SmithCollege, an elite women’s school, recently decided to eliminate the pronouns “she” and “her” from its student constitution. This was done, a college representative explained, because “a growing number of students identify themselves as transgender, and say they feel uncomfortable with female pronouns.” Lest anyone feel “uncomfortable” on campus, free speech is limited. For more than a decade, SmithCollege administrators have been trying to disabuse students of various prejudices. Thus any language smacking of oppressive attitudes must be banned. Categories spelled out for students include: ableism; ageism; classism; heterosexism; lookism; racism; and sexism. Even positive comments concerning a person’s appearance, it seems, makes one guilty of “lookism.” Ludicrous as it may seem, such speech codes have become normative on thousands of American campuses.
Political correctness has slowly constricted Americans’ ability to speak freely, illustrating Justice Louis D. Brandeis’ warning that “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding” (p. 4). The “Newspeak” of George Orwell’s 1984 has subtly extended its tentacles throughout America’s culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nation’s schools, as Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University, demonstrates in The Language Police (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). Ravitch has carefully sifted through various state examinations, boards of education policies, and textbook publishers’ guidelines (that often proved difficult to obtain) prescribed by the language police.
Some pressure comes from social conservatives. Fearing to offend them (as in the case of Darwinian evolution or Islam) educators increasingly avoid dealing with subjects that may incite their protests. Thee religious right clearly wants to censor certain educational materials, but its limited success is evident in the established position still enjoyed by evolution in science texts and curricula. The secular left, on the other hand, has quite effectively imposed its agenda. Revering the New Left’s idols of race, class, and gender (standard mantras of current neo-Marxist philosophy), school boards and textbook publishers are carefully imposing a hardened ideology upon the nation’s students.
Flying the flag of “multiculturalism,” educators carefully crusade against prejudice and discrimination, even if it means deleting great works of literature and glossing over historical truths. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example, is routinely attacked as a “racist” book and left unread in the schools. History must be rewritten so as to favorably portray formerly slighted or disparaged groups. To avoid hints of ethnocentrism, no culture can be called “primitive.” “Even those that had no literacy and only meager technology are described as advanced, sophisticated, complex, and highly developed” (p. 141). Democratic, constitutional political systems are no better than dictatorial, nepotistic regimes. One would never suspect, reading today’s textbooks, that Mao and Castro were brutal, genocidal killers, since they are generally accorded a sympathetic treatment.
Accordingly, a widely-used history text, To See a World “lauds every world culture as advanced, complex, and rich with artistic achievement, except for the United States” (p. 142). Such texts “condemn slavery in the Western world but present slavery in Africa and the Middle East as benign, even as a means of social mobility, by which slaves become family members, respected members of the community, and perhaps achieved prosperity and high office. The Aztec ritual of human sacrifice is glossed over as something that their religion required to ensure that the sun would rise the next day, a minor detail in what was otherwise a sophisticated and complex culture that valued education and learning” (p. 143).
The same slant appears whenever “class” and “gender” are considered. Today’s language police insist that the “poor” be defended and the “rich” despised. Mathematics are now be taught to emphasize economic inequalities! Consider one exam question: “Jose’s mother is a prizefighter, and his father is a receptionist in a hair salon. If his mother makes $40,000 in a fight, and his father earns minimus wage, how many years will it take for Jose’s people to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression?” Marx’s “proletariat” (the working class) now appears under the rubric of the “marginalized” and “exploited” of the world. To advance their commitment to an egalitarian society, textbooks also portray a utopian world in which “class distinctions did not exist, not now and not in the past, either” (p. 13). Consequently, Democrats are generally given positive treatment whereas Republicans receive condemnation for their support of the “rich.” Even more pervasively–and reflecting the powerful presence of feminists in educational circles–there is an effort to abolish “gender” distinctions. Women must never be presented as homemakers or as even minimally domestic or emotionally tender-hearted. Men must never be portrayed as brave or strong or working with tools–though it’s fine to show them as weak and emotional. Men must never be shown to be bigger, or stronger, than women. Female plumbers are acceptable–males, never! Female, but never male, attorneys grace the pages of today’s texts. Daddy may stay at home with the kids, but Mommy always goes to work in a plush office. In general, the historical role of women is exaggerated and their “rights” and eminence in non-Western cultures falsely portrayed. Language, especially, must be rigorously controlled in this area. “Gender bias is implied by any use of the term man, as in “mankind” or “man in the street” or “salesman” (p. 25). In a 30 page appendix, “a glossary of banned words, usages, stereotypes and topics,” Ravitch documents, simply by listing words proscribed by the language police, the extent to which this extends. Banned words include: actress; average man; boyish figure; brotherhood; busboy; cameraman; career woman; cattleman; caveman; chairman; clergyman; cowboy; cowgirl; craftsmanship.
