Illiberal Education: Political Correctness and the College Experience
June 16, 2014
This lecture was delivered on March 3, 1992, as part of the Ashbrook Center’s “Major Issues Lecture Series” at Ashland University. The subject for the 1991-92 Major Issues Lecture Series is “Striving Towards Excellence in Education.” Because, as Governor George Voinovich has said, these lectures “cover topics that are innovative and substantive within the educational field,” and because the “subject is of particular relevance considering the challenges facing our current educational system,” the Ashbrook Center is publishing the le3ctures under the series “Excellence in Education.” It is our hope that the wide circulation of these monographs, and the book to follow, will add to the much needed national dialogue on educational issues. Other speakers and authors in the series include: Denis P. Doyle, Pete du Pont, Chester Finn, Rita Kramer, Lynne Cheney, and Lamar Alexander. The opinions expressed in these publications do not necessarily reflect the views of the John M. Ashbrook Center or its Board of Advisors. The Center is grateful to the John M. Olin Foundation for its generous support of the series.
F. Clifton White
Since many of you are from the business community and are therefore probably somewhat unfamiliar with th required etiquette of Political Correctness, which is part of my subject for today, I thought I would enlighten you for the question and answer session. If you have occasion to refer to American Indians, I’m sure most of you know by now, they should be “native Americans;” if you have cause to refer to you pet, it is now you “animal companion,” and I think some of you know that if you make reference to short people, they are apparently “vertically challenged.” Keep this in mind.
Before I wrote my book on higher education, I guess I was mainly known in connection with my infamous undergraduate campus newspaper, The Dartmouth Review, which had been involved in a ten year skirmish with the university administration when I was an undergraduate. We used to tell the deans that taking on the Review is a little bit like wrestling with a pig, because not only does it get everyone dirty, but the pig likes it.
My topic for today is a somewhat difficult one; it is the topic of race, a subject that has been difficult and divisive in this country form its very beginning. There is a kind of silent revolution taking place on American campuses, a revolution that goes by many names. We hear about pluralism, about multiculturalism, about the need for diversity. Basically, what’s underlying this is a more fundamental change—American society is becoming more diverse, more heterogeneous. One reason for this is immigration. It used to be the case that most immigrants who came to this country came from Europe; that is no longer true. Most immigrants today come from Asia or Latin America and so we are witnessing what one writer has called the “recoloring of America,” a kind of changing of the national complexion.
A second factor is that within this country, the birth rates of minority groups are somewhat higher than those of whites. So when you put these two factors together, you see that this country is undergoing a kind of gradual, or not so gradual, transition, and I think quite properly a lot of colleges and universities are saying young people need to be prepared or equipped for the special challenges of living in and governing an increasingly diverse, or multiracial, society. That is a legitimate task. I say this because I want to emphasize that the whole debate, the whole argument, focuses on the means or the specific policies that are used to achieve these shared goals.
Now, at the University of California at Berkeley, I recently approached the director of admissions, a fellow named Robert Bailey. I asked him a straight-forward question: “Imagine the case of a student applying to this university, Berkeley, who has a grade average in high school of a B+ to A- and an SAT score of about 1200 out of 1600—in other words, a very good student. If this student happens to be Hispanic, what would be the probability that he or she would be admitted to Berkeley?” He replies, “The probability would be 100%.” The student would be sure to get in. I said, “Fine. Now let’s imagine the student with the same grades, same test scores, the same extra curricular talent, but the student is like me, or Asian descent, or the student is white. What would be the probability this student would be admitted to Berkeley?” He said, “The probability would be approximately 5%.” In other words, what Berkeley has done, which is increasingly not the exception but the rule, is to establish some form of racial preferences in its student admissions policy. To some degree, these also extend to faculty hiring. Some critics have said the university is getting rid of merit in its application process—not true. Berkeley is considering merit, but only within your racial group. If you are an Asian applicant to Berkeley, Berkeley will take the best Asians; if you are an Hispanic applicant, Berkeley will admit the best Hispanics, and so on. But it is very important to realize that there is no direct competition across racial lines. Each applicant seems to compete for admissions to this selective college by running or competing within his own racial lane. I think this kind of policy, this policy that goes by the name of affirmative action, raises some fundamental questions of justice.
