Invasion of the P.C. Pods

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Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, by Dinesh D'Souza, New York: The Free Press, 329 pages, $19.95

Indulge, for a moment, in a fanciful thought experiment. Imagine that alien invaders have surreptitiously replaced the benign, well-meaning administrators of our universities with pods, zombified replicants of human beings. The pods' mission is to create havoc by setting race against race. They wish to dispirit blacks, embitter whites, undermine the traditional mission of the universities, and all the while enjoy the plaudits of "progressive" and "enlightened" folk everywhere.

How might the pods pursue their project? I suggest that they could hardly choose more skillfully than to follow the affirmative-action path that has been blazed by the actual, allegedly non-pod guardians of higher education in America.

The result of a successful mission would be the very situation Dinesh D'Souza depicts in Illiberal Education.

In the guise of establishing rules of civility for the so-called university community, the new censoriousness has fractured campuses into blocs segregated by race, gender, and sexual proclivities. A politics of suspicion and hostility smolders. Neither codes distinguishing permissible and impermissible forms of speech nor mandatory "sensitivity sessions" for faculty and students dispel these tensions; rather, the blunt instruments of the thought police become yet a further source of animus. Liberalism itself is under seige in our academies.

The plight of the "nation within a nation" is America's perpetual gaping sore. It has outlasted the demise of slavery in the previous century and the overthrow of "separate but equal" in this one. The continuing inability of black citizens to share fully and equally in the progress that others enjoy is a standing reproach to the ideals on which the United States was founded. Universities are more than usually attentive to ideals, and so it was inevitable that they would respond to the distress of black America. What was not inevitable, however, is that they would exacerbate it.

And it is here that we can imagine the work of the pods. Their first step would be to increase the representation of blacks in student populations—but to do so in a way that sacrifices equal treatment and academic standards in favor of quick fixes. By the mid-1960s, most universities had adopted policies to ensure that no barriers of prejudice or inhospitality blocked the entry of any qualified applicant. And they had widely publicized their commitment to safeguarding minority access. The result was increased black enrollment and graduation rates, but these still significantly lagged the proportion of blacks in the overall student-age population.

Fewer blacks than whites graduate high school, and those who do display, on average, a markedly lower level of verbal and numerical skills. The white-black differential in SAT scores is almost 200 points, and the disparity is heightened at the highest levels of SAT performance demanded by elite institutions.

To reduce these disparities, universities could spend years working to improve the primary and secondary education of minority students—by, for instance, adopting low-performing school districts, as Boston University has adopted Chelsea. But such long-term investments offer scant reward to the ambitious administrator. The eventual payoff emerges only decades later and is dispersed across an indefinite number of institutions. To move up the academic hierarchy or, just possibly, get tapped for the presidency of the Ford Foundation, one needs to turn the academic equivalent of the fast buck.

The great virtue—or, from another perspective, vice—of affirmative action is its speed. By relaxing admissions standards for minority applicants, the numbers can be made to fill whatever quota is deemed "socially desirable"—and to fill it immediately.

D 'Souza reports at length on the University of California at Berkeley's efforts to increase the enrollment of blacks and other protected minorities through affirmative action. The school evaluates students on an internal merit index where the maximum possible score is 8,000. Berkeley routinely admits blacks who achieve 4,800 or better, while whites who score below 7,000 are typically rejected, and Asians with a 7,000 score have a 50-percent chance of gaining admission. Other competitive schools have adopted similar stratagems. The consequence is a ratcheting effect: Blacks who could have been admitted on a straightforward academic-achievement basis to Berkeley or Bowdoin are instead induced to attend Harvard, those who might have performed well at San Jose State find themselves in the more demanding environment of Berkeley, and so on. Whole student populations are thereby systematically misplaced.

The results are predictable. Many black students regularly find themselves overmatched by their white collegiate peers. Some manage to overcome this relative disadvantage, but many do not. About 70 percent of white and Asian students admitted to Berkeley eventually graduate, but the graduation rate for blacks is under 40 percent. The statistics conceal an even more pronounced failure for preferential admissions; while 42 percent of regularly admitted blacks graduate within five years, the figure is 18 percent for those admitted under affirmative action categories.

What these figures only hint at are the destructive psychological effects of mismatching students and universities. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds tend, in the best of circumstances, to be troubled by episodes of self-doubt. But to find oneself placed in a situation where one starts off behind most others and where the prospects of success are evanescent is bound to take a severe toll.

Attitudes of nonaffirmative-action students are also likely to be strained, for different reasons. Their sense of fairness is violated when they observe that others have been allowed to play the admissions game under a considerably relaxed set of rules. Many have hometown friends who were rejected although their scores and high school grades compared favorably to those of accepted minority students. Their experience of affirmative action may, unfortunately, inspire rather than extinguish racial antagonism.

