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September 13, 2007

The Hidden Impact Of Political Correctness

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.



Comments (28)

Jack Olson:

If political correctness devalues college education, that would explain why I have met so many ignoramuses with college degrees.

mcg:

A young man, hired by a supermarket, reported for his first day of work.

The manager greeted him with a warm handshake and a smile, gave him a broom and said, "Your first job will be to sweep out the store."

"But I'm a college graduate." the young man replied indignantly.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know that," said the manager. "Here, give me the broom, I'll show you how."

Dave Stone:

I recognize that Professor Weissberg's experiences may be different than my own, and I respect that he has been in academia much longer than I have.

That said, there's a word for leaving important subjects out of a university course for fear of controversy. That word, I am sad to say, is "cowardice." For academics enjoying the protection of tenure, I see little excuse for sacrificing truth to expediency.

Abraham Miller:

I knew Stuart Nagel when I was a student at Illinois and later when I was his colleague. In the fifties and sixties, Champaign-Urbana was as segregated and racist as any part of Mississippi. In that environment, Stuart Nagel worked zealously on behalf of the local African-American community and also for changes in the way in which the university recruited African-American students and hired and promoted African-American employees. Stuart Nagel was promoting affirmative action before even the word itself had entered the lexicon of political discourse. As a licensed attorney, he provided legal representation to local African-Americans,either pro-bono or for trivial compensation. His zealotry on behalf of civil rights often earned him the contempt of the higher university administration and the ridicule of some of his colleagues. Beyond that, his civil rights work, in those days, was not beyond pale of physical harm. After all, much of downstate Illinois, like downstate Indiana, had been settled by Southerners dispossed by the Civil War and these were people who faithfully transmitted across generations the prejudices to which they had been born. Against all this, Nagel persisted. After the tragic death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nagel and his colleague Phil Meranto were instrumental in getting the university to commit to an outreach program to African-American students, which helped pave the way for fundamental changes in the demography of the university's student body. It is the height of unreality that someone with Suart Nagel's pedigree could have been brought down by what must have been a mindless, banal, and naive accusation of "racism."

Abraham H. Miller, emeritus professor, University of Cincinnati

JohnF:

Is it possible to video classes so that when there is a charge against a professor there will be evidence of what, in fact, was said, rather than what was "heard"?

Michael J. Tierney:

JohnF,

I attended Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) in the early 1980s, and lectures even then were video-taped as a rule by several professors, and archived at the school library adjacent to the lecture hall.

I had been, mistakenly, it seems, under the impression that the practice would be even more widespread in these days of online education.

I must note the irony - when lectures were taped "in my day", it was for educational reasons. Sad that the primary reason now may actually be for purposes of professorial self-defense.

Simon Newman:

Um, aren't you worried someone will find this article 'offensive' and you'll suffer the same fate as Nagel?

I'm glad race relations seem a lot better here in the UK (so far), but I don't teach in a controversial area like history or politics.

Frank:

Simon, try teaching on comparative religions in the UK.

Say, the actual histories of Christianity and oh, maybe Islam.

Then let us know how that works out.

Simon Newman:

Frank - religion is not race, of course, but I certainly take your point. I teach Law in London, maybe 60% of my students are Muslim, and I do need to watch what I say; eg when talking about the right to free speech.

LS:

In response to the UK:

"Teachers are dropping controversial subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from history lessons because they do not want to cause offence to children from certain races or religions, a report claims.

...

�Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship,� it concluded.

However, it was concerned that this could lead to divisions within school, and that it might also put pupils off history."

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/education/article1600686.ece

Simon Newman:

LS - that was about a (single) UK high school's teaching, not Universities. But it does indicate a growing problem for free speech in education.

My original point was simply that, re race, I think it's much rarer in the UK to find black students looking to be offended in the manner characterised by this article. I think it's actually relatively rare to find Muslim students looking to be offended, likewise. If you look at the news reports, the moves to curtail free speech here in UK are very much top-down, led by cultural Marxist administrators, not a 1960s-style groundswell of student protest.

MattW.:

For all of you -- I'm contemplating a PhD in History to teach -- following a military career. What I just read sends shivers down my spine for two reasons: 1) why should I want to spend all the $$$ required to get a PhD whn I may be faced with legal trouble for speaking facts and scholarly opinion, and 2) can a conservative like myself even survive in today's academia?

I'm asking before I take the plunge...

anon:

Matt W,

You can survive--if you can run the search committee gauntlet as a conservative. From personal experience, though, if you are hired, your time at the university is not pleasant.

