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Defenders of the Canon: what's behind the attack on multiculturalism.

Canon: religious origin, body of church law and standards; a list of books of the bible or saints accepted by the church as official.

Cannon: a large piece of mounted artillery.

Now if I were a teacher,... I would teach [a child] that he is living, at

the moment, in an enormous province. America is not the world and

if America is going to become a nation, she must find a way -- and

this child must help her find a way -- to use the tremendous potential

and tremendous energy which this child represents (Baldwin, 1988:

11, 12).

This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we

shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the

fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the

fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities,

and the two are related as never before (Bloom, 1988: 382).


IT SEEMS PERVERSE AND CRUEL THAT THE ATTACK ON MULTICULTURALISM, academic radicalism, and "political correctness" is talking place at a time when multicultural education has made such minimal progress, when academic radicalism exists only in the margins of university life, and when "politically correct" thinking (associated in particular with Marxism and socialism) is in greater worldwide disarray than at any other time this century. In this essay I propose to take a serious look at this contradiction and offer some possible explanations.

The language of the debate is itself inflammatory, resonating with symbolic meaning. On one side, there is political correctness or PC, on the other multiculturalism. The supporters of the former are well organized (e.g., National Association of Scholars), but by no means monolithic; the defenders of the latter are quite disorganized (despite recent efforts to organize Teachers for a Democratic Culture and other groups) and at odds with one another (see, e.g., the debate over Afrocentricity). The issues at stake, once you clear away the bombastic rhetoric, are: ethnic and multicultural content in curriculum and textbooks, composition of faculty and student bodies, and language and civility on the campus (including the regulation of hate speech).

"Multiculturalism" generally stands for: increasing the proportions of faculty and students of color and women, expanding curricula to incorporate and/or require content on ethnic and Third World issues and gender, creating a hospitable multicultural atmosphere on campus, breaking down the ghettoization and gendered structure of academic disciplines, as well as diversifying inquiry and intellectual debate. "Political correctness" generally stands for the characterization of this process as politicized, intolerant, and irrational.

An Echo, Not a Dialogue

The debate is mostly one-sided, an echo rather than a dialogue. The PC critics are very much in the ascendancy. Beginning with Allan Bloom's best-selling The Closing of the American Mind (1987), there have been several influential books, including Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character (1990), Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals (1990), Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education (1991), and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Disuniting of America (1992). I will be quoting in particular from Bloom's book because I think it best articulates the critique and represents the key text. Few of the leading critics were known for their intellectual contributions in their respective fields prior to becoming PC celebrities. Now they are the subject of endless Sunday magazine profiles, regular guests on talk shows, and sources for "expert" quotes in news stories about higher education. In the last two years or so, there has been an avalanche of op/ed pieces, along with articles and essays in the daily press and periodicals. Hardly a week goes by without a George Will column on PC. Others who write regularly on the topic (or are regularly quoted or interviewed) include historian Diane Ravitch (an Assistant Secretary of Education), sociologist Nathan Glazer, Charles Sykes (author of The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education), and the New York Times' Richard Bernstein. George Bush endorsed the campaign (possibly a theme to be echoed in the 1992 presidential race) when, speaking at the University of Michigan's commencement on May 4, 1991, he denounced PC for replacing "old prejudices with new ones.... What began as a cause for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship" (Dowd, 1991: 1).

The PC attack is not just focused on multiculturalism, but also a host of related evils -- feminism, Marxism, deconstruction and postmodernism, gay and lesbian studies, social and labor history, cultural studies, critical literary theory, bilingualism, etc. A good part of the critique is aimed at African Americans (especially Afrocentrism), though often in coded form (e.g., "the new tribalism"). The breadth of the PC critique in part explains its ideological strength. It allows a variety of strange bedfellows to coexist and many targets to be challenged -- from Shelby Steele et al.'s attack on affirmative action, to novelist Larry McMurtry's (1990: 32-38) lament about how feminist historians have demolished heroic myths of the West, to traditional literary scholars' alarm about how trendy, entrepreneurial deconstructionists are "submerging literature in power" (Alter, 1991: 285), to critics of the use of role models in primary education (Epstein, 1991: 21), to defenders of white males, dead or alive (Shweder, 1991: 15), and to educators who see academia endangered by "radical feminism" and "the normalization of homosexuality" (Professor Jon Levenson quoted in New York Times, 1990: E5).