It is not, then, surprising that intergroup relations are tense. Sometimes this breaks out into overt recrimination and insult, but more common is the spotting of affront where none was intended. Accusation brings counter-accusation, and college administrations desperate to stanch the stream adopt restrictive speech codes. More than 100 such codes have been instituted or revised in recent years. As a device for securing campus comity they are a poor substitute for a shared sense of participating in a common enterprise.

Not incidentally, the speech codes undermine in particularly blatant fashion universities' traditional commitment to vigorous, unimpeded inquiry and debate. Expression of ideas is limited either overtly or by tacit understanding that nothing is to be said that may give offense. With radars of suspicion permanently deployed, the limitation is severe. It is quite unlike parallels speciously drawn to prohibitions on crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater or assailing someone with "fighting words." Rather, any deviation from the reigning orthodoxy's pieties of politically correct usage is liable to draw the ire of the censors.

As enfant terrible, D'Souza was editor of the raucously conservative Dartmouth Review; he subsequently graduated to the pages of Policy Review and a post in the Reagan adminstration. But Illiberal Education is far from a rightwing hatchet job. Rather than being animated by a desire to settle old political scores, it manifests compassion for the worst-off victims of affirmative action: those whose hopes of advancement through education have been sacrificed on the altar of quotas and ideological purity. It is the work of a fair-minded and generous man.

I believe, though, that it is just these qualities that lead D'Souza to misappraise the motives of those whose policies he opposes. "There is no disputing [their] well-meaning ideals," he writes. But that is precisely what I do dispute. D'Souza takes them to be people possessed of decent intentions but misjudged implementation strategies; I, on the other hand, believe that what they pursue with considerable efficiency are fundamentally corrupt designs. They are, in other words, pods.

Against D'Souza's interpretation I bring to bear the very mass of data that he himself has laboriously accumulated. It unambiguously points to persistent failures either to meliorate minority disadvantages or to elevate the level of discourse at universities; effects have run in the opposite direction. Two decades ago, perhaps even one, a reasonable person might have supposed that things would work out otherwise. Today that is not credible. Yet rather than admit the dismal failure of the program, its acolytes serve it with vigor as great as or greater than ever. Why?

Two possible answers suggest themselves. First, these people may be unusually stupid, either incapable of learning from experience or too content with the ignorance in which they wallow to allow mere facts to trouble it. The problem would then be not pods, but sods.

The explanatory power of the Stupidity Hypothesis is, however, limited. We may occasionally discover a feebleminded Berkeley chancellor, Harvard dean, or Duke litterateur, but the probability of a consistent run is negligible. Besides, P.C. manifestos are by no means the products of third-rate minds. They display wonderful inventiveness in constructing possible worlds in which these policies are glorious successes—and in arguing that one of these is, indeed, the actual world.

I turn, then, to the second possibility: These individuals discern the consequences of their policies but pursue them nonetheless. Either they simply do not care about the damage caused or they care about other things more. What sorts of things? For one, sharpening the class/racial/ sexual struggle by promoting a politics of divisiveness that emphasizes the importance of groups at the expense of the individual. For another, building up résumés that ooze sensitivity to fashionable causes.

It matters quite a lot whether the promoters of P.C. are well-meaning bunglers or genuinely evil people. If hearts are in the right place but heads slightly clouded, then patient education concerning the consequences of affirmative action and its ill-starred progeny can be expected to reverse the decline of the universities.

Illiberal Education is an exercise in patient education, and it concludes with three recommended correctives: Substitute affirmative action policies based on economic disadvantages for those that proceed via racial criteria; refuse to recognize or fund racially separatist student associations, but sanction those based on shared cultural interests even if they appeal predominantly or exclusively to minority students; expose students to both Western and non-Western classic texts that address issues of human equality and difference. D'Souza calls these "modest proposals." I fear they are modest to the point of being insipid. All could be instituted without fundamentally troubling the reign of campus repression.

If one's opponents are pods, a strategy of confrontation and combat is necessary. It is precisely their allegedly good intentions that must be challenged. If political levers inside and outside the university are engaged, there are decent chances of resisting their incursions. The Berkeley experience is indicative. When Asian parents found their children rejected despite better records than accepted blacks and Hispanics, they protested in the courts, legislature, and media. They attracted considerable public sympathy, and the university received an increasingly bad press. Berkeley's chancellor parried with sops to individuals, half-measures, evasions, and outright lies. The parents were not mollified. After suffering months of acute discomfort, the chancellor resigned.

It is a safe bet that this episode has registered with administrators across the country. With a few honorable exceptions, they are more managers than academics, careerists who view with trepidation a forced return to classroom and research duties. What they desire above all is to steer their ships smoothly around possible squalls. They are what we might call passive pods, motivated by sloth and indifference rather than any activist agenda. The exponents of political correctness have shrewdly exploited their fear and lethargy.

