By Robert Weissberg
It's easy to think of Universities as a circus for wacky professors; their semi-monthly comparisons of Bush to Hitler or indictments of inherent American racism are hard to miss. Universities' deviations from traditional education are far more serious than a few zany radicals, though. Something far more significant overshadows this ranting, namely how PC invisibly sanitizes instruction to avoid "offending" certain easy-to-anger students. This is the dog that does not bark - "safe lecturing" to use the STD vocabulary - and seldom recognized since it concerns what is not taught, and as such deprives students of a genuine education.
Let me offer some observations from my 35-year academic career but these undoubtedly apply more generally. Some facts. First, today's students, especially in lecture courses, display rather desultory academic habits. Many arrive late, leave early, doze off, regularly skip classes, eat, drink or listen to iPods, gossip and otherwise ignore the dispensed pearls of wisdom. Even stellar teachers cast pearls. Dreary test results confirm that lectures are disregarded and assignments go unread. Sad to say, many African-American students who should be expending extra efforts to surmount academic deficiencies are particularly guilty though expressing this plain-to-see reality is verboten.
Haphazard attentiveness means that professors can never be sure how one's utterances or even the readings are deciphered. In fact, empirical research shows that less able students are particularly prone to garbling - "some people loved Hitler" becomes "the professor loves Hitler." Alas, little can be done about this mishmash learning save, perhaps, returning to the ancient days when teachers terrified students by randomly demanding instant verbal summaries. Even repeating facts three times and saying that this will be on the exam usually fails to impress denizens of la la land.
Students will thus mistakenly "hear" things they might find objectionable, but, and this is critical, not all enjoy protectors to transform imagined classroom slights into public outrages. The ROTC cadet "learning" that America only fights exploitive imperialistic wars suffers in isolated silence; an African-American student who mangles "blacks disproportionately commit more violent crimes" into "blacks are criminals" can demand that the university itself plus sundry student-based organization rectify this "offense." (Similar helpers exist for women and gays.) No matter how trivial the alleged wrongdoing, no matter how obvious the misunderstanding, true or not, crimes against racial sensibilities requires action. This is the raison d'etre for these injustice monitors and justifies salaries. To compound matters, certified victims have diplomatic immunity and can never be punished for false accusations or foolish hyper-sensitivity. No calculating administrator can ignore an anonymous letter about some off-hand comment, a joke or wrong terminology (colored people versus people of color), even "demeaning" laughs or facial expressions.
Teaching in any field that might conceivably touch on racial/ethnic/sexual sensibilities thus requires navigating minefields that can never, never be charted. The most obsequious aside or failure to include certain authors on the reading list can insult some sensitive soul whose classroom inattention and limited intellectual background guarantees outrage. Professors now become prisoners to protected students, many of whom are the least academically capable, and soon realize that a few incidents can bring star-chamber proceedings and, ultimately, a ruined career. No university wants professors with reputations for trouble, as decided by those with a well-deserved reputation for making trouble.
What can be done? One option to embrace the PC party line at every opportunity since those who object (i.e., conservatives, Christian fundamentalists) stoically forbear this nonsense and lack the supporting indignation infrastructure. But, for those disinclined to fake it, the only viable option is to avoid anything that might be mangled into offensiveness. Purging the course is hardly fool-proof, but it is relatively undemanding, almost morally painless and students rarely notice the difference.
Let me offer a first-hand example. I once taught the basic American government lecture course and Constitution lecture covered the three-fifths compromise - the Article I, Section 2 provision that counted "other persons" (i.e., slaves and untaxed Indians - blacks are never mentioned by name ) as three-fifths of a person for purposes of House representation. I explained that Southerners wanted to treat slaves as a whole person since this would sharply boost their representation while abolitionist New Englanders proposed counting slaves as zero. Unfortunately, this three-fifths provision has now been interpreted by some black activists (including an African American colleague who stated her misinformed opinion in a public law school lecture) as "proof" of America's racist origins. Black students have probably encountered this historical mistruth elsewhere (Jesse Jackson once endorsed it) and it does appear superficially plausible.
Rather than risk being accused of covering up racism or telling lies, I dropped the topic altogether. I similarly removed all discussion of slavery so students thus never learned that the while the Constitution did not outlaw slavery, it did permit a ban on importing slaves after 1808 and this was, indeed, done - which, in turn, made those slaves already in America exceedingly costly and thus at times too valuable to risk at dangerous labor (I further skipped how the ever-plentiful Irish were instead hired for life-threatening jobs).
And, as one might become carried away in a long-delayed spring cleaning, out went most references to crime (no small accomplishment in a course covering the Supreme Court), the dubious legal use of racial gerrymandering to insure black election victories, the possible downside of affirmative action and anything else that might remotely prove an ideological fire hazard. And this clean up did not end with race-related issues.
My experience is probably typical and thus the fear of giving "offense" consigns thousands of graduates to incomplete educations. Sort of like proper Victorian sex education. A vicious cycle is created - "safe lectures" beget boredom and this only encourages yet more sleeping and more garbling. This censoring can also have more tragic consequences for those oblivious to awaiting minefields. I had a distinguished colleague - Stuart Nagel - whose tale is worth telling. He taught public policy and one day explained that black businesses in Kenya were uncompetitive against Indian-run enterprises since blacks where too generous in granting credit to friends and family. He had been invited by the government of Kenya to study the situation and suggested better business training for black Kenyans. The topic was indisputably part of the course and thus totally protected by AAUP academic speech guidelines. Stuart was also extremely liberal on all racial issues.
Nevertheless, to condense a long story, an anonymous letter from irritated black students complained of Nagel's "racism" and included the preposterous change of "workplace violence." After a protracted and bungled internal university investigation, two federal trials (I testified at one), he was stripped of his teaching responsibilities and coerced into retirement. Interestingly, having been charged as "racist," his departmental colleagues, save two conservatives, abandoned him. A few years later, partially as a result of this emotionally and financially draining incident ($100,000 out-of-pocket for legal fees), he committed suicide. I can only speculate that he believed that years spent being a "good liberal" (including service in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division) would insulate him from being denounced as a "racist." Nor would he have anticipated that the university would spend the hundreds of thousands in legal fees to punish a famous tenured faculty member who "offended" two students. Nagel's sad saga undoubtedly provided useful lessons to many others--stupidity can really be dangerous, even in a university. Better keep quiet.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.