The PC critics agree on one theme. They see a humanist educational system under siege by politicized "interest groups" who have "crossed the line into extremism" and thus "threaten public education itself..." (Ravitch, 1990: 1). The portrait of an aggressive "cultural left," to use John Searle's (1990: 34-42) term, invading the citadel of learning is the predominant imagery used by the defenders of the canon. "In a relatively short span of less than thirty years," writes sociologist Brigitte Berger (1991: 322, 325), "the university once guided by a liberal ethos of science was turned into a highly politicized enterprise in search of mechanisms for self-destruction." The "bug of irrationalism," she continues, drawing upon the formula of 1950s sci-fi movies, has wormed its way into academia to create "intellectual chaos."

This sense of pending doom and crisis, of long-cherished values and institutions under assault, is a common refrain. "Hundreds of experiments at different campuses [are] directed at changing the consciousness of this entire generation of university students," asserts a typical article in Newsweek (1990: 48). Political correctness, notes a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, represents the "narrow orthodoxy now ascendant on American campuses large and small" (Leo, 1990: 22). The PC campaign resonates far and wide. While in England last summer, I was surprised to read in the usually sober Guardian (June 20, 1991) about the "nationwide surge of thought-policing that has been sweeping college campuses" in the United States. The "cultural left" is apparently everywhere, attacking universal truth and objective knowledge, smashing hierarchies, vilifying the cherished canons, and imposing a politically correct etiquette on campuses.

Historical Context

Before examining the reality of these charges, I wish to put some issues in historical perspective. In the last hundred or so years of American higher education, we did not witness significant changes in the composition of students and faculty or in curricula until the last 20 years. While the changes have been slow and gradual, they are significant because they represent a break with institutionalized tradition. Except for changes resulting from the Black student movement in the 1920s and a brief receptivity to academic Marxism in the 1930s, American universities through the 1960s were largely white men's clubs, hostile to both diversity of membership and pluralism of ideas (Schrecker, 1986). If the university was ever a marketplace of ideas, it was a closed shop.

Nor can it be seriously argued, as do some defenders of the canon, that universities used to be bastions of democracy and tolerance before the "politically correct" supporters of multiculturalism and feminists replaced "science" with "ideology." "The fact is," notes Allan Bloom (1988: 320, 322) with not even the slightest recognition of ambiguity, "that the fifties were one of the great periods of the American university.... I know of nothing positive coming from [the 1960s]...." The fact is that the allegedly halcyon days of pre-1960s American universities were characterized by institutionalized racism and sexism, a monolithic model of governance, longstanding ties to state-sponsored militarism, and a profound hostility to nonconformist ideas. Authoritarianism disguised as paternalism, not liberal democracy, was the guiding spirit of academia (Roszak, 1968).

Last year I completed a book about E. Franklin Frazier, a leading American intellectual, an African American sociologist who died in 1962 before the impact of the Civil Rights Movement was felt in American colleges. For him and for all his Black colleagues who were born before World War I and taught from the 1920s through the 1950s, there was little space to survive and work. Frazier -- despite being the author of the first major textbook on African Americans, the first academic to seriously examine the Black family, the first Black president of the American Sociological Association, and one of the first American sociologists to head up a major United Nations project -- was never offered a job in a predominantly white university. Moreover, his life was threatened by the Klan for an article he wrote in the 1920s and in the last third of his life he was hounded by McCarthyism and the FBI (Platt, 1991).

For him and countless others, there was nothing like "multiculturalism" in academia. Rather, there were systematic segregation, exclusion, and repression (Platt, 1992). His generation were the pioneers who battled for over 40 years to open up some space for the second wave of academic activists who introduced ethnic and women's studies, Marxism and critical theory, the need for diversity in faculty and students, and a long overdue debate about the political and ideological functions of academia. While debates about the nature and role of academia took place in the 1960s, it took some years before any changes took place. President Kennedy may have articulated the policy of affirmative action in 1961, but it was not until 1965 that the Johnson administration began to implement the policy. When I was a graduate student at "radical" Berkeley in the mid-1960s, the student body was still well over 90% white.

