What a different scene at Columbia University in the last month of 2010 from the glory days of the 1960s, when student radicals took over the campus! On December 13th, mild-mannered students with pleasant smiles nodded in agreement with establishment politicians and political strategists at the “No Labels” conference. As political analysts have pointed out, the repeated pleading for “bipartisanship” and for moving not “left or right” but “forward” was an attempt to obscure the losing message of Democrats and nervous Republicans in the 2010 elections.
But the phrases of “moving forward” and “compromise” were refrains in a song familiar to more than 300 college students from across the country gathered on campus. At the microphone, these students demonstrated their docile acceptance of the “no labels” pedagogy of “consensus-building,” “conflict resolution,” and “civil discourse.” When explaining “why” they were there, they echoed the words of the organizers and said they were tired of “hyper-partisanship.” Then they “pledged” to “speak out against this hyper-partisanship” because “a win for one party is not necessarily a loss for another party.” Sometimes making their statements with the timorous inflection of a question mark at the end, they raised—for some observers, at least– the issue of intellectual decline, and spiritual and psychological decline as well.
Like many of my college students, these students displayed a reluctance to declare anyone–or any idea–a “winner.” The notion of there being a losing side, whether in wiffle ball or a mock UN debate, has in effect been outlawed over the last few decades. In part this numb recessiveness is the work of campus “mommies,” freshman composition teachers who instruct their classes to shy away from assertion and real debate.
Freshman composition was once known for teaching young adults how to defend a conviction with logic and evidence. Feminists saw the inherently competitive nature of this enterprise, and sought to replace it with the “maternal presence in the classroom,” an Orwellian term in circulation at the University of Georgia in the 1990s, where I taught as a graduate teaching assistant. At the time, the English department, known as the last hold-out from the pernicious influence of the various schools of postmodernism, was being taken over by feminists who sought to root out the patriarchy in all its manifestations—including the freshman essay. The “maternal presence” trickled down into our annual fall orientation sessions where we were directed to implement the new strategies as “facilitators.”
The director of the program, the largest one in the state, Christy Desmet, was at work on the essay, “We the Jury: The Metaphor of Classroom as Courtroom,” published in a 1998 collection titled Feminism and Composition Studies. Drawing on the work of Drucilla Cornell, Desmet imagines the new courtroom as a “utopian metaphor for classroom relations,” where the rules of justice have been changed by the “Amazons.” This “imaginary court,” Desmet writes, “has no judge; there is no fixed place for an authority.” Hence, “power is dispersed” between teacher and students, culminating in a “politics of friendship.” This “Amazons’ revolution” upends Western standards. Like the metaphorical courtroom, the classroom demands a “deconstructive reading” rather than a search for truth.
Desmet contributed to the popular scholarship of the time, as the recommended reading in our handouts indicated. As TA’s were being asked to nurture and facilitate, tenure-seeking maternalists diagnosed the thesis-driven essay as both an underpinning and manifestation of an inherently violent patriarchal order. For example, Lillian Bridwell-Bowles, in a 1995 collection titled Feminine Principles and Women’s Experience in American Composition and Rhetoric, cited Sally Miller Gearhart’s claim that “any intent to persuade is an act of violence” and Susan Meisenhelder’s claim that “rhetorical aggression” emerged from “warlike, pugilistic, and phallic metaphors in writing.” Bridwell-Bowles repeated the common refrain that the “new theories of socially constructed knowledge and social change” needed to replace “old patterns of argument, based on revealing a single truth (a thesis).”
Likewise, Miriam Brody began her 1993 indictment, Manly Writing: Gender, Rhetoric, and the Rise of Composition, by charging “To write well in Western culture is to write like a man.” What are men guilty of? Well, “for centuries” they have been imposing “images of their best selves on descriptions of good writing: selves that are productive, coherent, virtuous, and heroic.” As a result, they have produced “writing that is plain, forceful, and true.”
Brody may have had in mind the once honorable title of “Man of Letters” for whom Allen Tate in 1952 boldly claimed the role as no less than to “supervise the culture of language, to which the rest of culture is subordinate, and to warn us when our language is ceasing to forward the ends proper to man.” And he presumed to know that such ends were “‘supra-temporal.'” Allan Bloom, in a manly manner too, proclaimed that “the real community of man . . . is the community of those who seek the truth.”
The alignment of truth-seeking with masculine “rhetorical aggression” emerged from feminist theories rooted (illogically and admittedly) in biology. Like Helene Cixous, who indicted speech, for being “governed by the phallus” and the widely anthologized bell hooks who castigated “phallic logic,” the influential Julia Kristeva, claimed that “female sexuality explains women’s problematic relationship to (masculine) logic and language.” Men, apparently in their denseness, simply see “incoherence.”
This all seems like a sea of silliness engulfing the hopeless halls of academe, and, of course, it is. But the training in this kind of writing and attendant thinking produces the kind of passive do-gooders sitting at the No Labels conference. Consider, for example, Kristeva’s statement that emerges from her premise: “Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes. . . .”
“Wrecking partitions” sounds a lot like ending “labeling.” Eliminating “regulations” means eliminating laws and rules, the clear-cut demarcations of Western thought. Freshman composition textbooks have followed suit, replacing discussion of traditional Aristotelian rhetorical strategies with exercises in exploring feelings, collaborative projects, and pages of instruction on avoiding offensive language, i.e., labeling.
The English department has degenerated to a refuge for those who want to lash out at the unfairness and harshness of the culture and blame it for their victimization. While politicians blame “hyper-partisanship” and “labels” for their failures, English majors blame “hate language” and coded literature.
Since the 1990s, the methodology of the composition classroom has also spread into more overt forms of indoctrination called “conflict resolution” and “peace studies.” At a conflict resolution education conference last March I observed frighteningly pleasant workshop participants who refused to engage in any kind of debate. Instead, they repeated the mantra, “be the change,” a phrase that has entered our lexicon, as evidenced by No Labels “Founding Leader” John Avlon’s call for “being the change we want to see.”
Vacuous language that conveys a fear of giving offense has repercussions in the real world. Writing for the National Association of Scholars, Lawrence M. Mead, professor of politics and public policy at New York University, recently diagnosed a new form of “scholasticism” in his field. Scholars cannot provide solutions to real world problems because of their focus on narrow fields of statistical research.
Mead correctly analyzes this trend as more dangerous than the political correctness imposed by “baby boom professors who . . . shifted the academy to the left.” These retiring professors are being replaced by “technicians who often lack any politics at all.” I would add that in narrow, statistical analysis young scholars find safety from charges of giving offense. Mead is right in seeing this development as a greater threat than political correctness, which “is at least visible and controversial, provoking debate.”
The elimination of debate marks the ultimate victory. “No Labels” leader Mark McKinnon calls for “consensus” and resistance to the “hyper-partisanship” that “punishes people for good behavior.” These calls might seem like unobjectionable invitations to tamp down political vitriol. But they reflect a philosophical quietism that is producing the well-behaved, zombie-like student leaders—Democrat and Republican—who gathered at Columbia last month.