- Some Confrontational Conversation on Political Correctness
For the past several months I have learned as much as I could about the debate on political correctness, thinking perhaps to extend and to contribute to the conversation on this important topic. Mostly, however, the terms of the debate have emerged from confrontations, not conversations. Successful conversations require that engaged participants contribute to the talk and also get something out of it. All parties must have the opportunity to speak. They must also know how to remain attentively silent and listen. I've concluded that so far the conversation on political correctness has not been truly successful because so many who need to be vocal on the subject have remained silent—public school teachers and students, students and faculties in less privileged institutions across the country, and many people of color about whose voices and silences the controversy rages. Possible conversations have all too often been drowned out by the thunderous pronouncements from various "powerful bully pulpits." We need to extend and to enlarge this conversation to include all of these voices. We also may need to recognize that confrontation may be the only appropriate style for this particular conversation because the debate includes sharply divisive issues which ought not be explained away.
When my local supermarket began to stack copies of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy on its shelves near the women's magazines, I began to attend more closely to neoconservative charges that academics across the country have become a thought police who have substituted a "politically correct" curriculum to replace traditional courses in Western Civilization. Bloom, Hirsch, the boisterous William Bennett, Dinesh D'Souza, and others argue that these courses amount to little more than an amalgam of social science whose real purpose is not sound education but the indoctrination of students in New Left and feminist ideas on race, class, gender, sexual preference, and ecology. I first heard the term from William Bennett, who seemed quite pleased with the sound of it since he repeated it so often. Thus I [End Page 90] took some pleasure in the irony that, according to Herbert Kohl, he first heard the term in the 1940s, when more liberal-minded Socialists disapproved of the rigid party line of some members of the American Communist Party. Lynne V. Cheney, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has appeared on various talk shows to further the case against what she views as an insidious "PC" which not only destroys sound intellectual curricula but also subverts Western traditions of inquiry and debate by resorting to racially and politically explosive name calling (the most famous instance of which is the refrain of protesting students on Stanford University's campus, "Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho! Western Civ has got to go"). The controversies over the freshman composition class to be organized on the themes of gender, race, and class at the University of Texas at Austin, the controversial CIV (Cultures Ideas Values) course at Stanford, and a similar dispute at the College of Wooster have not only been covered in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The National Review, but also in Newsweek, Time, and even my local newspaper. Several new books fuel the fires of the controversy: D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991), William J. Bennett's The De-Valuing of America (1992), and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals. In my own university, we have already organized forums and discussions on the subject, though, as usual, the university did not involve members of the community to any great extent, and most faculty are so oppressed and overworked that they did not attend in great numbers.
At our English Department retreat in the fall of 1991, we discussed radical changes which our curriculum needs to ensure that it is truly multicultural, polyphonic, dialogical. Some fine ideas came out of that brainstorming session, but there was also tension as exhausted middle-aged and older faculty considered what all this would mean for their specialties and for the need to "retool" at a university which provides no sabbatical...