Winds of Political Change Buffet the Ivory Towers

By Goode, Stephen | Insight on the News, June 3, 1996 | Go to article overview

Winds of Political Change Buffet the Ivory Towers


Goode, Stephen, Insight on the News


A conservative coalition of professors met recently to lament the saturation of campuses with the radical and ideological, decrying recent intellectual fads such as deconstructionism and neo-Marxism.

The 300 members of the conservative National Association of Scholars, or NAS, who met in Washington the first weekend in May spent a lot of time trading war stories. Old stories, of course, but new ones, too, about the ravages wrought on America's college and university campuses by the twin scourges of political correctness and multiculturalism.

The professors talked about speech codes that dampen freedom of expression, and courses in gender and ethnic studies that offer no intellectual meat but a great deal of passionate and radical ideology. They also talked about "sensitivity-training seminars" that instill "correct" attitudes in recalcitrant students and about the precipitous decline of academic standards in America's institutions of higher learning.

But most of their time was spent on the theme of the organization's sixth annual conference, "The New Higher Education Reform Movement" - what can be done to turn around the general leftward trend of colleges and their faculties during the last two or three decades and remedies that might be applied.

Some voiced doubts about whether the trend can be halted. Gertrude Himmelfarb, noted scholar of Victorian England and professor emeritus at the City University of New York, for example, described applications for graduate fellowships. "Many of them are trendy and meretricious," she said, reflecting recent intellectual fads such as deconstructionism, neo-Marxism and radical feminism. But the real problem, as she sees it, is that "the best and brightest students are the most trendy" and are most attracted to "passionate ideologies," which does not augur well for the future. "They will be the professors of the next generation," Himmelfarb noted.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett spoke of visits to lecture on college campuses and the besieged, isolated feelings of moderate and conservative students he found there. After he had spoken at the University of Iowa, said the author of The Book of Virtues, a group of students assembled around him thanking him for saying things they had believed they would never hear on campus - such as that higher education should involve the free exchange of ideas without fear of being cut short for not expressing the politically correct views. As he left Iowa City, Bennett said, he felt like the "Marines leaving Saigon."

And John Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz, pointed out that years ago when conservative academics lamented what was happening on campuses their colleagues often said, "Oh, come on, you're exaggerating; it isn't as bad as all that." Now they are more likely to say, "It's so bad that nothing can be done about it - why bother?"

Ellis cited several examples of what he means by bad, the most glaring of which come from the neo-Marxist English professor Fredric Jameson of Duke University, cited as a center of the politically correct. Ellis says Jameson's latest book "describes Stalin as a fine fellow and argues Mao was stopped too soon or he would have solved all of China's problems."

Can anything be done? Yes, according to several speakers at the meeting. National Alumni Forum President Jerry L. Martin urged alumni to get involved in the affairs of their former schools. "They are independent of academic political pressures" at their alma maters, he said. Moreover, what alumni have to say makes a difference in part because they're donors to the school and also because they are accepted as adding a sense of proportion from the outside to debate that rages within academic walls, according to Martin. He cited the example of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where a proposal to offer students the option of taking a course in great books was vetoed by the English faculty, which argued that there are no such things as great books. …

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