All posts by Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of, among other books, "What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs."

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Trans?

The dislocation of reality continues apace, helped by academics who think renaming things can induce the physical world to alter its course.  On the Women’s Studies List, which has existed for more than 25 years and has over 5,000 subscribers, yet another acrimonious discussion recently unfolded about who is excluding whom.

Turns out some trans feminists don’t understand why some women don’t embrace their new label of “cisgender.”  As one post helpfully explained: why should anyone object? “Cisgender” merely means “non-transgender.”  Those objecting are seen as determined to conform to the dominant society. Evidently, margins and centers still exist, but their occupants are to change places. A reversal of privilege, as Katharine Burdekin, the British feminist writer of speculative fiction, characterized many revolutions.  She warned that such a reversal in the case of gender might get no nearer to producing a better society than the old male privilege did, and might possibly be worse.

Related: Rigid Campus Feminism—Is It Forever?

Today, for all the academic talk of “diversity”—written into all levels and aspects of American universities, with growing numbers of administrators and officers designated to oversee it—a new and rigid orthodoxy is upon us.  This was adumbrated a few years ago when Women’s Studies Programs underwent a sea change, renaming themselves with some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) Studies. Not surprisingly, the change accompanied the ever greater emphasis on queer theory, transgender studies, masculinity (as in the currently popular term “toxic masculinity”), and other overarching interpretations of the world according to new dogma.

Not that this is new.  When I was in Women’s Studies in the 1980s and early 90s, a certain apologetic tone had already spread among heterosexuals, and major quarrels over the meaning and place of lesbian identity had gone on since the 1970s.  But in those medieval times, male and female were still understood to refer to biological realities (sex), while masculine and feminine were the social roles (gender) to be dismantled.  Over the years, however, the antagonism toward heterosex increased, promoted by ever-looser definitions of “sexual harassment” and ever more exaggerated claims of the unrelenting injuries done to women by the white heteronormative patriarchy of the United States. This is what has led us to “microaggressions,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings.”

Some retrograde heterosexual women objected to the redefining of heterosexuality as craven conformity or Stockholm syndrome – though not many within the feminist cadres that quickly multiplied in the university world.  Interestingly, women who thought biology was pertinent found unlikely allies among radical feminists, who, while promoting lesbianism, believed profoundly that male/female differences existed and, indeed, explained much about the horrors of life: wars, violence, “rape culture,” ceaseless sexual harassment, pornography, environmental degradation, and the numerous other problems that were laid at the door of the capitalist/ imperialist/western patriarchy.

Related: Transgender and the Transformation of Civil Rights

These radical feminists were highly critical of the sudden vogue for transsexualism. They did not believe that a man’s claim to feel, or to have always felt, that he was really female compensated for a lifetime of male privilege and magically turned him into a woman.  Janice Raymond, for example, in her 1979 book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She Male, argued that transsexuals believed so profoundly in gender roles (the very thing feminists were supposedly combatting) that they were willing to mutilate their bodies in order to live out the other role.

Decades later, the debate continues, but some things have definitely changed. Those who dare make criticisms of the transsexual phenomenon are now labeled TERFs [Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists], clearly intended as a slur. The proper attitude is obligatory acceptance of each new sexual redefinition and the new regulations (such as Obama’s bathroom edict) that accompany it.

By now even formerly all-female schools such as Smith College are accepting applications from individuals who “identify as female,” regardless of what sex they were “assigned at birth.” As Smith’s FAQ on the subject explains:

Are trans women eligible for admission to Smith?

Applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as women are eligible for admission.

Are trans men eligible for admission?

Smith does not accept applications from men. Those assigned female at birth but who now identify as male are not eligible for admission.

Under this newly clarified policy, what is required of applicants to be considered for admission?

Smith’s policy is one of self-identification. To be considered for admission, applicants must select ‘female’ on the Common Application.

These phrases reveal how far the new identity game has gone.  It is not those undergoing “sex reassignment surgery” who are exempted from the horrors of sexual dimorphism.  Rather, all infants, even the vast majority born with no sexual anomalies, are now supposed to have been “assigned” a sex at birth, just as they were “assigned” bipedalism so they could adapt to a world of sidewalks and staircases….

Sexual dimorphism is passé. Yet, at the same time, quite paradoxically, it is everywhere affirmed and corrective measures are required to overcome the arbitrary categories imposed by the patriarchy—a rather circular argument once one disconnects it from biology.  Forget that sexual dimorphism is, in fact, universal, found in all cultures and in most of the animal world – of which we are a part.  The existence of some anomalies (e.g., intersexed individuals, or babies with chromosomal or other variations) does not alter this.

Five Sexes, Or Is That Too Few?

As Richard Dawkins once said, in criticizing Anne Fausto-Sterling’s argument (much lauded in feminist circles) that there are five sexes, the existence of dawn and dusk does not cast doubt on the reality of day and night. Regardless of what we call them, day and night are natural phenomena explained by something outside of ourselves.  If primary sexual characteristics are socially imposed, shouldn’t The Vagina Monologues be banned for being exclusionary?

Surprise! That is, in fact, happening (e.g., at Mount Holyoke College, which in 2015 canceled its tradition of annual performances of the play). Not, of course, because men are objecting that they don’t get equal time to celebrate their genitals.  The problem, it seems, is that the play offers a narrow and reductionist view of what it means to be a woman, and thereby excludes transgender women who don’t have vaginas.

But some reprobate events go on, such as the Women’s March on Washington, in which hundreds of thousands of women participated wearing pink “pussyhats,” and evidently believing they had pussies.   Leaving aside the various hysterical speakers at the March, a notable presence who merits more attention than she has received was Donna Hylton, a black activist and prison reformer. She always brings up the years she spent in prison (27, to be precise) as if this bolsters her credentials as a member of an oppressed minority group. But she fails to mention what she was imprisoned for:  participating in the kidnapping, rape, torture (for more than two weeks), and murder of an elderly white man in 1985.

One of the better-known organizers of the Women’s March is an unapologetic promoter of hate. Linda Sarsour, a Muslim supporter of Sharia law, wrote on Twitter that critics of Islam such as Brigitte Gabriel and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are “asking 4 an a$$ whippin’’ [sic] and “I wish I could take their vaginas away—they don’t deserve to be women.”  She obviously hasn’t grasped the current orthodoxy by which anyone can “identify as” a woman–and vaginas have nothing to do with it. For her part, Ayaan Hirsi Ali criticized the March and wondered why hundreds of thousands of women do not mobilize in the U.S. to protest the actual sexual enslavement of girls in various Muslim countries, along with the reality of female genital mutilation, honor killings, and other assaults on basic human rights.

But in the happy world of American academe, categories of sexual and gender identity just grow and grow, and acronyms along with them. Today we have not only the labels, but courses and administrators devoted to LGBTQIA (the A, for asexual, is merely the latest accretion). In recent years, the proliferation of identities has gotten completely out of control and the game is openly played in hiring and even in the exercise of free speech–who is entitled to teach, to speak, to pose challenges, and who had better shut up if lacking the requisite identity.

And this political brow-beating isn’t changed by the vogue for “intersectionality”—the study of the interactions of multiple oppressed identities, which has allowed the politicization of academic life to continue unabated. Today, laying claim to an oppressed identity (and there are many beyond race) automatically justifies the demand for capitulation and redress.  In our book Professing Feminism (1994), Noretta Koertge and I labeled this unseemly competition “the oppression sweepstakes.”  At my university, a recent survey designed to gauge how welcoming campus life is of diversity included a page on which people could identify their sex. About ten categories were provided from which to choose.

Of late, even anti-biology feminist Judith Butler is having second thoughts about the matter of sexual identity.  Decades ago, she famously insisted that gender — by which she meant sexual identity — is pure “performativity” or “performance” (confusingly, she used both terms). There is no preexisting subject, she said; no “I” before discourse.  But the trans fad has caused her to reconsider.  In a 2014 interview, she confessed that in her 1990 book Gender Trouble she did not think “well enough about trans issues.”

When it comes to the authenticity of trans identity, she no longer doubts the reality of the subject or insists that discourse creates people who “perform” gender. She never intended to suggest that gender is a fiction or that a person’s sense of gender was “unreal.”  Instead, she now sees she should have paid more attention “to what people feel, how the primary experience of the body is registered, and the quite urgent and legitimate demand to have those aspects of sex recognized and supported.”  Note again the conflation of sex and gender.

Butler, in other words, has had to alter her line a bit, to stay in step with current orthodoxies. She certainly does not want to say that trans people are into the “performativity” of the sex they want to be or claim they really are – though she had no problem saying that about most people born male and female.

So quickly do redefinitions of reality become entrenched these days that the British Medical Association was recently reported to have sent out directives to doctors to use the term “pregnant people”—rather than “expectant mothers”—so as to avoid offending trans folks. The BMA also suggested adopting the language of “assigned male or female” rather than “biologically male or female.”

Alas, reality is not that malleable. Females give birth, males do not, in all mammals, regardless of what the individual mammal may do.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there it is. Such is the state of weirdness these days in academic feminism, and elsewhere.

How a University Moved from Diversity to Indoctrination

Academe these days is full of code words.  Diversity is one of the most popular, and has increasingly become an article of faith at American colleges.  Its usefulness depends on ambiguity. While the public and media may believe it means openness to previously excluded students and studies, the reality is that “diversity” is a brazen attempt at thought control, rapidly moving toward the center of undergraduate education through the mechanism of General Education requirements.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professors who want their courses approved for General Education diversity credit must meet new guidelines borrowed from the most ideological part of the university, the School of Education.  At UMass, as at many other universities, Social Justice Education (SJE) has for years been a key part of the School of Ed, offering not only a concentration but also a Master’s and a Ph.D.

Related: More Ed-School Social Justice Studies

The language of SJE makes clear that it is driven by narrow political aims, which pervade all aspects of the program.   With a constant emphasis on intervention and advocacy in schools and communities on behalf of social justice (never clearly defined), the SJE website makes plain its fundamental concerns, which include: “Prejudice and discrimination, the dynamics of power and privilege, and intersecting systems of oppression,” “Theories and practices of social change; resistance and empowerment; liberation and social justice movements,” and “Sociocultural and historical contexts for, and dynamics within and among the specific manifestations of oppression (adultism, religious oppression, ableism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, transgender oppression) in educational and other social systems.”

