Academic journal article Social Justice

Defenders of the Canon: What's Behind the Attack on Multiculturalism

Academic journal article Social Justice

Defenders of the Canon: What's Behind the Attack on Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

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. …

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