In the last 20 years or so, the composition of the student body and faculty has slowly, but significantly begun to change. It was not until the 1970s that American universities became more than white men's clubs. Until then, intellectuals of color were systematically excluded from most major universities (other than historically Black colleges) and women were mostly tracked into sex-typed disciplines (nursing, home economics, social work, etc.). The change in faculty composition, although too slow for many of us, has been relatively consequential. Moreover, the creation of Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies programs and research centers (again, with less support than many of us hoped) provided an intellectual and social space on campus for new kinds of creativity and scholarship.

The current debate about PC and multiculturalism is the third stage of the battle: are we going to deepen the changes begun in the 1970s or are we going to return to what Allan Bloom (1988: 367) calls the "glory days" when:

youngsters could join the charms of science and self-knowledge,

when there was the expectation of a universal theory of man [sic] that

would unite the university and contribute to progress, harnessing

Europe's intellectual depth and heritage with our vitality?

Current Realities

My view is that as we begin the 1990s, multiculturalism in higher education has had some modest victories but, overall, the progress is limited and, in many cases, being quickly reversed.

First, appearances aside, serious debates about PC are not an issue on most campuses. According to a recent survey of 359 colleges and universities by the American Council of Education, only 10% reported significant controversy over "political correctness" (Cooper, 1991: 5). On most campuses, including my own (a typically large, commuter, state university serving a working and lower-middle-class population), most students do not know or care about the issue, and most faculty do not think it is a serious issue in their daily lives. It is a problem that happens elsewhere -- at Duke and Santa Cruz, or in the pages of the New York Review of Books. However, when racial and gender conflicts do erupt on campus, they are quickly framed within the PC discourse.

Second, there have been some modest gains and innovations, some of which are controversial. In public schools there is increased recognition of the problems of racism and ethnocentrism; some social studies texts (especially in New York and in California) have taken people of color out of the sidebars and begun to incorporate them into the texts themselves.(1) Some universities now require students to take an ethnic studies or non-Western studies class in the humanities; also, some instructors have begun to incorporate the ideas of Samir Amin, Martin Bernal, and other critics of Eurocentrism into their "Western Civilization" courses; a few more faculty of color and women are evident in the classroom, plus they are not always tracked into gender and ethnic-typed disciplines; and there are some attempts to formulate "fighting words" legislation on campuses, though few examples of enforcement. (The June 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision throws into question the legal standing of such efforts.)

Let me comment on one of these innovations -- curriculum requirements in college. The reforms have been very modest. My university is typical: undergraduates are now required to take one ethnic studies class as part of their general education. At a few universities, such as Florida State University in Tallahassee, students must take two required courses: one on issues of racism, ethnicity, and gender, and another that focuses on a non-European culture. At other campuses, such as the University of Texas, proposed multicultural requirements are either on hold or under attack. According even to John Searle (a critic of the "cultural left"):

the debate over college curriculum mainly concerns a tiny fraction of

undergraduate education, usually a single required freshman course in

the humanities.... Most undergraduate education ... is largely untouched

by this discussion.... My general impression, [continues

Searle], from observing events at Stanford is that reports of the

demise of "culture," Western or otherwise, in the required freshman

course at Stanford are grossly exaggerated (1990: 37, 38, 39).

These innovations in curriculum reforms are an anomaly in multiculturalism. Most gains are either on a plateau or are being driven back.

Affirmative action is also being undermined by the resurgence of racism in other areas of American society. It is under political attack everywhere after nearly a decade of benign neglect by the Reagan administration. According to a recent national study conducted by the National Research Council, the status of African Americans relative to whites -- in the areas of standard of living, education, housing opportunities, earnings, and political participation -- has stagnated or regressed since the early 1970s (Jaynes and Williams, 1989).

Segregation in public education (and housing) is on the increase (notably in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, Philadelphia, Dallas, New York, Cleveland, and Milwaukee). "A generation after Brown vs. Board of Education, Black and white pupils seldom sit alongside each other in the classroom" (Hacker, 1990: 21). According to the Quality Education for Minorities Project (1990), "the education gap [between whites and Blacks] remains essentially unbridged" (Greene, 1990: 4). Most African American and Latino high school students in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, Philadelphia, New York, and Dallas attend schools where students of color account for over 90% of enrollment. This kind of "hyper-segregation" increased in the 1980s (Orfield and Monfort, 1988).