In his book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003), Peter Wood describes how “diversity arose as a countercultural critique of American society that depicted social relations as based on hierarchy and oppression of disprivileged groups.”  This “diversity ideology,” rooted in a Marxist view of America as a system of oppression, had been brewing for generations but only gained real traction in the 1980s.

“For it was then,” he writes, “that the Left, at last, found a combination of political leverage, economic opportunity and cultural advantage to institutionalize much of its anti-American program. Diversity was the key to that three-part success” (his emphasis).”

But until recently, the emphasis on diversity as the chosen path to “social justice” was not built into the university’s “social and cultural diversity” Gen Ed requirement. Now it is. And as I argue here, it is an exercise in compelled speech, unworthy of higher education, and unconstitutional in a public institution.

Related: Viewpoint Diversity

A fairly loose definition of what diversity courses should entail had existed for about three decades.  Designed to combat “ethnocentric stereotypes” and open students to the wider world of “pluralistic perspectives,” the old diversity requirements contained a single prescriptive phrase (my emphasis):

Courses satisfying this requirement shall reach beyond the perspectives of mainstream American culture and the Western tradition.

The old guidelines then shifted from shall to may:

They may focus on the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East; the descendants of those peoples living in North America; other minorities in Western industrial societies; and Native Americans. Since a sensitivity to social and cultural diversity is advanced by an understanding of the dynamics of power in modern societies, courses that focus on the differential life experiences of women outside the mainstream of American culture, minorities outside the mainstream of American culture, and the poor also come within the scope of this requirement.

True, the phrase regarding “the dynamics of power,” hinting at the old Marxist framework with a touch of Foucault thrown in, seemed designed to predetermine the content of such courses to some extent. But the list of groups (women, minorities, and the poor) with “differential life experiences” was merely, as the last part of the above paragraph made clear, a possible focus–not a necessary one, and certainly nothing like the obligatory listing of numerous supposedly marginalized identities that abound today.

What, then, changed?  In the spring of 2016, faculty began to realize that the General Education Council had proposed a little-publicized new delineation of the required diversity courses. As before, undergraduates would be required to take two courses carrying the Diversity designation, one national, the other international, but the details had passed through an ideological transformation.

 Related: How Diversity Came to Mean Downgrade the West

Normally, significant changes to the curriculum would have to go through the Faculty Senate, but the Gen Ed Council had by-passed this step by claiming (when challenged) that the changes in the two required diversity courses involved “only language,” hence did not need Faculty Senate approval.

Most faculty, as usual, were busy with other things and did not react. Some people, however, were alarmed. Harvey Silverglate, civil liberties attorney and co-founder of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and I wrote a piece about the new requirement, pointing out the ways in which it went well beyond the existing guidelines.  We argued that not content with existing policies that restricted speech, the university was mounting an effort to compel certain kinds of speech and political attitudes in courses hoping to gain Gen Ed Council approval toward fulfilling the diversity requirement. As we wrote:

Using politically fashionable jargon, the three new gen-ed guidelines for diversity courses stipulate not merely, as before, geographic and cultural breadth but the specific attitudes and beliefs that must animate certain areas of teaching (or indoctrination, depending upon your point of view). Faculty members must embrace “knowledge, pluralistic perspectives and engagement beyond mainstream traditions,” by focusing on “unequal access to resources that derive from race and ethnicity, national origins, language, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability.”

The second mandated guideline encompasses “cultural, social and structural dynamics” that shape human experience and produce inequality, while the third specifies “exploration of self and others” so as to recognize inequalities and injustices. The clearly stated goal, not left to the imagination, is “to engage with others to create change toward social justice.”

This phrase encapsulates the shift from educating students to be able to think and analyze for themselves to the vastly different effort to indoctrinate students into administrators’ and professors’ belief system, which is assumed to be the only worthwhile, good and moral one from which, therefore, no one dares dissent.

All of this should cause concern at a public university that is bound by constitutional norms. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech has two aspects. The more widely known one prohibits the law from censoring officially disfavored and unpopular speech. But the other equally important and complementary aspect of this liberty enjoins the government from compelling speech and belief.

In a society where students have long been granted the right to refuse, for example, to recite a biblical passage or even the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, college students are now required to genuflect before the banner of diversity, inclusion and social justice. It’s insufficient for students to refrain from uttering offensive or “wrong” words and ideas. They must increasingly be trained to mimic their professors and affirmatively utter the “right” ones.

Related: Universities Torn Between Truth-Seeking and Social justice

The new guidelines, in other words, explicitly spelled out a commitment to social justice, understood in a particular way, reflecting precisely the political vision already familiar to us from Social Justice Education programs, rooted in Left politics that have dominated academic circles for some time now.

But whereas these politics used to be confined to certain (mostly identity-based) academic programs, along with Schools of Ed and Social Work, the new requirements aim to subject the entire university and every student in it to current academic dogma. The revision names identity groups repeatedly, uses all the current code words, talks over and over again about inequality, marginalization, power dynamics, and the need to combat all these.

Hardly a minor revision, this is a complete delineation of the changes in academe in the past few decades.  At a time when the university persistently reiterates its commitment to social justice, diversity, inclusion, and equity, the undergraduate curriculum is undergoing Gleichschaltung, i.e., everything is being brought into alignment with the prevailing political orthodoxy.

A further chapter in this story of ideological policing unfolded in late 2016.  Not satisfied with the changes quietly incorporated into the Gen Ed diversity requirement earlier in 2016, the Gen Ed Council once again initiated a change that it evidently hoped most faculty would not notice.  This time, it proposed a third required diversity course, mandated for all incoming students, who apparently needed this training in identity politics in order to proceed with their education.

Members of the Gen Ed Council were explicitly told to give a copy of the new proposal only to those who requested it. Thus, barely a week before the item was to come up at a Faculty Senate meeting on November 10, faculty members not on the council began to hear about the new proposal.

This time, however, a number of faculty members noticed.  At the November 10th meeting of the Faculty Senate, about fifteen people rose to speak about the proposal, almost all of them first expressing their support for” diversity” before going on to criticize the new course in its particulars.  However, it was not the obvious politicization of the requirement that troubled them but rather the practical consequences for individual majors and courses. Some parts of the university objected that by adding a third diversity requirement other courses would be crowded out, as students would have less time and fewer credits available for other purposes.

Some faculty members objected that space for this new course was to be created by eliminating the requirement for an interdisciplinary course. Still, others were unhappy at the way in which their own courses on foreign cultures would be excluded by the new focus on power differentials, marginalization, and so on.  One professor, for example, objected that his course on medieval Japanese culture would no longer count for “diversity” credit, and argued that while it makes sense for the U.S. diversity requirement to stress race, class, and gender, the non-western courses should be held to a different standard. Another complained that his course on Kant, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche and Freud certainly should still be relevant for diversity credit, as it has been for thirty years.

A few people argued that the new requirement didn’t go far enough, since it assumed faculty and graduate students already knew how to teach to these concerns, whereas, it was argued, they would need special training in order to truly embrace the new anti-oppression pedagogy. No one, however, objected to the politicization of the curriculum in itself.

Most intriguing, however, was the apparently forgotten fact that the additional third diversity course proposal did not alter what had already become the obligatory language of diversity courses.  Yes, the new proposal requires that this course is taken by all incoming undergraduates, and it intensifies the politicized language somewhat, but it is not different in kind from the rewritten diversity guidelines quietly introduced last spring.

The real difference in kind, in other words, was already a fait accompli, the result of the shift that was set in place in the spring of 2016.  And by not having a discussion of the consequences of those changes last spring and just incorporating the new language de facto on the Gen Ed website, the Gen Ed Council had successfully precluded a critical discussion among the faculty of a substantive ideological shift.

People who complained in November 2016 because their old diversity courses would no longer count for diversity credits should have objected last spring, not six months later. But they were given no opportunity to do so.  Whereas blatant social justice courses could have been included in the past (nothing excluded them), the assumption that diversity means “social justice” in a very particular way (based upon identity politics and the division of the world into powerful and powerless) is now mandatory, as the new guidelines make clear.

Thus, the Gen Ed Council was successful in bypassing faculty input and imposing explicit School of Ed social justice perspectives upon the entire university. Harvey Silverglate and I were absolutely right to call attention to this as a new requirement for faculty obeisance to essentially political perspectives, quite different from the vaguer older guidelines – which presumably is precisely why some of our colleagues were so adamant about promoting this change, and hoped most faculty wouldn’t notice.

My criticisms of the new proposal (distributed in early November 2016 to the 70 colleagues in my department, none of whom commented to me about it, as well as to the Faculty Senate) included these points:

A.  The first three of the five aims listed in the proposal narrow the range of perspectives to be welcomed in such courses. The aims presuppose and also reinforce a particular political perspective that faculty must adopt if their courses are to be approved for Gen Ed diversity credit. The aims taken from the proposal are in italics, below. After each of these aims,  my own comments appear in brackets.

  1. Appreciate, value, and respect diverse social, cultural, and political perspectives. [This aim hints at a postmodernist relativism, one that has been the subject of much debate and is far from a generally accepted truth. In fact, however, the subsequent aims make clear that only particular political and cultural perspectives are sought. Viewpoint diversity is definitely not on the agenda.]
  2. Demonstrate an understanding of and critically analyze how the legacies of marginalization, prejudice, and discrimination impact current power relations and the life circumstances of people often marginalized by society because of race, ethnicity, language, religion, class, ability, sexuality, and gender. [Presupposes a particular view of the origins of marginalization, its continuing force, and the causes of social problems. This aim is rooted in current identity politics, which is often used as a shield or a bludgeon, depending on who is speaking to whom and with what objective.]
  3. Critically analyze their own perspectives and identities, develop an awareness of implicit biases, and understand how these perspectives and biases have been shaped by power relations within social and institutional contexts. [Is it only one’s own perspectives, identities, and biases that are to be critically examined, not those of others? Is it necessarily “power” relations – mentioned also in aim # 2–that explain everything? Again, this highly contentious perspective with its very specific conceptual framework is being presented as the necessarily correct one, to be reflected in these courses.]