Responding to all this, Ravitch concludes: “The question before us, the battle really, is whether we have the will to fight against censorship. I, for one, want to be free to refer to “the brotherhood of man” without being corrected by the language police. I want to decide for myself whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair). I want to see My Fair Lady and laugh when Professor Higgoins sings, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” As a writer, I want to know that I am free to use the words and images of my choosing” (p. 169). She supports, by endorsing, an ancient American commitment, expressed by John Adams in 1765 when he wrote: “‘Let us dare to think, speak, and write. . . . Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing.’ Even in our schools” (p. 170).
The evidence set forth in The Language Police should concern us all. Whether in the schools, press, or churches, there are folks determined to sanitize our speech, even when truth is compromised. To speak or write sensitively, tactfully, does not require politically correct shackles. A free people must be free to think and speak without fear. That freedom is currently eroding, and it will take a struggle to regain it.
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Impressed with Ravitch’s scholarship, I secured a copy of her Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform (New York: Touchstone, c. 2000) and found it to be a fine historical account of the past century, finding therein developments that help explain the current concern for political correctness. In brief: school reformers, “progressives” personified by John Dewey, sought to dislodge traditional academics (developing proficiency in subjects such as Latin and mathematics) and establish societal change as the main aim of education. Though stoutly contested until mid-century, the cultural revolution of the ’60s finally implanted progressivism in the nation’s schools.
Dewey–and his less famous colleagues at ColumbiaUniversity’s Teachers College–saw the public schools as a tool with which to collectivize society. Rather than liberating individual students’ minds–the traditionalists’ notion of education–these progressives wanted to make society more egalitarian and socialistic. Teachers were to be social workers rather than scholars. Indeed, to Dewey, the teacher is “‘the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God'” (p. 459). Students were to have “fun” doing various things, engaging in group projects and discussions instead of working hard to master difficult subjects. To William Kilpatrick, a highly-regarded colleague of Dewey, “dancing, dramatics, and doll playing” were preferable to classical languages and mathematics (p. 181).
Both Kilpatrick and Dewey admired the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s and wanted to reconstruct the U.S. in accord with it. Dewey admired “the Soviet’s efforts to dismantle the traditional family, which Marxists considered ‘exclusive and isolating in effect and hence as hostile to a truly communal life'” (p. 206), and replacing the family with the school has always been a mainstay in the progressives’ agenda. Dewey especially praised the Soviets’ use of the school to promote social change, shaping children in accord with socialist ideology, what he termed “‘a unified religious social faith'” (p. 208). Dewey and Kilpatrick particularly admired the “project method” used in Soviet classrooms–students working together to solve problems rather than listening to teachers lecture. “We teach children, not subject matter” was their mantra. Another Columbia professor, George Counts, also visited the USSR and lavished praise on both the nation and its dictator, Stalin. During the 1930s, he “became the most forceful advocate for radical ideas in American education” (p. 211). That Stalin relied on censorship and propaganda hardly disturbed the professor, for his cause was noble and the world was being transformed. Doing his own propagandizing back home, Counts addressed the National Education Association in 1932, calling for “elimination of capitalism, property rights, private profits, and competition, and establishment of collective ownership of natural resources, capital, and the means of production and distribution” (p. 217). He also worked within the American Historical Association, helping draft a 1934 report declaring that the era of individualism and laissez faire economics was ending, to be replaced by a “‘new age of collectivism'” (p. 228). Broadus Mitchell, an economist at Johns Hopkins, urged teachers, “‘above all others, to become propagandists’ against the economic system and to stir discontent ‘into the mind of the millions'” (p. 230).
Ironically, at the very time Americans were praising the USSR’s educational system it was being discarded by the Soviets! In the mid-30s, Russian schools reverted to a very traditional curriculum! Subsequently, especially following Stalin’s bloody purges, some scholars (including George Counts) changed their minds and began to support the formerly-despised liberal tradition in education. Counts even turned against state-controlled education and its potential for mind-control. Dissenters and critics of progressive education, notably Robert Maynard Hutchins, made the case for traditional, academic studies, and large numbers of ordinary Americans supported them. Consequently, students in the ’40s and ’50s (such as myself) continued to take Latin and math–though we’d been subjected to progressivism’s “see and say” reading techniques rather than phonics in grammar school.
The cultural revolution of the ’60s, however, revived progressivist ideology, and “the zeitgeist in American education swung wildly toward the liberationist, pseudorevolutionary consciousness that was roiling the rest of the culture” (p. 384). Radical books, such as Summerhill, by A.S. Neill, and Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, proved highly influential. (I confess to using the Postman book in my Philosophy of Education classes for several years in the ’70s!) Carl Rogers’ psychological views, calling for “personal growth” through “encounter groups” and “sensitivity training” powerfully impacted teachers and preachers alike.
