By Goode, Stephen
Insight on the News
Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT
The politically correct at America's colleges and universities have no greater enemy than Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Dazzlingly articulate and a passionate advocate of liberty, Kors has defended student and faculty freedoms ever since student speech codes, sensitivity training and the numerous other manifestations first began their inroads in higher education nearly two decades ago.
Kors was coauthor in 1998 with Harvey Silverglate of The
Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, the best book on the excesses and evils of political correctness. It was a book well-reviewed by both liberal and conservative commentators.
Kors and Silverglate also are cofounders and codirectors (for which they receive no remuneration) of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based group that seeks "to restore liberty and dignity on our college campuses." FIRE takes up the cause of free speech at colleges and universities when possible violations of campus liberties are brought to its attention by students, faculty or others, which happens frequently.
The 17th and 18th centuries are Kors' areas of academic concentration. He was editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment (2002) and author of many scholarly articles and books.
Two major awards for distinguished college teaching have come his way. And he's done two popular video and audio courses for The Teaching Company,
The Birth of the Modern Mind and Voltaire: The Mind of the Enlightenment. Four times his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have elected him to university and school committees on academic freedom and responsibility.
Insight interviewed Kors in his office at FIRE on Philadelphia's Washington Square, near where the Founding Fathers met to draw up the U.S. Constitution. On the wall was a blown-up headline from a 1991 New York Times: "You can see what I carry around with me," Kors said. "I never thought I would see the New York Times talking about the Baltic States being 'occupied,' as it does in this headline. I used to go to captive-nation events when the notion of 'captive nations' was ridiculed. And look at this subhead! 'Leningrad officially gets back its old name, St. Petersburg.' That this would ever be, let alone that it would be the banner headline in the New York Times, is reason not to be fatalistic about change. That's why I keep it around."
Insight: Has the power of the politically correct diminished on American campuses in recent years? Or is the cultural left still in charge?
Alan Charles Kors: In a sense, things have not changed and one could argue from the evidence that they have become worse. Political correctness has institutionalized itself ever more deeply in higher education. The networking of the zealots has become ever more efficient.
Universities have become media savvy on how not to present themselves publicly and when to back off. Freshmen rientations resemble Orwellian political indoctrination more than an introduction to the university, let alone the critical life of the mind. And there has been the proliferation and, I think, the intensification of litmus tests in academic hiring.
Q: This does not sound good.
A: Yes, from those perspectives, things look worse. Where I think people have cause to be less pessimistic is what I hope I've shown from my own efforts and what FIRE has shown. This is that politically correct universities have an Achilles' heel. Their vulnerability is they cannot defend in public what they believe and wish to practice in private.
Ten or 15 years ago, voices such as mine on any campus calling for free speech, legal equality and respect for individual conscience were treated as being somewhere to the right of Conan the Barbarian - the character, not the actor. …