B.  The academic year at Umass has already been reduced to 26 weeks of actual classes, 3-credit Gen Ed courses have become 4-credit courses without an increase in class time, and in many instances work requirements have decreased as professors adapt to students’ sense of what preparation (ever less) they are willing to do outside of class.

Students still need 120 credits to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and, of these, two courses are already part of the new diversity requirement, circulated last spring and containing much the same language as the new proposal. This third required diversity course would mean that a total of 12 credits out of 120 (i.e., 10% of the students’ overall credit hours) will be devoted to “diversity” issues understood in the narrow way the proposal makes clear. This is a disservice to our students who have only a few precious years as undergraduates and entire worlds to explore.

C.  For those who specifically teach  foreign languages, literature, and cultures, the proposal tells us we must stress oppression, marginalization, and power relations as if studying other cultures and languages is of little value unless it is primarily about those issues.  This seems like an odd marginalization (to use that very term) of entire areas of expertise.

The themes named, while of interest, hardly tell us all we need to know about the world. Furthermore, they undermine the work that many of us do and that is not subsumed by these particular political preoccupations.  It is a serious redesigning of the university’s role and mission to impose such a narrow perspective on what is understood by “diversity.”  If “diversity” indeed now means a ceaseless focus on oppression, marginalization, and power, it is being used as a code word.

And it is demeaning to those of us who have labored long and hard to actually acquire some expertise in a “diverse” culture – and who see the study of cultures around the world as something other than an opportunity for political posturing. It is far harder to actually learn a foreign language and its cultural contexts than to acquire or pass on to students a few attitudes about particular groups (divided into such broad categories as the powerful and powerless), the very thing we supposedly were trying to overcome.

D. For those wishing to see where in the university these ideas are already institutionalized, the School of Education’s Social Justice Education agenda, which offer a concentration, a Master’s, and a Ph.D, provides a complete articulation of a political program using the precise language found in our new Gen Ed diversity proposals. Nationwide, in Schools of Education and in certain identity-based programs, these aims have predominated for some time. What is happening now, with the reconceptualization of the Gen Ed diversity requirement, is the spread of these avowed commitments to the entire university.

E.  The narrow perspective envisioned is made clear again on p. 5 of the proposal, which states as a goal: “Diminish the perpetuation of discrimination and oppression.” Hubris, or political passions, should not lead us to think that if we can just regulate the content of education thoroughly, we will bring about “social justice.”

I conclude that we hardly know what “social justice” is, let alone how it may best be attained. Indeed, the very term has been used in ways that might alarm today’s social justice warriors (if only they knew some history, such as that of the populist priest Father Coughlin, the anti-capitalist, anti-communist, anti-Semitic founder of the National Union for Social Justice in 1934 and of the paper Social Justice two years later, who became an apologist for Nazism and an Axis propagandist).  The entire history of the twentieth century, to stick just with recent times, tells us how dangerous a path the belief in the single-minded pursuit of “social justice” is.

Related: The Power of Buzzwords Like Dispositions and Social Justice

The university may have a social mission to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion, even in the name of “social justice” (which Jonah Goldberg notes is currently merely a stand-in for “goodness”), but that is quite different from adopting these words as an educational mission.  In addition, these terms have by now become an orthodoxy, constantly reiterated by administrators whose numbers and dedication to these issues keep expanding while the quality of liberal arts education—and above all its “diversity” — has patently declined.

Even if the new required Gen Ed course does not get adopted, by not contesting the redefinition of “diversity” that is now an avowed goal, faculty have abdicated their responsibilities, contributing to the further debasement of higher education.

Times change; orthodoxies shift. The intentional embrace of political activism in education is a dangerous precedent. Has everyone forgotten the East German professors who were first obliged to adhere to Marxism-Leninism and then, when the Wall fell, were fired for having done so?

We should be wary of turning our courses into vehicles for propagandizing particular political views, however popular those views may be at this moment.

How Diversity Came to Mean ‘Downgrade the West’

There was a time, within living memory, when the term multiculturalism was hardly known.  More than twenty years ago, Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and in late July speaker at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, wrote a book with fellow Stanford alum David Sacks called The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995).

The book’s title refers to the pretense that embracing “diversity” actually promotes diversity of all types, a claim commonly heard to this day.  Thiel had been a student at Stanford when, in January 1987, demonstrators defending “the Rainbow Agenda” chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!”  This protest led to the infamous “revision” (i.e., suppression) of the Western Culture requirement at Stanford, replaced with a freshman sequence called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, mandating an emphasis on race, gender, and class.

In her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book, the well-known American historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese referred to Stanford as “a surreal world of social engineering and institutional arrogance” and highlighted the school’s efforts to wage a “campaign to reshape thought and behavior.”  She noted that while the term “affirmative action” had been replaced by “diversity,” the latter term, far from actually promoting intellectual diversity, rested on “a series of interlocking attitudes and practices.”

Furthermore, “multiculturalism” did not involve greater emphasis on mastering foreign languages or carefully studying cultures other than those of the English-speaking world.  Instead, work in literature and culture programs was (and still is) done increasingly in English and focused on contemporary writers.  Nor did multiculturalism, any more than the word diversity, mean familiarizing students with a diversity of views. Rather, as Fox-Genovese summarized it, it meant requiring students “to agree with or even applaud views and values that mock the values with which they have been reared.”  And all this, she observed, was being accompanied by rampant grade inflation.

Related: Hey, Stanford: Western Civ Has Gotta Grow

On the very first page of their book, Sacks and Thiel commented on the double entendre implicit in the Stanford protesters’ chant of “Western Culture’s got to go.”  It was not just the required Western Culture course that was being denounced, ostensibly because most of the books studied had been written by “dead white males,” a group that was by definition considered illegitimate. Rather, it was the Western tradition as a whole.

Such a move was both novel and extraordinary, Sacks and Thiel wrote, for it “attacked not the quality or historical significance of the great books, but rather the authors themselves – for being of the wrong race, gender, or class.”

The Diversity Myth noted the chilling potential consequences of such attacks, which are now entirely routine, hardly worth commenting on. “Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism—the belief that the insights contained within the West’s great works were potentially available to everybody—the new curriculum embraced particularism: What one may know is determined by the circumstances of one’s birth.”

The assault wasn’t merely on the idea of universalism, which assumed that, as Sidney Hook explained in a 1989 essay that Sacks and Thiel summarize: “There exist truths that transcend the accidents of one’s birth, and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black.”  A distinct view of human nature was being proposed instead, one that rejected the belief that individuals, and indeed humanity as a whole, “are not trapped within a closed cultural space that predetermines what they may know.”  Sacks and Thiel warned that by this rejection, the Stanford protestors of 1987 “would pave the way for a very different kind of academy.”

Fast forward 20-some years and the “different kind of academy” is everywhere around us, proudly kowtowing to the demands of (certain) identity groups and wearing its heart on its sleeve about its profound commitment to, as the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst constantly reiterates, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  The pressures have intensified and grown more and more unabashedly political, as evidenced in UMass’s recently revised “cultural diversity” courses, which go well beyond the standard inclusion of particular identity groups.

Whereas in the past the university had concentrated on prohibiting offensive speech, via the sorts of “harassment” policies that exist to chill speech in virtually all universities today, UMass now also compels certain types of speech and attitudes.  The new version of  “cultural diversity” courses, of which all students are required to take two, must now explicitly critique inequalities and injustices, oppression and hegemony, in order to lead students to pursue change on behalf of “social justice,” yet another overused and vague term (see Patai and Silverglate).

Related: Race-baiting in the Name of Justice

At Yale University, to take another recent example, in 2016, in the context of the numerous protests across the nation that campuses were not addressing “systemic racism,” undergraduates in the English Department crafted a petition to “decolonize” (not just diversify) the department’s two-semester famed basic course sequence, Major English Poets, pre-1800/1900, which focused primarily on eight great poets.  In the petition, the students claimed that the absence of women, people of color, and queer folk from these two courses “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity” by creating “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

The existence of many courses in the department (and out of it) related to race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality was deemed insufficient, since these were mainly upper-level courses. The demand shows that the students’ motivation is not to make available to them courses including or devoted entirely to non-white-males (since such courses already exist), but rather to force other students to study what these student activists believe they should study.

The Yale Daily News account of this episode is followed by 20 comments critical, often scathingly so, of the petition. One of these quotes at length from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk:

I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed Earth and the tracery of [the] stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

It is likely that most student protesters today are ignorant of this passage (and of so much else), or, if they knew of it, would merely sneer at its universalist underpinnings, or dismiss it as nothing but a “reinscribing” of dominant views.

As Sacks and Thiel foresaw in their book, the diversity myth has devolved into a host of additional myths rooted in identity politics and ideological policing, while the reality of a debased education, deliberately made subservient to present political passions, goes unaddressed. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, however, was still optimistic at the time she wrote her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book.

Stressing the alarming core argument of The Diversity Myth, she nonetheless believed that the book was “appearing at a moment of mounting public consciousness of the ways in which our educational system is failing our young people. We all know that we are doing something wrong.”

Related: A College Guide to Viewpoint Diversity

Such warnings, along with numerous similar ones, as it turned out, went unheeded, as the ever more extreme episodes of politically correct demands on college campuses over the past two decades indicate.  An ironic detail confirms this reality:  Just before their book was released, Sacks and Thiel published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 9, 1995) ridiculing the new curriculum as “mindless.”

This in turn inspired Stanford’s president to write in protest, labeling their op-ed “demagoguery” and accusing them of concocting a “cartoon” image of the new curriculum.  By now, sadly, it is hardly possible to satirize American universities, since even not-yet-dead white administrators rush to embrace perspectives that used to be held mostly by angry students.

