In order to combat what are alleged to be the “false claims” and “malicious distortions” in recent conservative attacks on the prevailing academic establishment in this country, a group of tenured, high-salaried, left-wing professors in the humanities have launched yet another academic-political organization to propagate the gospel of “diversity,” multiculturalism, etc., that is now dominating American campuses and classrooms. Calling themselves Teachers for a Democratic Culture, these enraged academic beneficiaries of capitalist largesse whose numbers include Stanley Fish, Gerald Graff, Paul Lauter, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Houston Baker, and Jonathan Culler, among other usual suspectshave circulated a recruiting letter and call to arms that singles out as special targets “the National Association of Scholars, their corporate and foundation sponsors, and like-minded writers in the press who are endangering education with a campaign of harassment and misrepresentation.”
This can only mean that the National Association of Scholars, which was organized a few years ago for the specific purpose of resisting the spread of “politically correct” doctrines in the classrooms of our colleges and universities, is at last getting a hearing in the media and having an effect on the publicthe public that, directly or indirectly, pays the six-figure salaries commanded by these illustrious radical ideologues who have turned our campuses into a squalid political battleground.
It goes without saying that the attention accorded by the press to the National Association of Scholars and other critics of political correctness cannot compare with the sympathetic coverage that the media has bestowed on the academic Left. For example, The New York Times Magazine has lately given us serial coverage of the left-wing academic establishment in the form of profiles devoted to Richard Rorty, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Catharine A. MacKinnon, and Cornel West. In addition, the daily Times recently ran a friendly story about the founding of the Teachers for a Democratic Culture on its front pagesomething it has never done for the professors who organized the National Association of Scholars. Yet despite the uneven and often unfair coverage in the press, those who have criticized political correctness and multiculturalism on our campuses are obviously making themselves heard, and it is this breakthrough into the national consciousness that these champions of leftist orthodoxy have apparently begun to fear. Hence the launching of their new propaganda vehicle for the purposes of broadcasting their messagewhich isnt, to be sure, always precisely the message that they deliver to students in the classroom to a larger audience.
It has to be understood, of course, that these tenured radicals are already in control of many established academic organizations and distinguished humanities departments, which they have politicized to a degree heretofore unknown in American university life. The Modern Language Association, with its vast membership; the American Council of Learned Societies, with its once-prestigious reputation for supporting disinterested scholarshipthese and many other leading organizations in the humanities now function largely as the political fiefdoms of Fish, Graff, Gates, and their ideological allies. From their eyries at the heights of such organizations and in humanities departments throughout the country, they determine appointments to jobs, fellowships, and the other forms of preferment and reward that our leading colleges and universities confer with such extraordinary generosity. They therefore have a large academic empire to protect, and this is the real reason that they have now formed yet another political arm to disparage their critics and obfuscate the debate that the public is just now beginning to understand.
In this respect, it was perhaps inevitable that another principal target of Teachers for a Democratic Culture would be Lynne V. Cheney, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For Mrs. Cheney has proved to be a formidable adversary of these militant apostles of political correctness on campus, and evidently her forceful message is also having its effect on public thinking about this question. Among much else, the recruiting letter claims that Mrs. Cheney has “proved herself consistently intolerant of any view of scholarship that does not agree with her own.” But a look at the record shows that Mrs. Cheney has enthusiastically supported a wide range of academic and cultural projects. What she has consistentlyand rightlybeen “intolerant” of are efforts to subvert the humanities by subordinating scholarship and teaching to political imperatives.
This fundamental distinction is utterly lost on our new academic mandarins. So busy are they declaring that “everything is political” that they can no longer distinguish between an individual teachers private political convictions and his duty to preserve the integrity of his subject. What mattersor what should matterin the classroom is the subject to be studied, not the political agenda of the teacher or the students. Just this is what the Teachers for a Democratic Culture reject. Partisans of radical multiculturalism, they insist that we import questions of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and the like into the study of the humanities. What they refuse to recognize is that this procedure does not open up the humanities to “new perspectives,” as is often claimed. On the contrary, it merely exploits the subject under discussion for the sake of cultural politics. It is for this reason that responsible persons must always reject the multicultural demand to sacrifice literature or other subjects to political attitudinizing. To do so is no more “intolerant” than it is intolerant to reject falsehoods in other areas of life. The choice is not between “traditional” or “conservative” pedagogy and something more up-to-date: it is a choice between responsible teaching and propaganda.
It is far too soon to announce that the critics of the academic Left are in retreat, for they remain in solid control of the academic study of the humanities today. But with the emergence of Teachers for a Democratic Culture we are given a clear sign that the battle had been joined in the public mind.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 3, on page 1
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