On campuses throughout the country, there has been an increase in reported incidents of bigotry, racial tensions, and homophobia (Higher Education Advocate, 1990; Ehrlich, 1990). As one result of this, more and more African American families are now sending their children to exclusively Black colleges (Wilkerson, 1990: 1). On many campuses, there is a great deal of tension; most students of color and other oppressed groups feel a constant sense of hostility, a pervasive unease. (At my university, in the last two years we have had KKK flyers posted, white fraternity brothers walking across campus in black face, and "nigger" graffiti reappearing regularly on bathroom walls.)

The 1980s saw a decline in the rates of entering college by African Americans and Latinos. At Berkeley, university officials reported a decline (from 11.3% to 6.9%) in African Americans in the entering freshman class in 1990, a reflection of what they call "an alarming statewide and national trend that is affecting many universities" (Curtis, 1990: 20; Hawkins, 1992). According to a report by the American Council of Education, between 1976 and 1988 there was a serious decline in the proportion of "non-white" high school students who go on to college (Fiske, 1990: B6). Even middle-income African Americans and Latinos have suffered severe declines in their rates of entering college in the last few years. For Blacks, it declined from 53% in 1976 to 36% in 1986, and for Latinos, from 53% in 1975 to 46% in 1988. The report indicates a large decline in the rate of bachelor's and master's degrees for African Americans, Latinos and American Indians during this period (Marriott, 1990: 16). In 1976, 6.6% of all master's degrees were awarded to African Americans; by 1989, the number had declined to 4.6%. Similarly, the number of doctorates awarded to African Americans declined in the same period from 1,056 to 811. According to a Census Bureau survey, released in 199 1, one in eight Latinos (compared to fewer than one in 50 whites) has not completed fifth grade. Compared to the 25% of whites who have completed four years of college, only one in eleven Latinos have had that much education (Schreiner, 1991: 2). In the California State University system, the percentage of full-time Black faculty remained essentially unchanged between 1977 and 1988 (2.8 and 2.9%) and it was not much better for Latino faculty (2.8 and 3.9%) (California Faculty Association, 1990: 6).

It is primarily in prison, on death row, and in the military that affirmative action seems to be working. As of December 1990, 40% of death-row prisoners were African Americans (New York Times, 1991: 1). Of the approximately one million Americans incarcerated, some 50% are persons of color. Nearly one-quarter of Black men in their 20s are subjected one way or another to the criminal-justice system (Savage, 1990: 1). African Americans, who comprise 12% of the U.S. population, account for 23% of the military (21% of all men, nearly 31% of all women). In the army alone, Blacks make up over 29% (Daniels, 1991: 1). In most occupations, the battle against racism and discrimination is at the crawling stage.(2) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 97% of the nation's 741,000 lawyers are white. Furthermore, in a study of 4,000 partners in the largest New York law firms, only 22 are persons of color (New York Times, 1991: 21). African American doctors make up only 3% of American physicians and, despite the impression generated by the Bakke decision, the percentage of medical students who are Black has not exceeded 6% in the last 10 years (New York Times, February 18, 1990: 21).

It is not surprising that we have failed to make more progress with multiculturalism, given that fewer and fewer resources are going into public primary education; given that education is becoming more and more class divided (and will become even more so if Bush's tax-transfer proposal is adopted); given that cutbacks in the public sector in the 1980s meant a "dramatic drop" in African American life expectancy, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (Leary, 1988: 16); given that rates of poverty for African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians increased in the last 20 years; given that campus life has become more individualistic and competitive because of shrinking resources for public education and fewer chances for upward mobility.(3)

Why the PC Campaign?

Given this current state of affairs, how, then, can we explain the vehement, self-righteous PC campaign, which essentially charges that multiculturalism is creating chaos in our universities?

First, we need to recognize that there is a neoconservative project against multiculturalism, led by the National Association of Scholars, successor to the right-wing Accuracy in Academia. It is well bankrolled and well connected. It is explicitly against any kind of affirmative action and feminism. It wraps itself in the flag of free speech and takes the high moral ground against McCarthyism, "Thought Police," and PC. Ironically, it represents all these tendencies. The right-wing campaign is very active, has created a variety of organizational spin-offs (such as the Committee on Media Integrity), and produces endless pamphlets, newsletters, and press releases (Diamond, 1991; Hager, 1992).

