Notes & Comments: October 2002

New Criterion, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Notes & Comments: October 2002


Campus "diversity"

What quality above all others do college administrations and teachers strive to nurture on campus these days? Intellectual rigor? Not likely. That presupposes maintaining high standards, and, as we have been repeatedly told, high standards are invidious. Houston Baker, a former president of the Modern Language Association, spoke for many in his profession when he said that choosing between Shakespeare and Jacqueline Susann (for instance) is "no different from choosing between a hoagy and a pizza." Professor Baker added, "I am one whose career is dedicated to the day when we have a disappearance of those standards." Michael Harris, a professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, put it this way: "when you see the word `qualifications' used, remember that this is the new code word for whites."

If not intellectual rigor, then what? How about the patient habit of disinterested inquiry? You blow, the effort to appreciate works of literature for their intrinsic value, not their political appeal, to judge arguments on the basis of their merits, not their ideological provenance? Again, not likely. The literary theorist Stanley Fish summed up the reigning attitude about such matters when he declared that "there is no such thing as intrinsic merit." The philosopher Richard Rorty concurred: "I do not," he has written, "have much use for notions like `objective value' and `objective truth.'" It's a common attitude, susceptible to many variations. Hence the radical feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon who endorses feminism's "critique of the objective standpoint" or "science" as "a specifically male approach to knowledge."

No, it is not intellectual rigor or the habit of scholarly disinterestedness or a commitment to objective truth that is inculcated most fiercely in the academy today. The mantra, the watchword on today's campuses is diversity--or, to put it more accurately, "diversity." The scare quotes are necessary. Why? Because diversity means "variety," and while there is a lot of talk about variety, difference, and diversity on campuses, what is actually encouraged is strict conformity, on all contentious issues.

Over the years, we have often had occasion to report on this phenomenon: the case of campus A, which champions "diversity" but looks the other way when a conservative student newspaper is confiscated and destroyed; or campus B, where the women's studies program refuses to welcome women who are pro-life; or campus C, where administrators and many prominent faculty members mount a campaign to prevent the establishment of a local chapter of the National Association of Scholars, a tradition-minded group of teachers whose motto is "For Reasoned Scholarship in a Free Society."

Of course, these examples are anecdotal. Is that a deficiency? Not really. How could such examples be anything but anecdotal? Yet whenever we present such evidence, we often encounter the objection that they are "merely anecdotal," i.e., that they are exceptions, unrepresentative cases adduced to "prove a (tendentious) point."

Our own feeling is that if something looks like a rat, walks like a rat, and acts like a rat, then there are good grounds for believing that it is, in fact, a rat. In other words, an accumulation of "anecdotal evidence" can tell us a lot. Nevertheless, it is always reassuring to have some hard data to offer the sceptics. And on the issue of diversity-that is, "diversity"--on campus, the September number of American Enterprise magazine has provided us with an revealing picture of the political diversity, of college faculties. Entitled "The Shame of America's One-Party Campuses," the article notes that "in most sectors of American life ... you will find ample numbers of both conservatives and liberals." The great exception is in American colleges and universities, "where the Left/ Right balance is grossly skewed. …

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