First, it is true that these university admissions policies are implemented to combat a long history of discrimination; that is undeniable. The question I want to raise is whether universities are very effective in fighting discrimination by practicing discrimination. In other words, do we effectively combat historical racism by institutionalizing what seem to be new forms of racism?
The second factor is: Who should bear the costs of these so-called affirmative action policies? In the particular case of Asians, for example, we have a minority that has itself suffered some discriminations and that has clearly played no part in the historical crimes for which affirmative action is said to be a needed solution. So why is it fair to impose some of the burden of the cost for this policy on this particular group?
A third factor, closely related, is: What effect does affirmative action have on the groups it seeks to help? I strolled across the Berkeley campus to what the administration calls, somewhat euphemistically, the “Office of Retention.” There I was told that the dropout rate for affirmative action groups is disastrously high. For example, while whi8tes and Asians graduate from Berkeley at the rate of about 75% to 80%, the graduation rate for Hispanic students is only about 50%. Only one in two students graduated. For black students, it is even lower than that. And these figures, by the way, are not unique to Berkeley; they are duplicated on the national scale. The affirmative action policies are, to some degree, misplacing a number of minority students in higher education. What I am trying t suggest is that these policies do not increase the aggregate or total number of minority kids in higher education—not at all. The total number of minority students in higher education has remained roughly constant for over twenty years. In fact, in a number of years it has gone down. The effect of affirmative action policies or racial preference policies has been to take young people who have the grades and test scores to be admitted to Virginia Community College and accept them by a preference into the University of Virginia, or to take kids who have the grades and test scores to succeed at UVA and admit them to Berkeley, or to take the kids who have the grades and test scores for Berkeley and get them admitted to Princeton, or to Yale. There is a kind of ratcheting-up effect which is an important factor. It is not the only factor, but it is an important factor behind the depressingly high dropout rates that minority students suffer in American higher education.
Now, a second factor that is very noticeable to anyone who is close to or on campus is what one Afro-American Studies professor, Troy Duster, has called the “New Racial Separatism” on campus. It is a very striking fact that 35 years ago this country made a kind of public commitment to the ideal of desegregation—the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education—the goal of integration, the integration of public schools, modes of transportation, restaurants, and so on. Strangely, 35 or 40 years later, if you stroll the campuses of our finest private or state colleges, not even colleges of the Deep South, but colleges of the Northeast, West, and the Midwest, you are struck by a kind of evident or conspicuous racial separatism. There is not a lot of interaction among different groups. Groups tend to hang separately. I am not, by the way, speaking solely of voluntary association—a group of students eating together—I am talking about what is often university subsidized or, to some degree, university recognized racial separatism on campus. For example, it is not uncommon on campuses today, including a number of campuses in this state, to have separate dormitory facilities for minorities. The University of Pennsylvania recently funded a black yearbook, called Positively Black, in which black kids appear in a black yearbook and everyone else appears in a kind of general yearbook. It is frequent on college campuses today to have separate minority orientations, so that when they show up on campus as a freshman, minority students are separated and given their own unique initiation into campus life. I am talking, in other words, or a somewhat advanced pattern of racial separatism, one that I think really calls into question whether or not our universities are committed to establishing some model of a common culture, by which I mean, simply, a community of young people with a shared commitment to what liberal education is all about.
Now, a lot of young people on campuses are aware of these facts and are aware of the existence, even the pervasiveness, of covert forms of racial preferences. They are aware of the striking phenomenon of racial separatism on campus, and they are beginning to talk about these subjects among themselves. They have realized very quickly that when they talk about these subjects, it is quite hard to discuss them in public; you have to talk about them, by in large, in private. There is a reason for this, by the way. When you discuss a subject like affirmative action or racial preferences on campus, you are going to cause some distress or some pain to minority students on campus. The reason for this is that young people are naturally somewhat insecure and you come to a good school like Ashland and you wonder: “Am I as smart as everyone else here? Can I do the work? Do I belong here?” Affirmative Action policies put these questions into italic. They put a kind of invisible question mark or quotation mark, if you will, around the achievements of minorities, regardless of whether we benefit from these particular programs, and so when you talk about topics like racial preferences or affirmative action, you are raising a very touchy question. Who deserves to be here? Who has the right to be part of this community as a legitimate member? These questions, as I say, are going to cause some discomfort or some distress.