Increasingly, students these days present their grievances as non-negotiable demands. In addition to the ever-expanding identity categories, in recent years we have seen both administrators and faculty members forced to resign for holding the “wrong” opinions or not capitulating rapidly enough to the demands of student protesters. In other words, what Sacks and Thiel argued very clearly more than two decades ago was on the mark. They saw that the real issues roiling universities had to do not with education or intellectual diversity or even equal opportunity (long since replaced by the demand for equal outcomes, “safe spaces,” and “comfort”), but rather with promoting particular aggrieved identity groups and their political views, in the classroom and out.

Stanford’s story doesn’t end with the curriculum revision thirty years ago, however.  As it happens, in 1987 Peter Thiel was a co-founder of the Stanford Review, created to promote campus debate beyond the perspectives that were rapidly acquiring the status of a new orthodoxy.  In the spring of 2016, the Stanford Review, still pursuing its contrarian mission, sponsored a ballot initiative to restore, as a requirement, a two-part freshmen course on the Western world.  The result – which ought to shock everyone but in fact surprised few people in the academic world – was that the initiative was roundly rejected, garnering less than 15% support from the student body.

The strict limitations, both political and cultural, that define multiculturalism and diversity are also displayed in the spate of disinvitations in recent years of Commencement speakers, lecturers, and other guests whose political views do not suit the petty tyrants on college campuses (see FIRE’s “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend”).

To take just one example, which also demonstrates that to campus ideologues, having the correct politics trumps even race and gender, consider the case of Somalian-born writer and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. A campus petition objecting to the award, on the grounds of her impassioned criticisms of Islam, was signed by nearly 25% of Brandeis’s faculty and 6,000 others inside and outside Brandeis.

FIRE’s Disinvitation Report noted that the trend was growing, and that severely restrictive speech codes were typically found at those schools with the highest numbers of incidents of disinvitation. There is a sublime irony in the spectacle of self-righteous individuals at an elite university using the liberal values of free speech and open debate to denounce a fearless critic of female genital mutilation and other practices of violence that she experienced as part of the Islamic culture in which she grew up. This intolerance of “diverse” points of view is particularly telling at the present time, when Islamist terrorism is on the rise worldwide but, mysteriously, is seldom addressed on college campuses.

For her outspoken positions, Hirsi Ali is accused of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia” – even as equally adamant critics of, say, the U.S. or Israel are welcomed as speakers and faculty members, and universities and professional academic associations seek to enforce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.  In fact, as Andrew Anthony wrote in The Guardian (April 27, 2015), Hirsi Ali “is loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism.”

Perhaps the students at these prestigious universities need to read the work of historian Niall Ferguson, who moved to Stanford’s Hoover Institution in 2016, after 12 years at Harvard.  Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) presents a thorough account of 500 years of Western civilization’s contributions to the world, in terms of such basic measures of well-being as health, economic prosperity, and civil and political rights.

No doubt all this counts for nothing among today’s student protesters, who are incapable of spotting anything other than racism, sexism, and imperialism in the West. Although these university students are among the very people who benefit the most from all that Western culture has achieved, they evidently lack the imagination to grasp what it would mean to actually live in a society that controls their speech and movements, deprives them of the right to be heard, and imposes a rigid political ideology (not the one they happen to support) on their education.  But to truly understand the values they so blithely reject, they’d probably need a course in Western culture.

Political Tests for Faculty?

What’s going on when a public university feels entitled to ask potential faculty members questions clearly aimed at ferreting out their political and social commitments? Such questions, reminiscent of loyalty oaths and the demands of totalitarian regimes would seem to have no place in an educational institution in modern-day America.  But for some years now, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as at many other universities, the administration has allowed and actively encouraged precisely such interrogations.

In fact, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at UMass thoughtfully provides Supplemental Search Instructions, including suggestions for typical questions to be asked during interviews. These invite search committees to fill in the blank with the name of the “protected group” of their choice.

Related: How PC Corrupted the Colleges

The suggested questions include the following representative queries:

  • How have you demonstrated your commitment to (____) issues in your current position?
  • Which of your achievements in the area of equity for (____) gives you the most satisfaction?
  • In your current position, have you ever seen a (___) treated unfairly? How would/did you handle it?
  • How many of the top people at your current or previous institution are (___)?
  • What did you do to encourage hiring more (___)?

Where, one may well wonder, in the context of a public university supposedly committed to education rather than indoctrination, could such questions come from?  They turn out to be based on a nearly 30-year-old report entitled, It’s All in What You Ask (Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Education of Women, 1988), which contained scores of questions for job searches reaching into every part of the university – faculty, administrators, and staff – all aiming to uncover candidates’ underlying commitments to promoting particular groups.

But where the original document aimed at promoting women and merely mentioned in passing that the questions “can easily be adapted to apply to minority and disabled persons,” UMass Amherst has corrected that narrow perspective by providing its long (but not exhaustive) list of identity groups.

Related: Political Correctness Is the New Puritanism

In other respects, however, the guidelines largely replicate (and credit) the specific language of the original document, which makes no effort to disguise the “gotcha” mentality underlying the entire endeavor, despite a disingenuous assurance that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. The rationale is spelled out:

When prospective employees are asked, “Are you concerned about and supportive of these [identity group] issues?” they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. Asking some of the questions listed [here] may help you gain a better understanding of a candidate’s position on these issues.… Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance. These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate’s opinions rather than the “correct answer.”

The problem with these questions may not be primarily their legality—although there should be some concern about the possible unconstitutionality of anything smacking of an ideological qualification. The main problem is the overshadowing of genuine education by the demand for conformity and an explicit display of one’s politics.  The result is likely to be a monolithic corps of new employees, selected for their political commitments as much as, perhaps indeed more than, their professional qualifications.

Nor is this is happening in isolation. It has been accompanied, for years, by an out-of-control growth in administrators and staff whose explicit task is promoting and protecting certain identity groups.  Who knew that after thirty years of tireless efforts, universities would still be in desperate need of measures to combat their allegedly exclusionary policies toward all who aren’t able-bodied heterosexual white males?

All Diversity All the Time

Whereas certain parts of the academic world – Schools of Social Work, for example, and Schools of Education — have for some years insisted on overt expressions (on the part of both students and faculty) of correct political attitudes, it’s important to recognize how such demands are built into the entire job search procedure itself.

In addition, at UMass Amherst, as at other universities around the nation, the key documents about proper search procedures place a persistent and ceaseless emphasis on diversity, as required by equal opportunity regulations. Pages and pages of details are devoted to spelling out the efforts to identify and recruit “diverse” candidates, providing suggestions for every stage of the process.  Ironically, detailed lists are also provided of questions that are prohibited (having to do with ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, ancestry, and so on.  And to ensure that this process is fully complied with, search committees must meet with a representative of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity for orientation and “coaching” sessions.

Yet, though we are repeatedly told that, “An applicant’s potential contribution to workforce diversity is an asset that should be carefully considered,” at the completion of the search process, everything changes. Despite the relentless emphasis on “diversity-enhancing measures” up to this point, and the careful documentation of these efforts that are required, when final recommendations are made by the search committee and sent up the chain of command, we are told that the candidates’ race, sex, and other identity markers should not be mentioned, only the excellence of their qualifications:

When describing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, the committee’s rationale must focus strictly on their qualifications for the job itself. Do NOT comment on their race, ethnicity, accent, personal appearance, clothing, personality, age or maturity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or marital status. . . . The process will move much faster if the Chair, or, as a last resort, the Dean has made sure that all recommendations focus on qualifications for the job and do not make inappropriate references to protected personal characteristics.

In other words, after dominating the search and hiring procedure in multiple ways, the obsession with identity politics needs to be disguised at the very end, when all talk reverts to academic qualifications alone.

Thus, to the entire overdetermined process is added, at the last stage, a whiff of utter fraudulence. There’s the part where everyone is put through their diversity paces; then there’s the part where you cover it up.

Why Is It So Hard Now to Read a Book?

I was thinking about the issue of time this past week, while doing what I call cross-reading:  reading items online and pausing every few minutes to look something up on a web browser and then returning to the original reading.  This is a high-stimulation way of reading, producing an ultrathin layer of information about many different things, but not the intense experience of being deeply immersed in a book or other demanding piece of reading, which takes real time, not just internet time, to absorb and digest.

Almost thirty years ago, Roger Ebert wrote an enthusiastic review of Woody Allen’s film Radio Days, set in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1940s. It began:

I can remember what happened to the Lone Ranger in 1949 better than I can remember what happened to me. His adventures struck deeply into my imagination in a way that my own did not, and as I write these words there is almost a physical intensity to my memories of listening to the radio. Television was never the same. Television shows happened in the TV set, but radio shows happened in my head.

It’s this “happening in my head” that seems to be declining, replaced by constant and superficial connectivity, on the one hand, and exacerbated sensitivity to real or imagined slights on the other.  Though teaching my courses continues to interest me, I often doubt that they interest most of the undergraduate students who enroll in them.  A few, yes, but most sit passively with little or nothing to say.  When I first enter the room, they’re all sitting silently, absorbed in their iPhones.  Some continue playing with their iPhones during class, as if they think I can’t tell from the movements of their fingers, even if I can’t see the device itself.  And in the lobby of my building, I’ve noticed that almost all the students who come and go are on iPhones as they walk, alone but not alone.  Constant, instant, communication has colonized their time and minds.  Does this matter?

Related: Summer Reading for Freshmen, Unchallenging, Mediocre

Long experience has taught me that students often don’t do the assigned readings, or do only part of them, or in all likelihood read on-line summaries of novels (which can be very thorough and detailed, but also rapidly forgettable).  What is the difference between reading something at length and giving it a quick once-over?

There are two main ones:  time and imagination.  Two very dissimilar things: imagination, as Ebert noted, is internal. Time is external, and there are only 24 hours of it in a day.  It takes perhaps 8 or 10 hours to read a 250 or 300-page novel.  I know because I once spent a month at the British Library reading dozens of obscure dystopian novels that weren’t available in this country (this was long before the Internet, of course).

I used to reread each of the novels I taught in class, but this became discouraging:  my knowledge and understanding of the works increased with each reading, while my students’ reading habits were moving in the other direction, spending ever less time on assignments.  Like other professors, I’ve adapted to this reality to a large extent – using more short stories and essays, and feature films, in my courses. When I started teaching utopian and dystopian literature decades ago, I would typically include eight or nine novels in one semester. But then the semesters grew shorter (they are now at 13 weeks each at my university), and the habit of reading rarer.