Nevertheless, I do not think we can make sense of the attack on PC as simply a neoconservative plot, a nostalgic, right-wing project, or a political campaign against affirmative action. It is in part organized, in part an effort to roll back gains made by the civil rights and women's movements, and in part preys on racism. Yet it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence and resonance of the PC campaign, for it has broad appeal not only among conservatives, but also among liberal intellectuals, among many students, and other constituencies.

An important part of its appeal is its ideological, nonrational, visionary discourse.(4) The project takes ideas very seriously as a material and political force. Its strength lies not in empirical facts nor technical argumentation (viz. Allan Bloom's and Shelby Steele's books), but rather in its capacity to evoke a "countersubversive ideology" (to use Michael Rogin's term)(5) and new political demons. It translates conservative doctrine into a "populist common sense" and into "the language of experience, moral imperative, and common sense, thus providing a |philosophy' in the broader sense" (Hall, 1988: 47, 48).

It resonates far and wide, appropriating the traditional language of left liberalism (pluralism, civility, respect, free speech, universalism, tolerance, civil liberties, equality, meritocracy) and binding it to traditional American values associated with individualism and self-improvement. The PC campaign represents a struggle over "cultural power" and the "politics of signification" (Ibid.). It is not simply instrumental propaganda, nor only a technocratic critique (e.g., of codes against "fighting words"); it also promotes a visionary future and is a nonrational, imaginative projection (always a necessity for any successful political project). It engages a moral and ideological discourse that cannot be countered only by rational, logical argumentation. It is proactive because, to use Stuart Hall's words about comparable developments in England, "it regards the current crisis as providing, not a passive status quo to be defended, but a strategic political field of force to be reconstructed: reconstructed, of course, to the right" (Hall, 1988: 125).

What are some of the nonrational, imaginative components of the PC campaign?

1. The project appeals to an ideology of meritocracy and individualism. This is in part an old-fashioned populism (no special favors for anybody); but it is also particularly well received by the petty bourgeoisies who have become successful or are moving up the class ladder. It is not accidental that some of the leading voices of the PC project speak to the Booker T. Washington tradition in ethnic and immigrant politics -- Shelby Steele (African American), Dinesh D'Souza (immigrant from India), Diane Ravitch (liberal feminist), Stephen Carter (African American), and Allan Bloom (Jewish).

2. The PC campaign appeals (just like "law and order" and "welfare cheats") to a deep and revitalized racism. In part, this is a response to profound demographic shifts, in part a reflection of the economic polarization resulting from the current recessionary downturn, the weakening of the U.S. in the world economy, and the competitive scramble for public-sector monies.

It is not surprising that the most volatile debates about PC are taking place in states like New York and California, where extraordinary demographic shifts have taken place. In 1980, one in every five Americans came from an African American, Latino, Asian-American, or American Indian background. In 1990, it is one in four (Barringer, 1991: 1). In several major cities (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York), whites are now a minority because of unprecedented immigration patterns in the 1980s (Fiske, 1991: 16). In California during this decade, the population grew by 5.6 million, of which 81% were persons of color. They now comprise 43% of the state's population, compared with about 33% in 1980. The Latino population in California increased by 70% in the last decade, while Asian-Americans more than doubled. Children of color are already a majority in California, and within 10 years whites of all ages will be a minority (McLeod and Schreiner, 1991: 1, 7; McLeod, 1991: Briefing 1).

By 1995, one-third of American public school students will be "non-white." In 16 states and the District of Columbia, 29% or more of public high school graduates will be "non-white" (De Witt, 1991: 8). One-fifth of California's population is now foreign born, equal to 19th-century proportions for the first time in the 20th century. With a second baby boom under way, moreover, whites very soon will be a definitive numerical minority in California.