Universities know this, college deans know this, and professors know this. Many of them would like to protect what they see as the legitimate self-pride of minority students on campus. They try to do this by regulating the public discussion of a whole series of controversial questions surrounding race, ethnicity, and , to a lesser degree, sexual orientation. It is this effort to regulate the public discussion that we call the effort to impose, or enforce P.C., or Politically Correct, points of view. It is an enterprise aimed at teaching young people, not how to think, but what to think on a whole range of controversial questions. It is an effort to armtwist young people to adopt “sensitive,” or “enlightened,” or “Politically Correct” points of view. So a whole range of topics that, I think, should be part of the legitimate domain of discussion have become somewhat driven from the public square. Are these racial preference policies fair? Are there differences between men and women, and do these differences have any social significance? Should one be able to articulate moral criticism of homosexuality? All of these topics have become somewhat taboo, and they are difficult to talk about both inside and outside the classroom. That effort of chilling the public debate, I think, constitutes, to some degree, the essence of P.C., or Political Correctness.
Let me say, thirdly, that there is a new development that is perhaps the most serious of all, and that is an effect that is aimed at transforming the traditional liberal curriculum. This effort says that the existing curriculum in our colleges and universities reflects a very systematic bias, in fact, a systematic bias of white males (sometimes it is added “dead” white males), and the argument is made that the curriculum need to be transformed in order to represent other groups. What about women? What about representing minorities, persons of color, natives of the third world, and so on? This sort of critique has become very cogent, very articulate, and very influential in the academy. What’s interesting about it, by the way, is that it is, to some degree, nothing more that the argument for affirmative action transplanted onto the reading list or, in other words, the multiple track racial admissions system that I mentioned earlier. The system of racial preference does not stop at the admissions gate, but it lives on; it is mirrored, it is duplicated, it is replicated onto the argument over what students learn, and the argument is made very powerfully today that the curriculum needs to be rationed, to some degree, along the lines of race, along the lines of gender, along the lines of sexual orientation, and so on.
I think it is important to ask, “Is the critique of the curriculum, in fact, true? Is the curriculum, in fact, biased in this nefarious way?” We can look very briefly at the example of Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton was a white male, I will admit. Isaac Newton may have been a heterosexual, I don’t know. I also don’t know if this is particularly relevant to any discussion of the theory of gravity. Here is an idea that would seem to be perfectly accessible to women, to Hispanics, to natives of India, and so on, but the argument against learning it seems to confuse Newton’s origins with the content of his ideas; moreover, his ideas seem to be unrelated to, or to transcend, the fact that Newton may have been white, or male , or whatever. We could ask this about Shakespeare. Shakespeare was a white male, but so were a lot of other poets who composed in Elizabethan England. Why do we read Shakespeare, and not them? Is it because a group, a cabal of white males, got together and said, “Gee, he’s whiter than any of us?” Obviously not. The appeal of Shakespeare has everything to do with the content of his ideas, with his sonnets, with his plays, and so on.
So, I think, unfortunately, the danger in the liberal arts curriculum is that we are moving toward what I call a sort of weird “cultural olympics” in which each group is approaching the reading list and asking this question, “What did my guys do?” This is a somewhat narrow and , I think, a somewhat limiting question, that tends to take knowledge and ideas, and apply them as though they are simply the cultural patent of a particular ethnic group, as though written works can be reduced to little more than the race, the gender, and the sexual behavior of their authors. The logic of this view is almost something like supposing that a lot of young white guys get up in the morning and are very happy when they look in the mirror because Homer wrote the Iliad. This assumption of the cultural paten on knowledge, I think, is not really what liberal education is about. It tends to reduce ideas to simple accidents of race, of gender, or ethnicity. To me, liberal education reflects an effort to transcend those narrow categories. Let me give you an example; I mean, is it not true that I could take as my role model, if I wanted to, Martin Luther King, Jr., even if he was African-American, a black man? Is it not true that Martin Luther King, Jr., got some of his ideas from my countryman Mahatma Gandhi? Gandhi got many of his ideas in England and in South Africa in a tradition of civil disobedience with its roots in people like Thoreau. The essence of liberal education is not to freeze ideas into a particular, narrow cultural category, but to try to find ways, to take a kind of empathetic leap across cultural boundaries.