Related: What Should Kids Be Reading

Years ago, some of my students told me that even between their experience and that of their younger siblings, there was an enormous gap: the younger kids were less likely to be interested in reading, whereas many of my students, in those days before the Internet, still loved books.  These shifts are not due entirely to technology, though it plays a large role, and text messaging certainly made this problem worse, as everyone knows.  The inevitable result is that more and more communication is going on about less and less:  sheer trivia constantly conveyed to all one’s “friends.”  Time is at a premium, apparently, and patience is short.

Universities have made many accommodations to this, as well.  Not that long ago I served on a committee dealing with a proposal to change many three-credit General Education courses to four credits. The problem was how to do this without increasing the professors’ workload or contact hours, guarded by the contracts our faculty union negotiates with the administration.

A lengthy discussion ensued about what that extra one credit might entail:  additional work for the students, yes, but without correspondingly increasing the professors’ work time.  All kinds of ideas were floated.  At one point I asked: “How about actually requiring the students to do all the work that’s already on our syllabus?”  No one was amused.  We pretended that the additional credit meant students would intensify and deepen their studies.

Since then, what we expect of our students has only decreased, even as many three-credit courses have indeed been transformed into four-credit ones, so that fewer courses are necessary to complete a bachelor’s degree.  And colleagues have grown bored with complaining about how difficult it is to get students to do reading, and how they must take ever greater pains to keep students amused and engaged.

But it’s not only these practical considerations (on our part and our students’) that are worth noting. An equally important component is the reduction of so much of our teaching to political bottom lines, usually resting on identity issues. Why bother reading anything in detail if one can readily enough spot its politics and praise or blame it on that score alone?

By encouraging or capitulating to this perspective, professors in many humanities departments have in effect taught their students that the humanities do not  matter, that attentiveness to reading is irrelevant, that the life of the mind (does anyone use that phrase these days?) has nothing to offer.  Instead, what counts are attitudes – in particular attitudes toward race, class, gender, heterosexuality, etc. – and if we can discern these quickly, so much the better. Why shouldn’t this far more economical, and self-righteous, path not appeal to our students?

The well-known scholar and former MLA president Elaine Marks, whose work was instrumental in promoting feminist literary theory, in the years before her death in 2001 turned against the practice of reading guided by identity politics and the tireless insistence on “differences.”  In 2000, she published an essay entitled “Feminism’s Perverse Effects,” in which she expressed her growing concern about the directions in which literary, cultural, ethnic and women’s studies had all been moving for some years.

Disillusioned with the practice of trolling literature and culture for signs of the ubiquitous -isms, Marks acknowledged her new-found sympathy with the arguments set forth by Harold Bloom in his much-maligned 1994 book The Western Canon.  Like Bloom, she had come to lament students’ failure to respond to literature imaginatively, their habit of replacing knowledge of western culture with a ceaseless pursuit of signs of its villainy, and their inability to experience surprise and delight in a text.  She was astonished, she wrote, to discover herself applauding Bloom’s words, “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.”  But merely expressing such concerns, Marks complained, would stigmatize a scholar as a closet conservative and traitor.

The Suicide of the Humanities

And that was in 2000. Since then things have only gotten worse, as higher education increasingly and openly pledges itself to politics before all else, whether in the name of  those elusive absolutes “diversity, inclusion, and  social justice” – words constantly promoted by university administrators (and accompanied by an ever-expanding corpus of administrators tasked with overseeing these agendas) – or to protect the fragility of  college students who claim to be unable to withstand the horrific offenses to their sensibilities that they manage to ferret out on America’s campuses.

Though some scholars may worry when they see the university diverting more and more resources to non-humanistic subjects, the fact remains that the suicide of the humanities is not occurring against but rather with the willing participation of many professors, who have long given up defending their own fields as worthy of study except as ersatz politics. But if that’s all the humanities are about, why not just abandon them and go straight for the real thing?

THE NORMALIZATION OF BAD IDEAS

By Daphne Patai

While American education goes further down the tubes, lame-brained notions are raised to levels of respectability in academe that should shock any halfway reasonable person. What has happened is the normalization of bad ideas, thanks mostly to identity politics. We constantly hear that we live in a hopelessly racist and sexist society, but the truth is that we live in such a liberal atmosphere that identity-based complaints are always taken seriously. And rarely does a student shouting obscenities at a professor or administrator get told to just “shut up and study.”

It’s worth considering how we got from there to here. Below are a few highlights from my own decades in academe, during which identity politics have spread like a contagious disease.

Remaking the World of Sex

In response to the increasing publicity over date rape, Antioch College in 1993 adopted an oddball policy requiring verbal consent at every stage of sexual activities. After a slow start, such policies, perhaps owing to absurd claims about the high rate of sexual assault on campus, are now gaining traction throughout the country.

Underlying this demand are some disturbing implications that have trickled down from radical feminists decades ago: that women don’t really want (hetero)sex, that “consent” itself is manufactured by heteronormativity, that intercourse and rape are often indistinguishable, and that sexual harassment and assault (both having undergone ever expanding definitions) are what men routinely do to women.

Let’s call these ideas the MacKinnon-Dworkinite axis. When I wrote about this problem in a 1998 book called Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, the notion that heterosexual relations required verbal consent was still a marginal idea. Now a negative view of heterosex seems to be everywhere, resuscitating traditional views of women as needing constant protection from predatory males.

But that protection, these days, is to be provided by the state and its eager institutions, not by individual men.  It’s as if women have totally cornered the sexual market: they’re the providers (mostly reluctant), men the consumers (avidly hungry), and the entire interaction has to be orchestrated by administrators, following the guidelines of feminists. See Cathy Young’s column, in The Washington Post.

While feminists have used the term “rape culture” for years to characterize the United States, they rarely criticize or even comment on the high incidence of rape of black women by black men. The same silence surrounds the growing incidence of rape and sexual assault in European cities with large numbers of Muslim immigrants.

Race: Concentrating on Grievance

The grievance industries have taken control of the popular discourse on race, to the point that merely to call attention to this phenomenon is to expose oneself to nasty labels. It was in the early 1990s, at a meeting of the Women’s Studies faculty (which I had joined voluntarily a couple of years after receiving tenure in the Spanish and Portuguese Department), that I first heard a colleague bluntly state:  When Blacks say they have experienced racism, they are not to be challenged.

I objected that this made actual discussion of a problem or a charge impossible. Colleagues who agreed with me behind the scenes were nonetheless unwilling to say so publicly. At the same time, racial politics were so thoroughly gripping the program that when two graduate students presented a proposal for a new course they wished to teach on indigenous women, my colleagues accepted it despite the fact that the proposal was nothing but a list of indigenous identities of North and South America. I argued that the proposal needed to be a real proposal, not merely a list. My colleagues responded, “We can’t afford not to accept it,” by which they meant that with charges of racism flying thick and fast, they dared not insist on normal academic procedures.  These were among the episodes that led to my leaving Women’s Studies not long thereafter.

The Cult of Identity 

Clearly, identity politics had become a hydra, so out of control that Women’s Studies itself was in danger of seeming parochial for concentrating on “women.”  The first thing it did to bolster its position was, as described above, embrace a stance of mea culpa in relation to white identity.

So widespread is this today that we have such innovations as whiteness studies (i.e., studies of “white privilege” and its inherent racism), which have some up-to-the-minute incarnations, as in Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College, scheduled for April 2016.  And identity programs devoted to every conceivable variation of sexual and gender identity now abound. Acronyms are de rigueur.

And Let’s Not Forget ‘Class’

Early in the days of Women’s Studies, claims about “classism” were added to charges of racism and sexism, and “white middle-class women” were denounced as the illegitimate dominatrices of academic feminism.  The imperative was clear: adapt or die. As identities multiplied, the accompanying demand for appropriate “theorizing”  took the form of what academic feminists claimed was a new “integrated analysis,” by which various supposedly oppressed identities had to be incorporated into one package.

More recently, this has been renamed “intersectional analysis” (borrowing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s use in a 1989 essay of the term “intersectionality”).  This is now an obligatory approach in Women’s Studies and other identity fields, designed to address the special marginalization suffered by people with multiple oppressed identities. Such an approach has the great advantage that new categories can always be added as they are discovered.

The Compulsion to Reinvent Oneself

Along with this came a change in the very name of Women’s Studies programs.  All over the country in the past decade these programs and departments retitled themselves as some variation of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  And indeed, sexuality – that is, the critique of heterosexuality and promotion of alternatives – became, along with racism and anti-capitalism, the predominant focus of academic feminism, as is evident today in course offerings and programmatic statements.

Befitting a postmodernist age, redefinitions of all categories prevailed:  Where originally gender identity was seen as socially constructed, and sexual identity was viewed as biological, biology itself came increasingly, if inconsistently, under attack.  Noretta Koertge and I called this development “biodenial” (see Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies), and noted how opportunistically the technique was used.

In a fascinating more recent development, it has become clear that while minority racial identity is so treasured that fraudulent claims (on grounds of biology, i.e., racial heritage!) are denounced, sexual identity has moved in an opposite direction, toward ever greater fluidity. Thus, for example, Smith College announced in May 2015 that, though reaffirming its “unwavering mission and identity as a women’s college,” its commitment to access and diversity required recognition that “concepts of female identity have evolved.”

Henceforth, Smith will consider applicants who “self-identify” as female, even if they “were assigned male at birth” — but not the reverse.  Thoughtfully, this policy “does not affect students who transition during their time at Smith.” Is this an abandonment or an intensification of identititis?

Firmly Stamping out Unwanted Speech

Of course, none of the above shifts could occur successfully without policing of everyday language. And as the very notion of discrimination (which was initially the legal basis for criminalizing “sexual harassment”) underwent extensive concept-stretching, demands for verbal conformity have intensified, proscribing certain terms and prescribing others.

Schools have sometimes tried to create lists of offensive and impermissible terms, and though these have no legal standing, such details don’t seem to have dissuaded many colleges.  But even where certain terms are not officially prohibited, conformity has been expected for decades now.