What has too often been lacking until now are vociferous challenges from the other direction. Defenders of liberal education must meet stridency with stridency and demonstration with counter-demonstration. Their aim must be to make the lives of administrators truly miserable. Placed in a predicament of damned if they do, damned if they don't, some administrators will resignedly elect to do the right thing. Because they are pusillanimous, there is hope.

Effective combat against campus totalitarianism requires greater emphasis on the severity of harms being deliberately wreaked on universities, their students, and their faculties. These include, but certainly are not limited to:

Corruption of Language. Effective teaching and scholarship depend above all on precise language. The corollary of sloppy expression is sloppy thought. But universities, to sustain political correctness, are driven toward a topsy-turvy wonderland in which words mean their opposites. "Pluralism" and "cultural diversity" become the heavy-handed enforcement of a rigid orthodoxy, "community" the maintenance of Balkanized subdivisions in uneasy coexistence.

The catalogues, job advertisements, and press releases of almost every institution of higher education in the country carry disclaimers of the form, "The University of — is an Equal Opportunity educator and employer and does not discriminate on grounds of race, sex, religion, disability, affectional preference, Vietnam war status…" These same institutions vigorously enforce racial and sexual criteria for hiring and admissions decisions. People habituated to referring to quotas as equal opportunity and selection on grounds of race as nondiscrimination become unable to use language as other than an instrument of obfuscation and deception. They pass on the disease to students and colleagues.

Destruction of Openness. Third-year Georgetown law student Timothy Maguire reported in a recent issue of the Georgetown Law Weekly that blacks admitted to the law school averaged 36 on the LSAT and carried a 3.2 grade-point average while whites averaged, respectively, 43 and 3.7. Out of 100 surveyed white students who had been admitted, none scored below 39 on LSAT. Maguire derived these statistics from a random sampling he performed while working in the Georgetown admissions office.

An uproar ensued. Georgetown Dean Judith Areen complained that the article's "tone, thrust and content are contrary to the entire spirit and policy of the Law Center on admissions." She did not, however, contend that the figures were wrong. Maguire was reprimanded, though allowed to graduate.

What is most striking about this affair is the gap between what the university is willing to do and what it is willing to admit to doing. If the "spirit and policy" of Georgetown's affirmative action program is to apply different standards to black and white applicants, why should the school fail to give the spirit flesh by openly announcing and defending the policy? If Areen believes that Maguire's article was misleading, she now has a splendid opportunity to detail just how the school does decide whom to admit.

Indoctrination, Not Education. New Duke University students are required during orientation week to attend an encounter session at which they receive instruction in the principles of a document called "Duke's Vision." They learn that the basis of a "humane and just society" is something called "multiculturalism." Conversely, they are taught that "uniculturalism" is a denial of the humanity of others. One way to be a uniculturalist is to hold that the same standards imply impartially to all people. Duke's official ideology thus neatly consigns to the dustbin of vile prejudices the bulk of the traditions of philosophical ethics and Western moral theology—all before these students have taken one class.

Playing Fast and Loose with Academic Values. I once taught at a university in an area where American Indians are the predominant minority population. The university offered an Indian Studies program but experienced trouble staffing it. The dean hired as instructor in Indian Studies a man who possessed only a bachelor's degree. In a private letter accompanying the appointment papers, the dean indicated that this individual would be given tenure if, within, the next six years, he earned a master's degree. Shortly before the deadline, he submitted a thesis. It contained a half-dozen pages copied verbatim from a prior study. That source was not attributed. A select faculty committee unanimously determined that plagiarism had occurred. Based on this finding, the (new) dean of the college terminated the man's appointment. But the university chancellor reversed the decision. The chancellor maintained that the intent to plagiarize had not been fully established. He suggested in an internal memorandum that the copying may instead have sprung from "underdeveloped skill in scholarly writing." The instructor's inadequacy as a scholar had become a point in his favor.

There is, though, a positive side to the New Repression. What the politically correct assail are, at bottom, the basic tenets of liberalism. Because P.C. is explicitly illiberal in its apotheosis of the group over the individual, it affords a clear view of what life stripped of liberal safeguards can be like. Many will find that view chilling. Just as an earlier generation rejected the language of "destroying the village to save it," so too will members of this one reject the language of a "pluralism" that imposes conformity and an "equal opportunity" that commences from racial/sexual categorizations.

A kind of natural selection process is already emerging. Those content to be sheep will opt for the path of least resistance and mouth the platitudes the pods teach them. Some will even become pods themselves. But those of greater intellectual and moral integrity will be motivated to put these platitudes to the test of their own experience and common sense. I would not be surprised if the first decades of the next century are graced by a renewed appreciation of liberal values.

Contributing Editor Loren Lomashy is professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and author of Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (Oxford University Press).

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