In summary, it seems that three of the most fundamental principles of higher education, or liberal education, are being gradually undermined or eroded. First, liberal education, I think, should be about equal opportunity, about giving everyone a fair chance. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it pretty well when he said that he had a dream that someday people would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The unfortunate reality of life on all too many American campuses, and I know of very few exceptions, is some form of race-based preferences, both in student admissions, as well as in faculty hiring. Second, liberal education should be about integration, about creating something resembling a common community. The reality of life an all to many campuses, again there are virtually no exceptions, is a very noticeable and evident racial separatism, the so-called “new segregation” on campus. And their, I think liberal education should be about free and open debate, about free speech, and I think about high academic standards to prepare our young people to compete in an increasingly competitive society. The reality of life, all too often, is that even free speech is regarded on campus today as being, well, one value that needs to be balanced against, or subordinated to, or sacrificed on the altar of other social and political values, like sensitivity or diversity.
So, I think, in a quite serious sense, some of the basic pillars of what higher education is all about, are being attacked, are being chipped away at, are being toppled, and I think those of us who care about higher education, those of us who invest in higher education either as parents, or as tax payers, or as alumni, need to ask some very though questions about what our universities are doing with the money and what kinds of policies are being put into effect. Not in order to topple or reverse this multi-racial revolution, but in order to constructively re-direct it so that we can preserve the dual virtues of excellence and equity, so that we can prepare our young people to be effective workers and at the same time help them to be good citizens in an emerging multi-racial society.
Question: How are the cutbacks in higher education going to affect this issue?
Dinesh D’Souza: Well, I don’t know if that is the fundamental problem. It is a part of the problem, but not the whole story. A look at the issue of funding reveals that in the last few decades the amount of funding, not only in higher education but in the public schools, has increased dramatically. Appropriations have gone up in geometric fashion. This is corresponding with a kind of staggering decline in academic standards. In fact, if you drew a graph, you would not be wrong in concluding that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of money spent on public education or higher education and the quality of students coming out of the system. I’m not saying that funding cannot help particular programs; simply that it’s not the only answer. What we need, I think, in the public schools is more emphasis on questions of discipline, more emphasis on rigorous curricula, and more emphasis on requirements. This is also true in colleges. I think the issue is not so much a problem of funding, but a problem of priority.
A lot of colleges these days are establishing new requirements that require the study of Afro-American history or of a non-Western culture. I’m not against that. The problem is not that young people are ignorant of Africa. The problem is that young people are ignorant. A lot of people are graduating from our colleges without a basic understanding of some of the basic principles of their own culture. I would say that if we’re going to establish requirements we should start by saying that you should not be able to finish college without having some understanding of the American Founding—maybe read The Federalist—or without some understanding of the Civil War—maybe have to read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—and not without some exposure to the issues in the Civil Rights Movement—maybe read Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
I saw a rather depressing sight the other day. A student on television was saying he was excited to discover the canonical writings of the Civil Rights Movement. He said eh was particularly happy to come across the works of Malcolm the Tenth. So there is a kind of dismal failure to do the job of what one writer has called “transmitting the cultural gonads from one generation to the next.” Once that basic knowledge is acquired, if you want to expand your horizons read the Koran, by all means read Confucius, and so on. But you have to start with the basics and that is not being transmitted.
Question: How do you feel about the issue of freedom of choice in education?