In the context of growing economic polarization, the PC campaign taps widespread fears based on racism. Here the appeal is aimed cross-class at a beleaguered white working class and increasingly competitive lower middle class. The popular media is now filled with scare stories about the "Majority Turning into a Minority" (San Francisco Chronicle, April 14, 1991: 1), the "flood" of immigrants, the rising birth rate of families of color, the inability of the U.S. to solve "the ancient conflicts of race" despite two decades of good efforts (Newsweek, 1991: 23). "What will the U.S. be like when whites are no longer the majority," asks the cover of Time (April 9, 1990). The PC campaign especially exploits the racism of white students and faculty who are threatened by "hordes" of color. The term "tribalism" is now in regular use in reference to African Americans, echoing the racist propaganda of Reconstruction with its combined representations of savagery and backwardness. Note, for example, the imagery in the following comment from Bloom: "There is now a large Black presence in major universities, frequently equivalent to their proportion in the general population. But they have, by and large, proved indigestible" (Bloom, 1988: 91). At the same time, educational projects that emphasize cultural separatism are criticized for "tribalism" and for undermining Americanism. "Nationalists and zealots threaten to destroy the American common school" and "make our schools into educational Bantustans," asserts a typical column in the Washington Post (Nicholson, 1990: 23-24). This is where the lie is particularly well folded (to paraphrase W.H. Auden) because hyper-segregation more than anything else has forced Black educators to experiment with Afrocentric models.

In order not to appear racist, people like Allan Bloom and Diane Ravitch have to argue that problems of racism in education were largely solved in the 1960s and 1970s. Ravitch says there was an "ethnic revival" in the 1960s and the teaching of history in public schools and universities was corrected to eliminate racism. Now, she says, the advocates of multiculturalism have crossed "the line into extremism" and promote cultural nationalism (Ravitch, 1990). Bush, too, notes that only the "debris" of racism remains. "The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones" (Dowd, 1991: 1). Similarly, Allan Bloom argues: "it is peculiar in that Blacks seem to be the only group that has picked up |ethnicity' an instinctive way.... The heat is under the pot, but they do not melt as have all other groups." Whites on campus, continues Bloom, have "made the adjustment" to the presence of people of color on the campuses. "It would require a great deal of proof to persuade me that they remain subtly racist" (Bloom, 1988: 92, 93). Thus, Bloom comes full circle in his argument, exculpating the victors and condemning the victims.

The racist critique also draws upon universalistic doctrines of knowledge -- against particularism in science and the fragmentation of education, against the politicization of the university, for objectivity and against subjectivity. Postmodernism, which is not particularly aligned with radicalism or Marxism, is a continual target of ridicule and denunciation,(6) mainly because it stimulates a challenge to ahistorical, transcendental, and Eurocentric visions of cultural politics.

3. The project appeals to heterosexism in its search for new scapegoats and countersubversive ideologies. Right-wing representations of "traditional family values" are not just homophobic or sexist or anti-feminist, but also evoke deeper, widely held cultural notions that all is not well with the good old-fashioned household because it is under assault from people who want to destroy an oasis of sanity. Thus the attack on "gay and lesbian studies" and "women's studies" as illegitimate disciplines and proselytizing propaganda, as though there were something universally and eternally validated about "psychology" and "humanities," or as though the Chicago school of "economics" preaches the free market only on the basis of disinterested science. Thus the attack on the notion of "date rape" and sexual harassment as an effort by castrating feminists to make men impotent and weaken male authority.(7) Thus the attack on feminist scholarship in literary studies and American history as undermining established canons.

The assumption is that the feminists are going too far, which in the words of Allan Bloom:

Men and women are now used to living exactly the same way and

studying exactly the same things and having exactly the same career

expectations.... [T]he battle here [against sexism] has been won.

Women students do not generally feel discriminated against or despised

for their professional aspirations. The economy will absorb

them, and they have rising expectations.... Academically, students

are comfortably unisexual; they revert to dual sexuality only for the

sex act. Sex no longer has any political agenda in universities except

among homosexuals, who are not quite satisfied with their situation

(1988: 107).

Women will no doubt be delighted to hear that the battle of the sexes is over, that tracking and gender stereotyping are policies of the past, that sexuality is no longer a weapon of power.

4. The project appeals to populist constructions of Anglo nationalism and patriotism, not unlike the turn of the century when the U.S. embarked on its rise to world power and used jingoism and anticommunism to subordinate a heterogeneous working class and ethnically diverse society to "100% Americanism." It projects a vision of the U.S. as a revitalized, united, respected nation.(8) It rejects the "cult of ethnicity" that, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America as |one people,' a common culture, a single nation" (1992: 43).

It evokes a widespread sense of national-cultural collapse, the demise of the middle ground and "center." The object of the radicals, writes Kimball, "is nothing less than the destruction of the values, methods, and goals of traditional humanistic study" (1990: xi). "The middle ground," writes another critic, "seems to have disappeared as a consequence of ideological fracas and polarization; whether it can be restored is an open question" (D'Souza, 1991: 2). This is a time of both economic polarization and ideological uncertainty; the project taps this malaise.