Consequently, Ravitch shows, SAT scores steadily declined. Foreign language enrollments collapsed. Mathematics and science classes lost allure. Students took fewer classes, studied less, learned less. They did, however, enjoy “values clarification” classes that allowed them to construct (in small group discussions groups) their own ethics. Indeed, constructivism became something of a religious dogma for educators–students do not discover, but rather design for themselves, what they take to be true. Flattered by their “facilitators” in the classroom, students excelled in self-esteem but little else. In sum: “the hedonistic, individualistic, anarchic spirit of the sixties was good for neither the educational mission of the schools nor the intellect, health, and well-being of young people” (p. 407). And neither was the progressive education it implemented!
Ravitch writes well, making the story she tells both compelling and alarming. To understand why our schools are as they are, Left Back provides answers.
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The developments Ravitch describes in the public schools have also occurred in the nation’s universities, as Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate demonstrate in The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (New York: The Free Press, c. 1998). Kors is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; Silverglate is an criminal defense attorney who has taught at HarvardLawSchool and an active member of the ACLU. They wrote the book because they wanted to alert the nation to an immanent peril: “Universities have become the enemy of a free society, and it is time for the citizens of that society to recognize this scandal of enormous proportions and to hold these institutions to account” (p. 3). Since, “morally and practically, none of us enjoys more freedom of speech than is accorded the least popular speaker” (p. 101), what takes places on campuses should concern everyone. Commending the book, Wendy Kaminer wrote: “unlike most critics of political correctness,” the authors “have no political agenda of their own to advance, except the preservation of liberty. They take seriously the obligation to defend the rights of all individuals, adversaries as well as friends. The ShadowUniversity is a scrupulously fair, painstakingly documented account of repression on America’s campuses, where students and faculty members are regularly denied fundamental rights of speech, conscience, and due process. I never knew it was quite this bad” ( book jacket endorsement).
For Professor Kors this threat became very real at his own university when a Jewish student, Eden Jacobowitz, was disciplined for yelling “Shut up, you water buffalo!” to a noisy group of black women disturbing the peace of his dormitory. The women claimed they’d been subjected to “racial harassment,” and the university’s disciplinary machinery swung quickly into action. Jacobowitz was accused of violating Penn’s speech code, and faced expulsion. Thanks to the intervention of Kors and Silverglate, as well as national media attention, and after a drawn-out series of hearings, the charges were dropped. But the case illustrates the extent to which university administrators will go in seeking to suppress free speech and the deviousness of their techniques.
The authors carefully examine the constitutional meaning of free speech and the university tradition of academic freedom, noble principles basic to America’s free society. (Though a bit technical, one of the virtues of this book is its sterling scholarship, citing court cases and telling examples. The authors have examined hundreds of university speech codes, and anyone wanting to truly understand the implications of these issues will benefit from their analyses.) Such freedoms have always had their foes, but today’s threat comes mainly from the “political and cultural left” (p. 67). EmoryUniversity’s faculty senate, for example, rejected a resolution “specifying that ‘all judgments under this policy related to freedom of expression would be consistent with First Amendment standards'” (p. 160). PC preempts freedom!
Though university professors contribute to the fervor for political correctness, the real assault on individual liberty, Kors and Silverglate say, is the “shadow university” that has boomed under the aegis of “student services.” “Increasingly, offices of student life, residence offices, and residence advisors have become agencies of progressive social work whose mission is to bring students to mandatory political enlightenment” (p. 211). Here we find compulsory orientation sessions, designed to browbeat students into accepting feminist rhetoric and homosexual activity. Wendy Shalit, for example, was forced to attend a “Feel-What-It-Is-Like-To-Be-Gay” sensitivity session at WilliamsCollege (p. 226). Dormitories are policed to make sure nothing offends racial or sexual sensitivities.
Identifying the source of such views, the authors write: “The contemporary movement that seeks to restrict liberty on campus arose specifically in the provocative work of the late Marxist political and social philosopher Herbert Marcuse . . . who gained a following in the New Left student movement of the ’60s” (p. 68). Though he claimed to believe in “freedom,” he redefined its meaning in accord with the thought Rousseau, Marx, and Gramsci, something quite different from Jefferson and Madison. And his “prescriptions are the model for the assaults on free apeech in today’s academic world” (p. 71). Marcuse’s freedom was highly selective and admittedly “repressive”! Some should enjoy it, others should not. Radicals should be free to say literally anything, but conservatives should be gagged. “The use of the epithet ‘nigger’ by a white toward a black would be outlawed as sracist, whereas Malcolm X’s famous characterization of Caucasians was the ‘white devil’ would not” (p. 75). Spike Lee’s rants must be allowed, but not Mark Twain’s novels. Education should be propaganda aimed at social leveling; teachers should be revolutionaries intent on social change. “Thus, for example, history would be taught so that the student understands ‘the frightening extent to which history was made and recorded by and for the victors, that is, the extent to which history was the development of oppression'” (p. 71). To see Marcuse’s shadow in the workings of todays “language police” requires no great imagination! “The struggle for liberty on American campuses is, in its essence, the struggle between Herbert Marcuse and John Stuart Mill” (p. 110).
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