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Uncommon Differences: On Political Correctness, Core Curriculum and Democracy in Education

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 16, Number 1, June 1992
pp. 1-16 | 10.1353/uni.0.0216

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Uncommon Differences:
On Political Correctness, Core Curriculum and Democracy in Education

I first heard the phrase "politically correct" in the late 1940s and early 1950s in reference to the political debates between Socialists and members of the United States Communist Party (CP). These debates were an everyday occurrence in my neighborhood in the Bronx until the McCarthy committee and HUAC silenced political talk on the streets. Members of the CP talked about current party doctrine as the "correct" line for the moment. During World War II, the Hitler-Stalin pact caused many CP members considerable pain and often disgrace on my block, which was all Jewish and mostly Socialist. The "correct" position on Stalin's alliance with Hitler was considered to be ridiculous, a betrayal of European Jewry as well as Socialist ideas. The term "politically correct" was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics. It was used by Socialists against Communists, and was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in equalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.

Given that history, it was surprising to hear right-wing intellectuals in the 1990s using the phrase "politically correct" to disparage students and professors who advocate multiculturalism and are willing to confront racism, sexism, or homophobia at the university. Yet it is not uncommon, for example, for right-wing critics to accuse students (or other professors) who insist that women's voices or the voices of people of color be included in the curriculum of making rigid, oppressive demands that infringe upon academic freedom. The implication of these accusations is that people calling for compliance with antisexist and antiracist education today are similar to the Communist party hard-liners who insisted on compliance with the "correct" line on the Hitler-Stalin pact. It is a clever ploy on the part of neoconservatives, a number of whom were former CP members and know how the phrase "politically correct" was used in the past, to insinuate that egalitarian democratic ideas are actually authoritarian, orthodox, and Communist-influenced when they oppose the right of people [End Page 1] to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. The accusation of being "politically correct" is a weapon used by right-wing professors, and publicized by conservative media critics, to protect themselves against criticisms of their own biases by students or other, usually younger, professors. It is a way of diverting the issue of bias within the university to issues of freedom of speech without acknowledging that the right to question professorial authority is also a free speech matter.

There is a major question about whether professors have a right, within the framework of academic classes where they control students' grades and therefore students' future options, to be racist, sexist, and culturally biased when expressing those ideas in class is likely to disrupt the learning process. The question is whether the classroom, in which students and professors are not equals, can become a bully pulpit for racist and sexist ideologies as much as it is an issue of academic freedom or freedom of speech. After all, the classroom is not a free speech forum where equals gather to express opinions. It is a site of judgment as much as a place of learning, where professors judge their students as much as educate them. Academic freedom is equivalent, in this context, to professorial control of ideas, not to free speech. I remember, for example, the control of legitimacy exerted by philosophy professors when I was at Harvard in the 1950s. At that time, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and just about all the continental European philosophers were ridiculed and their works put off-limits. Any student who took existentialism, phenomenology, or Marxism seriously, for example, was advised to find another major. Only British analytic philosophy, logic, and the philosophy of mathematics were considered intellectually respectable. At that time even the works of Wittgenstein were suspect for being too mystical and unclear. If students tried, as I sometimes did, to question their professors' preferences, they were punished both through their grades and through the kinds of...