The PC campaign appeals to populist constructions of Anglo patriotism and nationalism in which the U.S. is represented as a country united with Americanism first, and ethnicity/gender second (Hughes, 1992; Schlesinger, Jr., 1992). Given the longstanding image of America as a melting pot and as a refuge from national exclusion, this imagery has powerful popular appeal in many sectors. The U.S. is now embarked on an effort to establish its supremacy as the world power, primarily through militarism (given its inability to do so politically and its increasing economic weakness in the world economy). To do this requires a sense of national unity, of a country united behind war and militarism. This aspiration to hegemony is again well described by Bloom in an updated version of Manifest Destiny: "This is the American moment in world history," he wrote in 1987:

the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the

responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon

our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon

our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before

(Bloom, 1988: 382).

It is instructive to contrast Bloom's illusions of grandeur with James Baldwin's admonition in 1963 that the U.S. is no more than an "enormous province" that one day may hopefully mature into a nation (Baldwin, 1988: 12).

When Bush rejoiced that the "Vietnam Syndrome" was over after the Gulf War, he was not just addressing the apparent willingness of the American public to support a U.S.-led war. He was also celebrating the apparent lack of organized dissent in American society and the way in which foreign adventures seemed -- at that time -- to be successfully distracting people from the growing economic and social problems at home. This is why Diane Ravitch is opposed to any educational project that denies a "common American culture." The critics of multiculturalism want to look out there at our schools and universities and see conformity, consent and acquiescence, as well as enthusiasm for new foreign ventures. Here they seek to defend the "cannon" (with a double "n").

Universities are one of the few places in American society where, relatively speaking, there are debate, discussion, and alternate visions to a typically monolithic ideology that emanates from the White House, Congress, the legal system, newspapers and television, and Hollywood. When it comes to ideas and visions, we actually live in a very closed society. I think the attack on multiculturalism is very much linked to an attack on people and groups who disagree with U.S. militarism and who dissent from the current celebration of American society. The attack on PC is in part a struggle for patriotic allegiance and unquestioned loyalty.

Beyond the Canon

I do not wish to give the impression that the PC critics have totally fabricated their targets. As with any successful campaign, it resonates far and wide in part because it rests on lived experiences and realities.

First, there are dogmatic, narrow-minded professors who teach eternal truths and demand obsequious conformity in the classroom. They are lousy, ineffective teachers. Yet there is no evidence that the "cultural left" has a monopoly on this problem. These professors come from all political persuasions. The addition of intellectuals of color and women to university faculties has sharpened competition for jobs, resources, and tenure. As with any entrenched group that gets used to unchallenged power and privileges, there have been opposition, resistance, and even sabotage in response to this new state of affairs. What passes for debates about "standards" and "qualifications" is usually nothing more than old-fashioned interest-group politics masquerading as a "defense of academic integrity." True, the new generation of faculty has its share of incompetents and cranks. Yet there is no evidence that the proportions are any different in our academic forefathers. Let us at least have equality of mediocrity and eccentricity.

Second, the faculty whose consciousness was forged in the 1960s and 1970s are now teaching on campuses. Although they are not "tenured radicals" who enjoy academic hegemony, as Kimball, D'Souza, and other would have us believe, they are at work and are leaving their mark. James Baldwin was right when he warned in 1963 that:

you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations

of bad faith and cruelty, which is operating not only in the classroom,

but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal,

and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending

that this won't happen (Baldwin, 1988: 3).

While many of the "new" faculty are quite orthodox in their ideas and sensibilities (not surprising given that they were trained for the most part in old-fashioned programs), some bring new forms of knowledge and pedagogy into the university. In part, this is the result of our personal struggles to develop academic careers and to be taken seriously. Also, it reflects our exposure to new paradigms emerging from political struggles taking place throughout the world in the wake of the "revolutions of 1968." Not surprisingly, these innovations in knowledge are closely connected to anticolonial and anti-imperialist critiques of Western scientism, to cultural critiques of ideology, and to feminist critiques of gender. Such critiques are not simply the work of a new academic interest group attempting to carve out its disciplinary turf. Rather, they represent in part an intellectual, moral, and ideological challenge to prevailing canons and to the prevailing organization of campus life. So, finally, after 100 years of higher education, we have some debate, controversy, liveliness, oppositional thinking, and dialogue on campus. If this trend continues, one day academia may actually resemble a marketplace of ideas.