I remember a speaker in the early 1990s, at a Women’s Studies brown-bag lunch, in passing using the expression “to see” in the sense of “to understand.” A student in the audience interrupted her to say this was “ablest.” The speaker apologized.  As categories of oppression have multiplied, so, obviously, are the terms that must be avoided.  For several decades now, students and faculty have gotten into serious trouble for saying something perceived as offensive.

This creeping censorship was highlighted in the indispensable book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998). Initially inspired by the famous “water buffalo” case at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, the book tracked the rapid multiplication of such instances throughout the 1990s.

The avalanche of cases Kors and Silverglate heard about in response to their book led them in 1999 to found FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (on whose Board I have served ever since).  FIRE has been instrumental in combatting speech codes on American campuses by insisting on reason and actual adherence to the First Amendment, and by holding universities to account.

The cases on the website, thefire.org, read like a parody of academic inanities – but the consequences to those charged with speech infractions have been all too real – thanks to the Departments of Education’s and Justice’s 2013 “blueprint” invoking unconstitutionally broad definitions of sexual harassment. For students and faculty, this usually means absence of due process.

FIRE has had to pursue free speech on a case-by-case basis, preferring suasion to lawsuits wherever possible.  But despite their numerous successes, the general atmosphere on campus has not improved. On the contrary, university administrators, as we have seen again in recent months, have become ever more craven conformists.

Recently, I received a mailing from FIRE about the case of a Colorado College student who was suspended and banned from campus for two years for having posted a six-word comment on Yik Yak.  FIRE’s intervention got the ban reduced to six months, and they are still fighting on his behalf.

And the struggle continues: On Jan 20, 2016, supported by FIRE, Professor Teresa Buchanan filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Louisiana State University for infringement of her rights by firing her for profanity she used in class.

Creeping Totalitarianism

Over the past few decades, then, we have seen a massive normalization of bad ideas that were first promoted by identity programs such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies. This could not have been accomplished without academic institutions willingly, and by now enthusiastically, embracing what Lawrence Summers (and he should know) recently called academe’s “creeping totalitarianism.”  Far from embracing free debate of challenging ideas and the free speech necessary to pursue them, university life today is characterized by policies governing every aspect of college life, in the classroom and out, and offices to enforce them.

At the macro level, universities have adopted “social justice” as a supposed core mission, in the name of which policing of speech and behavior has become ever more intense.  Education itself may be more debased and less demanding, yet universities focus not on this extremely serious problem but on the level of comfort of those supersensitive souls who are empowered by identity politics.

With intrusive training and orientation sessions, often obligatory, along with endless expansion of administrative fiefdoms devoted to supposed justice, inclusivity, and equality, schools augment the problem by embracing and imposing rules and regulations, however blatantly unconstitutional and in defiance of their own stated commitments to free speech and academic freedom.

Instead, in the new world in which “oppression studies” (to use Alan Kors’ prescient phrase) rule, we find ever more hysterical searches for grievances, to the point that students now need to be protected from offenses or mere upset feelings yet to come, and thus demand “trigger warnings” about class material.  They learn how to apply the concept of “bullying,” the latest catch-all offense to watch for in the new kindergarten that the university has become.

It’s as if universities have been transformed from institutions dedicated to learning into holding tanks for fragile and shattered selves – not so fragile, however, that they’re unable to mobilize and scream until they get their way, all the while claiming to be silenced and abused.

We have reached the point today where the erosion of civil rights, along with the evaporation of common sense, is not only taken for granted but actively encouraged by many college administrators eager to demonstrate their commitment to a better (that is, more minutely controlled) society.  Or perhaps they are just eager to keep their jobs — a futile endeavor since, as they are learning the hard way, no one has an unassailable identity once identitarians get busy.

Meanwhile, universities recklessly follow the spread of inventive concepts such as “micro-aggression.” This term was coined in 1970 by professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, but was not widely used until the last few years. Why might that be? Perhaps because there were more important battles to be fought then.  But, let’s face it, micro-aggression is becoming hackneyed, for it is only the more overt form of those ubiquitous and diabolical — because ever less visible — offenses that so plague our society.  No one should be content to stop there.

Can nano-aggression be far behind?


 

Daphne Patai is a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

How Political Correctness Corrupted the Colleges

How can it be that, in the face of daily news of murders, grotesque punishments, and open oppression by radicals abroad, here at home American college students, who have grown up with degrees of freedom and autonomy virtually unknown in most times and places, agitate for restrictions on their own campuses, demand rules, regulations, and censorship in the name of their versions of justice?

I don’t think the answer to this question is that “this generation” of American college students is just more authoritarian in their way of thinking than their predecessors, or more impassioned about their political commitments. Nor do I think that they have been brainwashed by their families or school teachers – though this too plays a role.

Related: Limp Administrators Let the Angry Few Take Over

What has happened is that over the past couple of decades “political correctness” became mainstreamed: it went from characterizing only certain parts of the university (above all “identity” programs, such as women’s studies, openly committed to particular kinds of social change and intolerant of divergent views) to enjoying an obligatory and sincere endorsement by many faculty and administrators. This involves a massive redefinition of what higher education is and ought to be.

All the Dread Isms

Not that this is news. In the early 1990s, when I was still in women’s studies, some professors required their white students to disclose their first experience with blacks, and, if they declined to do so, the recalcitrant students were accused of being “in denial”  about their own racism.  Charges of racism were proving very effective in shutting down discussion and leaving even people who knew better speechless.

What has changed since is that charges of racism, sexism, and other dreaded –isms have become ever more commonplace, so that entire institutions, not just individual professors and administrators, live in fear of having such charges lobbed their way. Thus, today, it is common for universities to have orientation programs for first-year students that explicitly aim to indoctrinate them about the attitudes and words considered not just rude or thoughtless but actionable. And to have speech codes and harassment policies that all too often are in clear violation of the Constitution.

Related: The Modern Campus as North Korea

The brouhaha at the University of Missouri and at Yale, for example, perfectly illustrates the shift: what a heady feeling, to be able to push administrators and faculty into resigning, with or without official self-abnegation. And with proliferating protective measures undertaken by universities (with their ever-expanding corps of administrators), is it any wonder that the supposed adults in academe become more disempowered, more fearful of being charged with one of the stigmatizing –isms?

Somehow, in America, the more students in fact enter universities, the more “flexible” our course offerings and activities, the easier it is to get a degree, the more aggrieved students feel by the persistence of complexity in their social environment. And the unsurprising result for students who know little history and less world politics is clear: what is being demanded by protesting students is a kind of control over others that would seem to have no place in a free society. But how are they to know this, if they have little knowledge and simple views of their own society and its place in the world?

The situation is not helped by the readiness with which what used to be serious intellectual venues now join in the fray. In The New Yorker, on Nov. 10, 2015, for example, Jelani Cobb has an article whose very title lays out the parameters of acceptable speech.  It is called “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion.” Such a juxtaposition both dismisses free speech and delegitimizes concerns about it at the outset.

Related: What Students Are Demanding Now

It’s hard to believe Americans would be so quick to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward one of our most valuable rights if they had actual experience of the repressive dictatorships that existed and still exist in various parts of the world. But the worst part is that these angry students and their academic abettors know and understand the First Amendment. Yet, they actively and open blatantly oppose it, believing that only the speech they approve of should be protected. The same attitudes prevail with rights of due process, routinely violated on college campuses. Why should those accused of using a racist slur or engaging in an unwanted touch or tasteless joke have any rights? Why shouldn’t they at once be punished? Forced to apologize, to grovel, to resign? This is the climate of vigilantism and instant (in) justice that prevails. And it should surprise no one that students will use whatever weapons come their way.

The Oppression Sweepstakes

Way back in 1994, Noretta Koertge, a philosopher of science and I used the term “oppression sweepstakes” in our book Professing Feminism to describe the unseemly competition in academe (though not only there) for most oppressed status. We lamented that young women were opportunistically embracing the rhetoric of victimhood. Students were also learning to spot “sexual harassment” everywhere around them, thanks to regulations that became ever broader and looser, the better to catch any offending word, look, innuendo, or gesture. Due process, like First Amendment rights, became just another quaint notion to be despised by campus justice warriors.

I remember the first time that a student asked me (in class) to give “trigger warnings” about material I was assigning.  That was perhaps ten years ago. Now that term, too, is commonplace.  Since then, hypersensitivity and the search for grievances have only intensified. As big problems disappear, little ones are forced into their place, and so we get “micro-aggression,” a sublime new term by which victim groups can keep complaining when the main sources of complaint have all but disappeared. Imagine the difficulty if one had to give up victimhood.

What are the implications of the fact that accusations of racism and sexism are so popular?  One obvious one is that, far from being a society riddled with social injustice, the U.S. has made so much progress that such charges are cast routinely and fearlessly for they prove amazingly effective in delegitimizing others. A neat one-up move that has effortlessly worked its way into our culture.

Being called a racist automatically cripples (excuse the ableist language) the accused, since any response is immediately cast as evidence that one is simply in denial and trying to protect one’s privilege. And having “privilege” has itself become a slur, another tool in the arsenal designed to impede opposing, or even just differing, points of views. Scores of dystopian fictions, films, and realities have done little to dissuade these campus rebels from a belief that their version of equality and justice can be imposed by fiat, with no serious negative consequences to themselves.

It’s Who Says It, Not What’s Said

Identity politics, rooted in race, gender, sexual orientation (and an ever-expanding list of other protected categories), creates a climate in which the key element is not what one says but who says it. The result: only certain people have the right to say certain things.  And since identity in fact does not tell us all we need to know about a person’s views, beliefs, commitments, or actions,  many additional terms have been created to curtail the speech and attack the legitimacy of those with dissenting views, terms like “Uncle Tom,”  “Oreo,”  “not a real woman,”  or “heteronormativity.”    Thus, identity politics has morphed from actually requiring evidence of discrimination to merely verbalizing the claim to a supposedly oppressed identity and constantly hurt feelings.

