- Tantrums and Epiphanies
In the January 6, 1995 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the College of Science and Technology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota placed an ad for a “Visiting Woman Scholar of Color.” Among the qualifications for the position were “an expertise in non-western, non-dominant women’s perspectives” and an “ability to effectively engage students and faculty in unfamiliar perspectives, to enable students to move into the perspective of another culture and women’s lives.” Responsibilities included “team-teaching” with faculty, and working with faculty individually, on the “inclusion of non-western, non-dominant perspectives.” The language of the ad captures many of the central preoccupations of that broadly cultural campaign which has come to be known as “political correctness.” Among these is the issue of “inclusion,” according to which the interests of groups that are question-beggingly referred to as “underrepresented” or “disadvantaged” are favored in curriculum development, student recruitment, and competition for academic appointments. Here, critics point to the inevitable decline in standards to which such measures will lead. St. Cloud State, for instance, was hardly interested in hiring the best possible candidate in 1995, but rather the best candidate within a range strictly limited by considerations of race and gender. The customary reply of reformers, however, is not just to celebrate the increased [End Page 466] representation of women and minorities in the academy, but to confess to a quite unabashed indifference to any such received notion of standards or merit. These, after all, are gratuitous and elitist constructs, mere instruments of exclusion. Critics further maintain, however, that the tendency to reward group membership rather than individual achievement represents a fundamental abandonment of liberal principles. To this, reformers reply either by framing convenient reinterpretations of liberalism that diminish the individual and sanctify the group or by deriding liberalism as an elaborate subterfuge that pretends to a concern for liberty while vouchsafing it only for a select few.
The language of the ad is characteristic, too, in its determined perspectivalism. Western culture is oppressive, reformers contend, its presumption of superior values and achievements as foolish as it is offensive. Education ought to be a kind of “nonjudgmental” browsing among perspectives, where one resists the urge to privilege any one view above others and is prepared to denounce all efforts to characterize ways of living, writing, thinking or governing as more enlightened or more beautiful, as better or best. Traditionally, higher education has amounted to little more than an exercise in political control, silencing the “voices” and ignoring the “stories” of marginalized groups. Thus, activism is required in order to ensure that those voices can be heard and their stories told. Coupled with the rejection of the notion of a privileged perspective or method of inquiry, this injunction has had the effect, critics allege, of encouraging in students a decorous and uncritical primitivism, according to which our challenge in education is not, as Edith Kurzweil urges, “to make the foreign familiar,” but rather to reclaim our tribal pasts, to nurse the trauma of cultural dislocation, and to indulge our sense of separateness. 1 After all, it is not just the notions of Beauty, Truth, and Reason that are deplorably “hegemonic,” but those of Nature and Human Nature as well. There is no such thing as, nor any prospect of achieving, a common culture, only sovereign collectives and their attendant chauvinisms. Thus, the university is reduced to a sort of archipelago of solitudes and scholarship itself to weepy testimonials and folkloric self-assertion. The result, laments Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been not simply the emergence of a culture of therapy, but rather that of “culture as therapy.” 2
Therapeutic culture, the politically correct reforms by which it has been occasioned, and the postmodern critique that underlies it are vital issues that demand sober reflection as well as vigorous exchange. And yet, with honorable exceptions, representatives of both left and right [End Page 467] have tended to prefer strident denunciation to dialogue. With oracular dispassion, Richard Feldstein bemoans...