Dinesh D’Souza: Well, in principle I am emphatically in favor of freedom of choice in public education, in the elementary and secondary schools. I know that the debate about choice breaks down to whether or not parents should be able to choose which public school their children go to and whether or not they should be given vouchers or tax credits to go to a private school. I’m certainly sympathetic to experiments in those areas because I think we need to explore more than one avenue to see what seems to work best. In colleges the debate is much more complicated, because very often parents will ask, “To which college should I send my child?” Some college guides are being published that do things like emphasize schools that are more or less politically correct, and say look, you may want to send your child to this school or that. Very often the real problem is not so much going to one school or another, but trying to have a road map within a particular institution to know what kinds of courses you should be taking in order to get fundamental exposure to the kinds of ideas that you should have. So, in other words, when you show up at a college today (when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth for example) you are confronted with a smorgasbord. I mean it is a bewildering array of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of courses, and you are given absolutely no guidance of what coherent curricula you can develop to provide you with a sound basis for a liberal education. There seems to be a kind of moral equivalency between forces and all you have to do is satisfy some palate of distributive requirements. I think what you students need is a lot more guidance and maybe a lot more requirements so that you are given a firm grounding before you go on to choose necessary electives.
Question: How do you increase the proportions of Hispanics or other minorities if you don’t give them some break or some form of preference?
Dinesh D’Souza: I have argued that the answer, in the short term, is that we might be better off if we’re going to have affirmative action to have affirmative action not based on race, but affirmative action based on socio-economic disadvantage. By this I mean that we certainly have poor blacks and Hispanics in this country, but we also have poor whites and poor Asians. I think if we said we were going to take this number of seats and allocate them based on disadvantage or need, this would benefit the most disadvantaged students from all groups. Now, blacks and Hispanics happen to be disproportionately concentrated in the ranks of the social-economically disadvantaged, so my program would, nevertheless, extend benefits to those needy students. We also recognize that there are a lot of blacks and Hispanics in the middle or in the upper middle class and it is very unclear why those families deserve benefits at all. It is not clear that they have been in any way held back in competing for the scarce resources of our selective colleges. So, I think a socio-economically based program would work better than a race based program.
Question: What about the questions of charges of racism and prejudice that are made to freely? Also, what about the politics of history, the historical experiences of particular groups?
Dinesh D’Souza: We have to start by acknowledging a fact, and that is that there is a problem of racism in this country. There is a very serious legacy of discrimination, or slavery, and of segregation. The scars are still with us today. That being said, what I’m trying to suggest is that we should not try to fight that discrimination by contributing to it. If you want to stop discrimination the best way to do that is to stop discriminating. So, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the 1960s was really based on two ideas. One was the idea of integration: Brown v. Board of Education. The second idea was that of equal opportunity, well represented in Martin Luther King’s line on judging us on the content of our character. The fact is that twenty-five years later we have an entirely new civil rights agenda. In fact, many of the leaders of civil rights today will stand up and say, ‘We don’t believe in desegregation. We don’t believe in the ideal of integration, forget about the melting pot. We believe in affirmative action, of ethnic differences, and in a celebration of ethnic identity. Don’t talk to us about judging people on the content of their character; we don’t believe in this naïve notion of color blindness. We believe in the indispensable necessity of some form of racial preference.” My point is that we have metamorphosed into a new civil rights agenda and a controversial agenda. A lot of Americans are opening up their eyes and saying, “this is not what I signed up for.” Now when they do that a lot of activists will jump up and say, “You’re against civil rights! You’re trying to turn back the clock! You’re trying to establish the bad old days of segregation!” This charge, I think, misses the point that there are two competing visions of civil rights. It is a very legitimate question to ask which is better for this country. So what I would like to say is that this debate over competing visions of Civil Rights needs to take place.
A second point about the politics of history is that I think it’s healthy that some of the campuses are confronting questions that have been swept under the rug for some time. For example, there is nothing wrong about having a debate over achievements, the good side and the bad side of, let us say, Christopher Columbus. There is no question that to some degree Columbus was deified in the 19th century. But we sometimes try to replace the deification of Columbus with the deification of the American Indian. We now have a kind of Kevin Costner romance with the American Indian which presents a kind of elysian or Adonic view that is itself untrue to the historical record. There is an amusing line in Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner says something like “Isn’t it terrible that white man has destroyed this most precious possession of the American Indian, the horse?” Well, Indians had no horses before the white men got there. The horse was brought by the Spanish.