When truth and falsity are determined by who speaks, not what is said or what relationship it bears to reality, we’re in free fall, and one can expect that those who yell loudest and claim the greatest oppression will rule. Not a pretty picture, and certainly not the way a democracy is supposed to function. Bertrand Russell referred to this many years ago with his ironic phrase regarding “the superior virtue of the oppressed.”

Intolerance with Moral Superiority

But this snapshot of some of the most popular gotcha games of our time does not suggest to me that students want to be treated like children, or that they genuinely want university administrators to protect them from unpleasantness and discomfort.

That is far too innocent a view of their energetic protests.  Their actions suggest more worldly aims:  they want to be tyrants, able to impose their will while disguising that drive with claims of moral superiority to those around them.

And a good deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs rests with faculty and administrators.  Universities are not the only places attacking liberal values and the Western tradition, but what is perhaps surprising is that they’re not even willing to defend themselves as places where serious learning intellectual efforts are supposed to go on. What else does their desperate commitment to so-called social justice, community activism, and all the rest of the litany amount to? Having long ago abdicated intellectual leadership in favor of feel-good phony politics and self-defeating new definitions of their missions, these agents of the university are hardly in a position to protest students’ endless pursuits of these selfsame goals, which must rest on grievances and slights, real or imagined.

But, alas, when professors stop defending their academic endeavors  in intellectual terms and opt instead for ersatz politics, they are rapidly outclassed by young people who can do that better: with more energy, more time, more anger. Hence, unable to compete, professors instead attempt to ingratiate ourselves with students, hoping (not very effectively, it turns out) to avoid getting caught up in their attacks.

Related: A Targeted Teacher at Yale Quits

Why, then, be surprised when students use turn against those very administrators and faculty who have been capitulating to them for years?  And so students demand respect without earning it, status without achievement, and instantaneous action against the offenses they ferret out all around them.

Like other tyrants, petty or not, students engaging in phony revolutionary claims, these students just want to have their own way, impose their ideas, and be done with it.  Hence they shout down speakers, get invitations rescinded, and disrupt campus activities.

They may be infantile in their yelling and screaming, but that doesn’t mean they are actually seeking adult guidance. Not at all — they’re trying to intimidate their elders into further subjection and are achieving marked success. And they bravely do this in the comfy atmosphere of the modern university.

Isn’t it time for faculty to say:  How you feel is your own affair. Feelings get hurt; that’s life. People can be unpleasant, true.  But what matters here is what you do. You’re here to learn, to develop intellectually, and that requires effort and commitment, not moments of high drama and self-exaltation. Not every slight is an assault, every unkind word an instance of discrimination.

You want to know about inequality and pain? Just travel around the world and see what the absence of liberal values and functioning civil rights leads to, and then come back and see if continuing to complain about the horrendous inequities of your university is still your best bet for creating a better world.

North Korea Has Taken Over Academe

Perhaps it’s time for universities to institute a course in logic as a basic requirement for all students. Then we might encounter more rational and thoughtful protests taking place all over the country, instead of the spectacle of students demanding that professors and administrators be fired for using words or voicing opinions disapproved by minority students (or those who speak for them).But even in this climate, a particularly egregious case occurred recently, whose ramifications continue to unfold.

Don’t Mention the Slur

At the University of Kansas, on November 12, during a discussion of race in a graduate course in communications, Professor Andrea Quenette dared to the use the word “nigger” as an example of the sort of slur she had never seen on campus. Outraged students objected in a lengthy and detailed letter charging that Dr. Quenette’s deployment of racially violent rhetoric not only creates a non-inclusive environment in opposition to one of the University of Kansas’ core tenets, but actively destroys the very possibility of realizing those values and goals.

The professor had compounded her offense of disagreeing with the students’ claims of systemic racism by arguing that the low retention and graduation rates of Black students were due to, among other things, “academic performance,” not to constant threats to their physical safety.  The students cited these views as part of an “unsafe learning space and hostile work environment.”   Anticipating rejoinders, the twelve students made their views abundantly clear:

“The response that more dialogue is needed to resolve this problem is insufficient to redress our claim that the space of dialogue is coded through terror and hostility. The belief that democratic deliberation is neutral is wrong and dangerous.”

In a desperate attempt to stretch limitations to the First Amendment, they also argued that, “…by imbuing racist language, remarks, and viewpoints into the pedagogy her students were meant to replicate, Dr. Quenette was training us to perpetrate acts and ideas violating the policies of the university. Therefore, her speech is not protected by the First Amendment and employer discipline for her remarks is not only legal, but necessary based on her breach of contract.”

At the next class, the students demanded that Professor Quenette read aloud their letter calling for her termination. And when she refused, citing potential legal implications for herself, they walked out of her class. Several then filed charges against her, which the university dignified by investigating. Meanwhile, each day brings new charges against any and all, which the frightened administration seems eager to placate. As for the professor, she is on paid leave.

Placed on Leave, but Why?

Not one to mince words, Harvey Silverglate, civil liberties attorney and co-founder of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has for more than fifteen years battled speech codes, obligatory diversity training, and other violations of First Amendment rights on campus, says, “[This case is] breath-taking as evidence that North Korea has arrived in academia, where students feel empowered to coerce a professor into reading a statement that the students drafted for her. (And for years, when, in my speeches and lectures, I’ve compared the campuses to ‘North Korean re-education camps,’ people said I was exaggerating and over-reaching! Turns out I was just a few years ahead of reality.)”

But the university itself evidently sees no such problem, as Provost Jeffrey Vitter’s letter of November 17th to the campus community makes clear.  Here he lays out the university’s commitments to end racism on campus and improve diversity – as if until this year no one had ever brought the matter up.  As at other universities, the mere voicing of charges is taken as evidence, which few (least of all administrators) dare question.

The blithe conflation of meliorism and indoctrination can readily be discerned in the Provost’s preview of an “action plan” that the university will unfold in January:

“The action plan will target retention and graduation rates of students, in addition to mandatory education, through facilitated sessions, on inclusion and belonging for all students, faculty, staff, and administrators and a plan for accountability.”

Helping with all this work are, of course, the many administrators – found at virtually all colleges these days – charged with overseeing diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism.

But most telling is the tone of anxiety, the evident desire to make it clear that such well-meaning and apologetic administrators should certainly not be included in students’ ire. Yet, ironically, by implication the Provost paints a portrait of  a university mired in a time warp where racism runs rampant and every one of the extraordinary gains made over the past 50-some years has somehow evaporated. He writes:

“I also am impressed by the KU faculty members who make it clear that racism and other forms of discrimination have no place in their classrooms and offices. As Chancellor Gray-Little mentioned in her message on Friday, change will happen not from the top down, but from within and with participation from across the institution. We must and will work together to make inclusion and respect for others a priority for everyone. As my time at KU comes to a close, I want to make sure everyone knows these issues will continue to command our attention. . . .”

One could hardly ask for a better obeisance to the current climate than the Provost’s concluding words:

“We can, and should, proudly proclaim, ‘Black Lives Matter.’ It is the first of many steps we will take together. KU must be a place where people are recognized and celebrated for their curiosity, intellectual gifts, cultural insights, and artistic talents. And as Jayhawks, we must acknowledge that how people identify themselves adds to the richness of what they have to offer.”

Then, for an even more chilling look at what passes for education these days, the Provost reminds his readers of an important annual program called the Tunnel of Oppression, provided by The Office of Multicultural Affairs, for which faculty are urged to offer students extra credit:

The Tunnel of Oppression is a tour that will engage students in an immersive experience of scenes where participants will experience, firsthand, different forms of oppression through interactive acting, viewing monologues, and multimedia. Participants directly experience the following scenes of oppression: ability, class, body image, immigration, homophobia, genocide, relationship violence, and race.

But not even this is something students can be expected to absorb on their own, for the information about the event also tells us, “At the completion of the Tunnel experience participants will go through an active processing session where they will discuss the experience and learn how they can rethink their role in creating positive social change.”

Evidently, a college education is no longer in and of itself a source of “positive social change,” left to the discretion of each student to interpret and enact, nor does it occur to campus vigilantes that someday they, too, may need the protections afforded by the First Amendment. If, that is, they ever find themselves on the wrong side of the reigning orthodoxies. But if the University of Kansas is such a distressingly racist place today, the Tunnel, which has been in existence for a few days each year since 2001, seems to be an abysmal failure. Perhaps offering extra credit for visiting it is not enough and we should insist that doing so be part of the mandatory training of incoming students. Anything less may be a betrayal of what higher education is supposed to be about!

 

College Students Now–the Good and the Bad

First, the good news:  My undergraduate students here at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are quite literate, contrary to all the bad press and fears. Every week I give them a 20-minute writing assignment in class, the sole preparation for which is having done the week’s homework.  Turns out they write pretty well; arguably, in some cases, better than with at-home papers, which may cause them more stress.  This despite the fact that whenever I enter the room at the beginning of class, most of them are on their iPhones or otherwise engaged with electronic devices.

Now the bad news: For about the past week I’ve been taking note of the announcements that come to me via email from the university.  These relate predominantly to events in my particular areas of interest : Latin American studies;  languages and literatures; women’s studies – now renamed, like most such programs throughout the country,  Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, which at least makes their focus clear, in case anyone was wondering.  But I also receive occasional emails about  university-wide special events, as well as Five-College events (since UMass Amherst is part of the Five College Consortium), though these latter are often related to the above fields.

Below is a listing of the typical items that appeared in my email in the past week or so –representative of the majority of announcements I receive week after week.

