last three decades are not simply demographic. At the same time, major political and philosophical developments have altered the terms of debate about human commonalities and differences. These include the decolonization of the Third World; the emergence of national identities that positively value histories and cultural practices once obscured or demeaned by the colonial equation of European standards with civilization; philosophical critiques of universalism and foundationalism and of the idea of communities as consensual and homogeneous; and analyses of power and difference that call attention to how "we" construct ourselves in relation to "others" (Cornel West, "Minority Discourse and the Pitfalls of Canon Formation," Yale Journal of Criticism I (fall 1987), pp. 193–202). If, in earlier generations, minorities adjusted to college life by assimilating to prevailing standards, now they have the means to question the very notion of universality and to insist that their experience be taken into account.

But how is this to be done? Perhaps it is better to ask the question more historically: how has it been attempted? How have universities dealt with their different and "diverse" populations? In some ways, the overall process today has not been very different from previous contests about knowledge: a mixture of pressure for change, powerful resistance to it, and some accommodation.

But there are also differences. Contests about knowledge are now understood to be political, not only because they are contests, but because they are explicitly about the interests of groups (rather than the opinions of individuals) in the substance and form of knowledge. For example, African-Americans object to the treatment in textbooks of their history only under the rubric of slavery and the Civil War, arguing that this makes only a brief chapter of their experience visible. Women suggest that the focus on politics and war as major historical events diminishes the activities and contributions of the majority of the population. Both groups argue that the interests of white males are advanced when their lives are taken as historically typical and, therefore, more significant than others. The introduction of questions of group interest and power into the knowledge debates has "politicized" them in new ways. But while this politicization is sometimes extreme and tendentious, the explicit discussion of interest is inevitable, and—at the risk of making a virtue of necessity—a good thing.

A crucial point in understanding current conflicts about knowledge and politics is that power is unequally distributed. Those demanding change must contend with disciplinary and pedagogic practices that are institutionalized, command resources, and claim to have truth, rigor, and objectivity on their side. The emergence of separate courses and programs of women's studies, African-American studies, Chicano studies, gay and lesbian studies, and the like testify to this situation: they did not emerge from a vacuum but were created in the face of the refusal of departments to include material on these groups in existing courses, and in an effort to demonstrate that they were subjects worth studying. The programs and courses, in turn, taught and attended largely by members of the groups being studied, underscored the differences in perspective and interest across the curriculum.

They also gave rise to a series of debates—profound in their philosophical and practical implications—about the relationships between knowledge and group identity. Does one have to be of the group to care about its history and literature? Are intellectual perspectives expressions of particular social standpoints? What are legitimate grounds for objecting to the exclusion of whole realms of experience from so-called "mainstream courses" in the humanities or social sciences?

Many answers to these questions have been proposed, even if the sensationalist press only reports the insistence by some blacks or women that they are uniquely qualified to teach black history or women's literature. And since the questions are not easy, the discussions are necessarily full of conflict. What is least reported, however, are the ways that these conflicts have been fueled by the exclusionary conceptions of qualifications that still dominate the disciplines. History departments regularly refuse to consider for positions in general American history, for example, scholars who write on women or African-Americans (or homosexuals or other particular groups), arguing that they are not generalists, unlike those who are no less specialists but have written about national elections or politicians' lives—subjects that are taken to stand for what the whole discipline is about.

Recently a literature department at a major university proposed to hire in a generalist slot a scholar whose work was partly in feminist theory. Rejecting the department's argument that feminist theory was indeed central to its mission, an administrative oversight committee turned down the recommendation.

These decisions distinguish between general and particularized knowledge according to gendered, racial, and ethnic criteria, but they refuse to acknowledge that these are the terms of definition. This refusal perpetuates the balkanization of knowledge, creating the conditions that encourage separatist claims on the part of excluded groups while fueling their frustration and anger.

My point is not to justify separatism, whether intellectual or political. Rather I want to suggest that separatism is a simultaneous refusal and imitation of the powerful and must be understood in the context of the universities' accommodation to diversity.

In general terms, the university has accommodated to diversity by pursuing a liberal pluralist strategy that takes into account the existence of different populations with different needs and interests and that tolerates "diversity." But this liberal pluralism refuses to recognize the power relationships that create and define differences; it fails to see that difference is not simply a state of separate being, but is created through hierarchical relationships. Being black or female or gay is not a matter of inhabiting or acknowledging membership in a pre-existing sociological category; those categories are constructed, and the construction proceeds conflictually under conditions of unequal power.

An example of the relational nature of difference comes from a comment made by a white middle-class student who lived in a predominantly Latino dormitory at Stanford: "Sometimes I'd get confused," she said, because she never knew when a simple comment she made would offend someone else. She finally appreciated the difference between herself and the Hispanic students when one of them asked her what it felt like to be an Anglo. "I'd never heard anyone use the word Anglo for me before ... Where I came from no one was Anglo; everyone was just Irish Catholic. But after being [here] a while I realized that an Anglo can be an Anglo only if there's someone who's not" (Anthony de Palma "Campus Ethnic Diversity Brings Separate Worlds," New York Times, May 18, 1991, p. 7).

Ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual differences are constructed through relationships of power, and the meaning of those differences is, therefore, a matter of conflict. When pluralism and multiculturalism fail to acknowledge these facts, the inevitable result is a separatism in which each group claims a fixed identity and argues for its unique ability to present and interpret itself. The alternative to this kind of pluralism would place our differences, the relations of power in which they are embedded, and the conflict over their significance at the center of a history "we" all share.

Such a conception of the history of difference and discrimination requires another way of thinking about community. Some of the extraordinary tensions now evident on campuses stem from attempts to impose ideas of community that presume homogeneity and that stress consensus and shared values in a situation in which differences seem fundamental and even irreducible. The consensual idea assumes that some commonality of interest allows "us" to articulate our common concerns and regulate our disagreement; those who do not accept the consensus are necessarily outside the community.

This is the idea that in the name of a common culture is invoked by defenders of the superiority of Shakespeare to, say, Toni Morrison (as if anyone were insisting that contemporary literature entirely replace "the classics"); it is also the idea underlying some disciplinary codes as well as some of the most extreme demands for "political correctness." This version of consensus ultimately requires, indeed imposes, homogeneity—not of persons, but of points of view. It rests on a set of exclusions of "others."

We need a different understanding of diversity and difference, and not only at the university. But the university is the best place to search for new understandings of the possibilities of community. First of all, universities can be seen already to exemplify an alternative. They are, after all, places where separate and contingent, contradictory and heterogeneous spheres of thought have long coexisted; the grounds for that coexistence are acceptance of difference and an aversion to orthodoxy. This doesn't mean there aren't continuing battles for resources, influence, and predominance; indeed, differences are negotiated precisely through such battles. It does mean that there is ultimately no resolution, no final triumph for any particular brand of thought or knowledge.

Second, within the universities, the humanities in particular offers the possibility of thinking about difference and community in new ways. To be sure, one approach within the humanities would insist that a particular canon provides the authoritative version of our common humanity. But there is another more complicated approach, suggested by the very fact that humanities is "humanity in the plural." Literary theorist Jonathan Culler puts it this way: "A particular virtue of literature, of history, of anthropology is instruction in otherness: vivid, compelling evidence of differences in cultures, mores, assumptions, values. At their best, these subjects make otherness palpable and make it comprehensible without reducing it to an inferior version of the same, as a universalizing humanism threatens to do." ("Excerpts from the Symposium on 'The Humanities and the Public Interest,' Whitney Humanities Center, April 1, 1986," Yale Journal of Criticism I (Fall 1987), pp. 187.)

Add to this that interpretation is the name of the game in the humanities, that meanings are always contested, reworked, revoked, and redefined, and we have the beginnings of a way to think about communities in which consensus cannot prevail. Thus understood, the humanities become a starting point for discussion of the reconceptualization of community in the age of diversity.

I do not have a blueprint for that idea of community, but I do have some points it must address:

  1. Community is a strategically organized set of relationships, not a thing or an inner essence that exists prior to its articulation.
  2. Differences may be what we have most in common. Differences are often irreducible and must be accepted as such.
  3. Differences are relational and these relationships are hierarchical. The differentials of power on which they are based are constantly contested. Consensus, if it is achieved, is not enduring.
  4. Conflict and contest are therefore inherent in communities of difference. The play of difference is unavoidable and it is not a game; it is both the basis for, and the necessarily destabilizing aspect of, community.

Following Jean-Luc Nancy, Christopher Fynsk suggests that the French word partage inform our notions of community (Christopher Fynsk, "Community and the Limits of Theory," unpublished paper, 1991). Partage means both to divide and to share. Partage is a more difficult concept than consensus, but it is also an improvement. It accepts difference as a condition of our lives and suggests ways we might well live with it. It lets us accommodate one another as we strive on a large scale for what is already possible in the classroom, at least in classrooms such as the one described by Elsa Barkley Brown. For her, teaching African-American women's history is not "merely a question of whether or not we have learned to analyze in particular kinds of ways, or whether people are able to intellectualize about a variety of experiences. It is also about coming to believe in the possibility of a variety of experiences, a variety of ways of understanding the world, a variety of frameworks of operation, without imposing consciously or unconsciously a notion of the norm" (Elsa Barkley Brown, "African-American Women's Quilting: A Framework for Conceptualizing and Teaching African-American Women's History," Signs (summer 1989), p. 921).

Can we achieve this kind of opening to human differences in our teaching? Can universities become the place where communities of difference—irreducible and irreconcilable difference—are conceptualized and exemplified? This is our challenge. It is a challenge that must be met, even in the face of outrageous, threatening, and punitive attacks. It is a challenge that requires the kind of critical intellectual work universities are supposed to encourage. Such critical work has long been, after all, the university's raison d'etre and its highest form of achievement.

This article is a revised and abbreviated version of "The Campaign Against Political Correctness: What's Really at Stake?" Change, November/December 1991. It appeared in this form in the Boston Review, March/April 1992.

—Joan Scott is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study.