I think there is nobody in this room who doesn’t know about the existence of slavery among whites. Probably there are not too many people here, including on campus, who are aware that American Indians practiced slavery long before white men got here. My point is that to bring up a fact like this, if you mention this, you are a spoiler at the multicultural picnic. There is a tendency to replace the biases and the errors of the past with new forms of bias and prejudice. What I’m saying is that we need to look critically at the West. We also need to look critically at other cultures as well.
Question: What do the defenders of political correctness say?
Dinesh D’Souza: They say that America is changing demographically and we are going to be in a society that will have a substantial number of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities. In fact, they may even make projections that whites will be a minority very soon. These projections are in fact not true or, at least, not true in the manner that they are stated. They have a very misleading or very deft preamble: all things being equal. They assume that immigration rates will continue at precisely the rate they are now. They assume that minority birth rates will continue at precisely the rate they are now; whereas we know from experience any time a group gains a certain amount of social prosperity, as soon as it raises its standard of living, the birth rate drops. Similarly as other countries, as in Asia, gain more prosperity and begin to become more wealthy the incentive for people to emigrate becomes much more diminished. So, I’m not sure those trends will continue in precisely the same degree.
A second point is a real emphasis in the university on the question of victimization and the question of the scares of racial prejudice and discrimination. The argument is made that some measures are necessary to rectify historical disadvantages to give each group fair representation. In fact, this is even argued on behalf of democracy. We live in a democratic society and the idea behind democracy is representation. So that being the case, it is only fair, it is only just, under our political system to make sure that the campuses of our schools, particularly our state schools, are proportionally represented or reflect the demographic distribution of racial groups within the population. If Hispanics are 15% in California, the argument goes, the University of California at Berkeley should have 15% Hispanics in its freshman class. Similarly, the curriculum needs to be tailored in order to reflect this kind of racial breakdown, to give everybody their just desserts. In part, though, what I think we’re witnessing on campus is a phenomenon that is a projection of the 1960s. A lot of the activists of the a1960s are today’s tenured radicals, are today’s college professors, are today’s college deans. You have to realize there was a very eloquent, very articulate critique that was mounted in the 60s, not only of university life but of the West in general. You can read countless eloquent tracks and books published in that time that would tend to make you believe Western and American values were shrinking, that capitalism is beginning to tauter and implode with its inner contradictions exposed, and that socialism is the wave of the future. If you were to believe these books and arguments, you would predict safely that right now guerrilla revolutions of a Marxist stripe would be breaking out all over Asia, Africa, and America. Of course the fact is that we live in a very astonishing and unusual moment in history, a moment in which liberal, democratic, and free market values are bing voluntarily embraced by people in Barbados and Bombay, by people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This has created, I think, a certain trauma, a certain crisis on the American campus. A lot of professors are experiencing a kind of ideological indigestion and what they are saying is that we may not be able to influence events in the world—we can’t put up the Berlin Wall—we can’t reverse the outcome of the Nicaraguan election—we can’t influence the ballot box in Washington—but we can take over the English department. So there is a temptation for them to say, “Here on campus where we are in charge, our generation has come to power. We should impose our values of a good society on this new generation of students.” A lot of arguments or struggles on campus reflect a certain generational tension between young people, many of whom are ideologically unpredictable or independent, if you will, and who are not conforming with the political values of their professors.
About the Author
Dinesh D’Souza, a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, is the author of the controversial best-seller Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. Before the publication of his book, D’Souza was perhaps best known for his work at Dartmouth College as editor of the Dartmouth Review. D’Souza also served as a domestic policy analyst under the Reagan administration and has appeared on such talk shows as “Face the Nation,” “This Week with David Brinkley,” Fox Network’s “Good Day,” “Good Morning America,” “Firing Line,” ABC’s “Nightline,” and “One on One.” Excerpts from his book, which was published in April of 1991, have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and Forbes Magazine. His articles have also appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.