  1. The Chancellor of UMass Amherst announces that the newly-created post of Assistant Provost for Diversity has been filled.
  2. The Center for Latin America, Caribbean and Latino Studies announces a conference later this month on the “Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Nation in Colombia, Brazil and Cuba.”  (I received seven separate announcements of this event over the past couple of days)
  3. A Five College Multicultural Theater Conference is taking place, which will address issues of representation, diversity and inclusion in multicultural theater today.
  4. The Five College Women’s Studies Research Center announces a faculty seminar and public talk on Race and Science, offered by a visiting professor of English.
  5. The Center for Public Policy and Administration in conjunction with the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute and a few other departments at UMass are sponsoring a panel discussion by experts from the non-Western Muslim world about the line between free speech and hate speech.  The event is called “Charlie Hebdo Attacks: Is Your Free Speech My Hate Speech?”
  6. The CLACLS (see # 2 above) is sponsoring a lecture and workshop on “The Politics of Cultura [sic] in a Minority Latino/a [sic] Community: What We Can Learn from Public Pedagogies of Food, Fun, and Fiestas,” as part of their year-long series “Re-imagining Latin@[sic] Studies in Higher Education.”
  7.  A talk by a feminist and reproductive rights activist,  called “Abortion in our hands: Clandestine Abortion Doulas’s Network in Argentina” – sponsored by WGSS, CLACLS, Social Thought and Political Economy (these at UMass), and the Third World Studies Program at Hampshire College
  8. The Center for Teaching & Faculty Development announces two remaining events in its Diversity & Teaching Series:  “Teaching Difference: A Faculty Panel,” and “Strategies to Engage And Sustain the Diverse Classroom”
  9. Finally – surprise! — Charles Krauthammer will be giving a talk here in about ten days, sponsored by the UMass College Republicans.

What rarely crosses my path are announcements designed to actually help students with their academic work as final exams/papers approach, or to appeal to their imagination and intellect in areas not related to the overarching agenda of “social justice” and “diversity.”  There are, however, many end-of- semester events designed for one or another identity group.  I’ve been noticing that these don’t clarify if they’re open to the public, or only to the particular identities being celebrated.

As for the actual work going on in many humanities courses, despite my pleasure in noting that many of my students can write decently, I also know that our academic standards have declined in terms of what is expected and demanded of our students (a problem that begins well before they arrive at the university, as evidenced by the striking fragility of their general level of knowledge).  Do literature courses these days assign students eight or so novels to read over the semester, as we certainly used to do?  My own experience is that students do watch films (an ever greater part of our curricula), yes, but are less likely to do assigned readings, though these rarely amount to more than perhaps a few dozen pages per week.

The university provides us with an online resource, Moodle, on which we can place assignments, readings, create discussion groups, post grades, and so on. It also allows faculty to see which students are actually accessing the assigned materials. Of course, we can’t tell how much time they actually spend on the materials, only the date and time that they have clicked on them.  I tell my students that their professors can do this, so that they can be aware of the far greater surveillance they may be subjected to, compared to the past. Despite this, some of them choose to skip much of the material for my course.  If I assign several short readings, some students will only bother with one or two of them. This is how I know they at least initially access and perhaps actually watch films. The difference between their activities reports on readings versus on films is marked.

The faculty groans and moans about the ever-decreasing level of work we can realistically expect of our students; it’s a persistent theme, but we more or less conform.  It seems impossible not to.   I can’t comment on what’s going on in non-humanities courses, where I do not have first-hand experience.

Furthermore, it is a fact that at UMass our semesters have become shorter and shorter (right now we’re at 13 weeks of actual instruction per semester).  And – another sign of the times — many General Education courses have been converted from three to four credits, without a proportional increase in classroom time.  Obviously, the result is fewer courses per college career, though the pretense is that these 4-credit courses are more intense and demanding.  When, a few years ago, I was on a Faculty Senate sub-committee discussing what we should require of professors seeking to make this change, I inquired:  “Why don’t we just demand that our students actually do the work we already assign?” That comment didn’t carry the day.

Still, my sketch of the current scene in my part of the university should in no way be taken as chiming in with the common complaint that we fail to prepare students for employment.  I actually believe an undergraduate liberal arts education is valuable in and of itself, and that the university’s main function is not to be a job-training school.  But if – despite the efforts of individual professors — we don’t even offer a genuinely high quality education, one that goes beyond the current shibboleths for which students actually don’t need to go to college, what can be said to justify our existence?  If we’re instead focused on rhetoric displays related to ersatz politics and the university’s supposed commitment to right the world’s wrongs, well, then, we’re not even doing the job we can reasonably be expected to do, and for which students are paying exorbitantly high prices.  Not to mention that of course we cannot even agree on how to go about improving the world, any more than do politicians who devote their full attention to this!  Instead, pathetically, the university routinely engages in verbal magic –still obsessed with identity politics as indicated by the ceaseless emphasis on terms such as diversity, inclusion, and outreach.

What does all this signify if not a depressing loss of confidence that education is itself of value and doesn’t need transmogrification into something else? No wonder so many students seem to want above all to get through college with as little effort as possible, rather than taking advantage of the extraordinary riches that ought to be available at any university.


 

Ray Bradbury Saw the PC Lunacy Coming

ray-bradbury.jpgRay Bradbury, born in 1920, a fearless defender of the imagination and scathing critic of political correctness long before the term was even invented, died on June 5th, 2012. His last published piece was a brief autobiographical essay in The New Yorker (June 4, 2012) called, ironically, “Take Me Home,” in which he describes his boyhood fascination with fantasy and adventure tales and the desire they inspired in him to fly away into the unknown ancient cities of Mars.

Though Bradbury often said his aim was above all to entertain himself
and his readers, his work nonetheless has been of interest to both
political and social critics. Among his enormous output of stories, novels, plays, film scripts, and
even lyrics for musical versions of his work, the most famous is
probably his prescient novel Fahrenheit 451 — the temperature at which
book paper bursts into flames. An expansion of a story called “The
Pedestrian,” the novel is set in a future America in which books are
burned because they may cause unhappiness and dissent. The theme is not
a new one, but what makes Bradbury’s treatment of it compelling to this
day is his understanding that it doesn’t take an authoritarian
government to impose such restrictions on the public.

Continue reading Ray Bradbury Saw the PC Lunacy Coming

No Time for Conservative Faculty

I’m totally baffled by the general looniness that seems to pop up when the liberal-left side talks about Republicans and the wealthy.  And it all “trickles down,” so that students parrot the same attitudes.  Today a student of mine from last year, who’s smart and nice, said in passing that the Tea Partiers are “racist.”  I said, “I don’t think so,” and he at once said, well, that’s what he’d learned in the press.  And he acknowledged that that was all he knew — the particular press he’s exposed to.

Continue reading No Time for Conservative Faculty

How to Fight for Free Speech on Our ‘Sensitive’ Campuses

About fifty undergraduates from around the country gathered outside of Philadelphia, on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, between July 15 and 17th, to discuss the struggle for free speech on American campuses. The event was the third annual Campus Freedom Network (CFN) conference organized by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Teaching as I do at the University of Massachusetts flagship campus in Amherst, affectionately known by some as the People’s Republic of Amherst, I considered it a rare treat to encounter in one place so many impassioned and curious young people eager to defend their First Amendment rights against the encroachment of overzealous college administrators and others. Horror stories were recounted (about which more anon), but laughter, outrage, smart comebacks, and strategizing were in ample supply.
Since FIRE’s founding in 1999 by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate, co-authors of the 1998 book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, the non-partisan non-profit organization has battled speech codes and other assaults on First Amendment rights on campuses from coast to coast. More interested in suasion than in litigation (which, when necessary, is done by FIRE’s many lawyer friends and allies), FIRE is by now a well-established outfit with headquarters in Philadelphia, a satellite office in Manhattan, and a total staff of 17. It has been remarkably successful in bringing sunlight and good sense to blinkered administrators, as can readily be attested by a glance at its website, which archives the organization’s activities, including its blog, The Torch, its constantly growing list of schools whose speech codes and policies FIRE has rigorously analyzed and classified, and offers free downloads of its five short “Guides to Student Rights on Campus” — each book focusing on one crucial area: free speech, religious freedom, due process, student fees, and first-year orientation/thought reform efforts on campus

Continue reading How to Fight for Free Speech on Our ‘Sensitive’ Campuses

Standpoint Theory Arrives At The Court

One of the key contributions of second-wave feminism to the academy is what is known as “standpoint theory,” which asserts that members of oppressed groups have special “ways of knowing” based on their group’s unique experiences. The problem standpoint theory attempted to address is how to respond to the apparent monopoly of knowledge and power held by men (usually called “white men” in these discussions). Since women were for centuries excluded from education and professional activities, how could they gain traction for their views and rapidly enhance their present status?

The easiest way to deal with this problem is to consider the source of an idea an adequate gauge of its validity and significance. This is known as the “genetic fallacy,” a form of ad hominem or ad feminam argument. Valorizing the viewpoints of hitherto marginalized groups is an obvious instance of this fallacy. It also discourages challenges to one’s point of view, since any challenge can be represented as an attempt to demean that group’s experience, out of which it presumably speaks.

In the more academic-sounding form of “standpoint epistemology,” by which one’s racial or sexual identity provides a person with experiences that define how he or she thinks, deference is routinely paid to the special perspectives of minorities. While not wanting to get embroiled in biological essentialism or in the view that acquired experiences are inherited (or transmitted through some sort of collective unconscious), proponents of standpoint theory have turned it into a staple of feminism over the last few decades, and it has been of great utility as well to other identity groups. Its objective, as feminist scholar Sandra Harding, one of the founders of feminist standpoint theory, puts it, is to unearth the special powers that women’s lived experience can offer, the special knowledge that they can thus claim.

Continue reading Standpoint Theory Arrives At The Court

Want to Teach Here? Then Tell Us Your Politics

It’s hard to say just when universities ceased to believe that education was a worthwhile mission. But that they have done so is beyond question. Among many signs of this reality is the anxiety to redefine the university’s task. After all, educators who no longer expect or demand serious intellectual effort from their students are bound to look elsewhere for ways to justify their existence and that of their institutions. Enter the language of “community engagement,” “outreach,” “social justice,” and “equity” (to name just a few of the terms now used as rallying cries on many campuses).

If anyone has doubts that behind these grand terms lies the degradation of academic life, a look at procedures for recruiting new faculty is a good place to observe the university’s priorities. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I teach, a document both sublime and ridiculous advises us how to go about determining if applicants have what it takes to work here. Along with the usual lists of questions that may or may not be asked, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity provides some crucial guidelines in a document titled Supplemental Search Instructions. I reproduce the final section of this document below:

Continue reading Want to Teach Here? Then Tell Us Your Politics