Third, the changing composition of faculty and student bodies, however slow and uneven, has created new kinds of campus relations. Since universities have been primarily segregated until very recently, this is a new situation and we have very little experience in handling it. Issues of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are quite explosive and unsettling (as we witnessed in the Clarence Thomas hearings). The groups who have historically been left out or treated as invisible have got their feet firmly in the door and they want it wide open. So we are in for a long period of difficulties, tensions, ambiguity, and battles. This should be regarded as a sign of progress, not just a problem to be solved.


I think it is very important to defend and implement the multiculturalism project. It is not just about affirmative action or opening the door to some at the expense of others. Nor am I talking about the kind of cosmetic multiculturalism that settles for celebration of ethnic holidays, token representation, and the "add and stir" approach to Others.

To make campuses truly multicultural will require profound changes in attitudes, structures, and institutions. It is about creating a university that:

1. Encourages diversity and difference as a contribution rather than a


2. Promotes debates and controversies, and welcomes heretical ideas;


3. Sees knowledge as inclusive, expansive, and problematic.

Given the ideological climate in this country, it will be very difficult to achieve this. Moreover, we will need a great deal of practical experimentation in order figure out the best ways to create new cultural relations of learning.(9) We need some hard thinking and debate about infusing add transforming curricula so that we can get beyond compensatory models. We need programs to train and retrain faculty members who wish to change the content of their courses and experiment with new pedagogies, but who do not know how or where to begin the process. And we need new campus institutions to address the inevitable social conflicts and tensions that accompany changing relations and consciousness of ethnicity and gender.

Moving "beyond the canon," like defending the canon, is an explicitly political (as well as intellectual and academic) project. To concede the battle is to abandon the possibility of the university as a democratic institution. Moreover, it is important that we not simply dismiss the PC critique as a fringe movement or see it only as a right-wing project imposed from above. It has to be countered point by point, but it is also necessary for us to construct a competing vision of the future that resonates in the public discourse. The challenge ahead is thus political, practical, and imaginative.


(1.) For a discussion of new textbooks in California. see Reinhold (1991: 26-52). (2.) For example, of 5,000 new children's hardcover titles published in 1990, only 51 were written or illustrated by Black authors. All the leading children's books -- a $991 million market in 1990 -- have either no characters of color or very minor ones (Creager, 1991: C5). (3.) In 1991, tuition at public colleges increased by 12%, the biggest single-year increase since 1983 (DePalma, 1991: 1). (4.) These terms and the following framework rely heavily on Stuart Hall (1988). While Hall is writing about England under Thatcher, his analysis of cultural politics is very useful in analyzi the appeal of right-wing politics in the U.S. (5.) According to Rogin (1987:279-280):

Countersubversives desire the submergence of separate identities within an ideal

America, but they also enforce divisions because they are threatened by boundary collapse....

That oscillation between a fear of the breakdown of all difference and a desire

for merger lies at the core of American political demonology. (6.) See, for example, the special issue of Partisan Review on "The Changing Culture of the University" (1991, No. 2). For a critique of the conservatism of postmodernism, see Palmer (1990). (7.) For a typical critique of the concept of sexual harassment, see Broyles (1991): 19. The neoconservative critique of PC regularly targets date rape as an example of radical feminism. For a report on this controversy at Berkeley, see Kahn (1991: 1). (8.) For an insightful discussion of the relationship between nationalism and cultural politics, see Hall (1991). (9.) This topic is thoughtfully explored in a recent study of campus race relations at Berkeley by Troy Duster and his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Social Change (199 1).


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ANTHONY M. PLATT is a member of Social Justice's Editorial Board and teaches in the Division of Social Work, California State University, Sacramento 95819-6090. This article is a revised versio of a presentation made at a conference on "The Inclusive University: Multicultural Perspectives in Higher Education," held in Oakland, November 1991. The author thanks California State University, Sacramento, for its financial support of the research for this paper, and Elizabeth Martinez for comments and insights.
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Author:Platt, Anthony M.
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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