In the first half of 1991, a quiet debate over the orthodox-left wisdom on college campuses erupted into a public feud. "Political correctness" entered the media vocabulary in a big way. It was a barroom brawl, with friends and foes of P.C. slugging it out in weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies, and virtually any magazine that had space to cover the affair. By the time summer rolled around, various factions had declared themselves politically correct, anti-politically correct, and anti-anti-politically correct. The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan was, however the only person to declare himself anti-anti-anti-politically correct.
The political correctness debate cast a good deal of light upon American universities. Certainly the feuders involved, particularly on the left, were some of the smartest and toughest intellectual pitbulls in America. But all the verbal scratching, clawing, pushing and shoving by the P.C and anti-P.C. forces leads to a wider question: What are American colleges and universities like?
They are certainly peculiar places. The best illustration of the essential oddness of the academic world was in a New York Times Magazine report on the annual convention of the Modem Language Association. The reporter noted that men entering the job market for English and foreign language professorships routinely worry about which earrings they should wear in interviews. Earrings, you see, are important "signifiers" of class, privilege, and status, the reporter noted, and wearing an aesthetically incorrect earring can decide whether or not an applicant is hired.
It is also true that most college professors say they are liberals. The July/August American Enterprise has two pages of polling data about professors, from a survey by the Wirthlin Group and Opinion Research Corp. for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The most liberal group surveyed were professors of public affairs, 88 percent of whom said they were liberals. None of the professors of military science polled declared themselves liberal, though 90 percent thought themselves middle-of-the-road. Seventy-six percent of humanities professors (including historians, philosophers, literature professors, and theologians) said they were liberal, and 15 percent said they were conservative. Among social scientists (including psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists), the vote was 72 percent for liberalism and 14 percent for conservatism. (The remaining professors in these surveys thought they were middle-of-the-road.)
Does this mean the left has turned the campus into a Stalinesque or Maoist institution? Hardly. There are two reasons why most American colleges don't resemble totalitarian states. First, most college students these days are apolitical. Over the years, I have quizzed recent alumni of private and public institutions across the country. They all tell me that about 5 percent of students are devout leftists or liberals and about 5 percent are conservative or libertarian. The only party the remaining 90 percent devoutly support is one involving several kegs of beer and a very loud band. If the American professoriate are tenured radicals, whose only purpose in life is to win the hearts and minds of the students for communist revolution, they are agitators whom Mao, Lenin, or Eugene Debs would have swiftly fired for incompetence.
Second, the "political correctness" virus has not affected all disciplines. In particular, the hard sciences and mathematics have withstood the left-wing onslaught largely because their foundations rest not on a canon of accumulated-but-changeable wisdom but on laws and principles based on the results of experiments conducted over hundreds of years. A feminist named Alison Jaggar charged that Copernicus replaced "the female (earth)-centered universe with a male (sun)-centered universe" but even she could not prove that the sun orbited the earth.
And consider economics, a social science firmly grounded in mathematics. Most economists say they are liberals. In the Wirthlin Group poll, cited earlier, the liberal-conservative split among economists was 63-20. But if you polled the members of the American Economic Association on various questions, you would find that nearly all economists realize the importance of free markets. My guess would be that 99 out of 1000 AEA members would be opposed to protectionism and 96 out of 100 would favor abolition of rent control.
Is this uniformity of opinion among economists, as Robert Kuttner has charged, due to a form of "economic correctness"? No. The reason economists favor free trade is not that economists think protectionism is yucky but that centuries of data support the notion that free trade leads to growth, and protectionism to autarky and decline. Kuttner's hardline socialist views have been vigorously debated—and proven wrong. That is why a tiny minority of economists would side with Kuttner on most issues.
So political correctness remains largely confined to humanities departments. But even in the humanities, as David P. Bryden argues in the spring Public Interest, the debate is not over what courses are taught, but how they are taught. Most of the courses proposed by campus leftists, Bryden argues, could be as easily be taught by liberals or conservatives. Consider the demand for more courses on race, class, or gender. Steven Goldberg or George Gilder could easily teach the politics of gender; Thomas Sowell or Charles Murray would be superb lecturers on racial politics. A course on classes in society could easily accommodate such subjects as the privileges of the Soviet nomenklatura and "the antibourgeois, antimarket prejudices of intellectuals." Similarly, the Great Books do not have to be taught in a "conservative" way; Leon Trotsky loved the classics as much as Allan Bloom does. Countless professors teach about politics without teaching "correct" interpretations.
What leftists want, of course, is to control not curriculum, but content. Thus, the end result of the radical attempt to control political discussion on the campus is to reduce discussion of the controversial topics they champion. Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom, for example, regularly taught a course on the history of race relations in America. When radicals deemed him "insensitive" for, among other things, assigning readings from the diaries of colonial slave owners but not from slaves themselves (even though no slave diaries from the period exist), Thernstrom canceled the course rather than constantly be tried for thought crimes. Bryden also reports that many liberal law professors regularly refuse to review feminist books or teach about rape "because they don't want to ruin their reputation among feminists at leading law schools."
The ostracism placed on minority or female scholars who do not choose to write about their race or gender also restricts debate. In a meaty interview in the spring Academic Questions, Kenny Williams, a black woman who teaches English at Duke, describes how her colleagues wondered why she would write a book about Sherwood Anderson. "At first I didn't understand what the problem was, but then it dawned on me: Sherwood Anderson was a white man, and black female academics are supposed to stick to black affairs." According to Williams, another black hired at Duke, a Far Eastern scholar fluent in Mandarin Chinese, felt uncomfortable because he was constantly pigeonholed as "the black Chinese historian." "The university prefers black academics who specialize in what is called 'the black experience,'" Williams says.
Will the radicals ultimately triumph in their efforts to silence dissent? Perhaps. But one encouraging sign that leftist influence may have peaked is the emergence of Lingua Franca, a breezy bimonthly. Lingua Franca is a campus version of Spy. It's wildly popular at universities. A graduate student I know at the University of North Carolina reports that issues sell out at the college bookstore two hours after they arrive. It is also not political, which gives liberals and conservatives free rein to reprint from its pages. A recent article by "G. Kindrow" on affirmative action hiring, for example, was excerpted both by The Wall Street Journal editorial page and by Harper's Magazine, an unprecedented event.
But what is most cheering about Lingua Franca is its penchant for humor. In the April issue, for example, Duke English professor Frank Lentricchia is profiled. While his "neo-Marxist" views are mentioned, what is more important to the editors of the journal is that Lentricchia, in his 1983 work Criticism and Social Change, broke a previously unknown social barrier and posed for the dust jacket in his shirtsleeves. In other issues, Lingua Franca has profiled scholars who research "Star Trek"–based pornography; parodied the deconstruction movement by examining how "Gilligan's Island" would be critiqued by French scholars; and reported that black women have walked out of the National Women's Studies Association resulting in the organization's firing all its staff and accumulating a $64,000 deficit.
Any journal that refers to "the stun gun of sociological prose [that] has stupefied too many otherwise alert readers" has to be cheered. For the foes of political correctness have made a crucial mistake—they have cast their antagonists as tyrants rather than clowns.
The authors of such articles as "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" and "Revolt Into Style: Graham Greene Meets the Sex Pistols" do not, by their words, bring Western civilization to a close. Their writings are unintentional satire, not tragedy. The surest way the politically correct can be checked is by the healthy and merciless laughter of men and women free to say what they please.
Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.