Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Student Protest and Multicultural Reform: Making Sense of Campus Unrest in the 1990s

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Student Protest and Multicultural Reform: Making Sense of Campus Unrest in the 1990s

Article excerpt

Introduction

The mid-1990s saw the release of two films, "PCU" and "Higher Learning," both of which relied heavily on stereotypes of contemporary student activists and their corruption of the academy through what has often been described as "political correctness." In both of these films the message is clear: The university of the 1990s is besieged by students who have replaced dispassionate and objective pursuit of knowledge with political correctness and identity politics. Unfortunately, simplistic treatment of contemporary students is not left entirely to the film industry. Sacks (1996), in his book Generation X Goes to College, assails the "postmodern Balkanization of knowledge and power" in which students are part of a "broadside attack on modern institutions" (p. 141). For Sacks, the "postmodern student" is one who "knows the value of learning but expects to be entertained. He has a keen sense of entitlement but little motivation to succeed. That is the essence of Generation X" (p. xiii).

The criticism of contemporary students has by no means been limited to the popular media, for the attack has been waged on a variety of intellectual fronts as well. For example, D'Souza (1991) assailed campus identity politics for, in his words, supporting "the victim's revolution." Likewise, Schlesinger (1992) attacked what he described as the "cult of ethnicity" for rejecting "the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race" (p. 16). For Schlesinger and D'Souza, as well as other notables such as Lynne Cheney and William Bennett, identity politics of the 1990s threatens the foundation of a common national identity. In Schlesinger's words, "It belittles unum and glorifies pluribus" (p. 17). Moreover, student activists engaging in identity politics are often described as a threat to the very fabric that holds the United States together, as Schlesinger maintained: "The cult of ethnicity has reversed the movement of American history, producing a nation of minorities - or at least of minority spokesmen - less interested in joining with the majority in common endeavor than in declaring their alienation from an oppressive, white, patriarchal, racist, sexist, classist society" (p. 112).

All of this is to suggest that perceptions of the fragmentation of the academy as a consequence of campus multicultural initiatives during the early and mid-1990s had achieved near mythical proportion despite strong evidence suggesting otherwise. For example, Astin (1993a) discussed findings from a national study, part of which focused on student outcomes associated with institutional commitment to multiculturalism: "The fact that a strong emphasis on diversity enhances the student's commitment to promoting racial understanding is of special interest, given that some critics have alleged that emphasizing issues of race and multiculturalism tends to exacerbate racial tensions on the campus. Quite the opposite seems to be the case" (p. 46).

Resistance to multiculturalism, however, is not limited to voices from the Right. Attacks also derive from liberal-leaning social critics who have grown impatient and mistrustful of what they see on today's campuses. Perhaps the most astute criticism derives from Gitlin (1995), who, interestingly enough, was one of the young Leftists contributing to the rise of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) back in the early 1960s. Now a professor at NYU, Gitlin has adopted more of a centrist position in his criticism of identity politics and multiculturalism. Though Gitlin assuredly agrees with the democratic vision of educational opportunity for all, he sees identity politics as a detour and a new kind of orthodoxy enforced through institutional policies. Gitlin's apprehension largely concerns the breakup of the Left: "The cultivation of difference is nothing new, but the sheer profusion of identities that claim separate political standing today is unprecedented. …

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