Paul Diehl:

The allegations about Nagel are wildly distorted. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot disclose the specifics (I was on the investigative committee), but the incident cited in the above article had NOTHING to do with Nagel's situation as a precipitating incident or as a reason for his removal from the teaching faculty. Political correctness is a serious matter on campus, but that should not give anyone - Weissberg or Horowitz - license to interpret situations to meet one own agenda. To be political incorrect, you need to start by being correct about the facts.

Loki on the run:

Paul Diehl says:


The allegations about Nagel are wildly distorted. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot disclose the specifics (I was on the investigative committee), but the incident cited in the above article had NOTHING to do with Nagel's situation as a precipitating incident or as a reason for his removal from the teaching faculty. Political correctness is a serious matter on campus, but that should not give anyone - Weissberg or Horowitz - license to interpret situations to meet one own agenda. To be political incorrect, you need to start by being correct about the facts.


Since he is dead, why don't you fill us in? Are you protecting the living from the truth?

Mark Nicholas:

This touches a nerve with my own college experience.
During a requirement for my BS studies in Business Administration, I had a "Business Ethics" course; which turned out to be a major roadblock to my receiving an honors degree. After realizing I'd need to retake the course to get better than a "C", I felt the fool for not telling the good professor what he wanted to hear. I'd worked very hard formulating my arguments while retaining my personal integrity, through such discussions as Affirmative Action, corporate "responsibility" and workplace prejudice and diversity. I completed the course requirements, and resisted the intellectual easy-road, only to find out that I'd "missed" the obvious: What it was I was there to do. Well, I did at least pull "B" on the second go 'round with the same professor. It still seems odd to pull-off "A"s in statistics and economics, but only get a "B" in such a "floater course".

a black guy:

Robert Weissberg is a flat out racist who hangs out with Jared Taylor & gang, people who believe that darker people are inherently inferior--hence why Mr. Weissberg repeatedly hints that blacks needed to work all the more harder to overcome academic "deficiencies." You know, cause they're inherently dumb!

That said, the anecdote he relates at the end IS indeed tragic, and I do agree that Political Correctness can be extreme at times.

N. P.:

Paul Diehl says:

"The allegations about Nagel are wildly distorted. For confidentiality reasons, I cannot disclose the specifics ..."

Since there were two federal trials, there is surely plenty in the public record. I therefore find it hard to believe that "For confidentiality reasons ..." is anything other than a cover for baseless slander. Perhaps Paul Diehl would like to prove me wrong?

The suggestion above -- why don't we video classes? -- is a good one. In fact I propose webcams (at least two, on opposite corners, facing each other) in every public school class room, not just college. That way teachers can defend themselves, unruly students can be nailed, and ditto for incompetent teachers where they exist.

Let's get on with it.

Lee:

Scary and sad. And alas, true. Reminds me of David Mamet's "Oleander," which I HIGHLY recommend to ANYONE who is planning on going in to teaching at any level, either K-12 or college/grad school.

E.S.:

I think Lee (comment above this) means "Oleanna." I read that in a college freshman literature class about four years ago, and I can vouch that it's worthwhile. I really respected the teacher who assigned it, because she was clear about maintaining appropriate boundaries between teaching literature and promoting her own personal politics (which she even declined to describe). We read "1984" in the same class.

aFinn:

Perhaps the students should sign an legal aggreement not to get offended about the contents of lectures before taking a course.

Lucius Vorenus:

Abraham H. Miller: Stuart Nagel was promoting affirmative action before even the word itself had entered the lexicon of political discourse.

Uhh, this is supposed to be an endorsement of the guy?

Jim Prevo:

Having worked for Stuart Nagel as an undergraduate student for 2.5 years at the University of Illinois helping him produce the Policy Studies Journal and Policy Studies Review, plus article after article, and typing up idea after idea from this ever-thinking, ever-debating, turbo-charged mind, I am saddened to just be reading in Nov-2008 of his loss.

As Mr. Weissberg's Univ of Illinois article deftly points out and Professor Miller of Univ of Cincinnati states, Professor Nagel was a crusader for equal rights. I heard it in the way he spoke about civil rights for women and minorities, gays and lesbians, seniors and the disabled all the time, round the clock. Literally. He was a man who admired Einstein's round the clock thinking. He took short naps throughout the day in order to stay up throughout the night thinking and writing, thinking and writing. He was devoted to his craft. Passion and policy was a win-win for him.

As just one of his many assistants, I sat and typed (endlessly) his thoughts on far-ranging matters regarding public policies helping all people. His whole professional impetus in life was academic research and thinking about the world and how to make it better.

In 1986, I had Professor Weissberg for the intro to political science lecture. He was a terrific teacher, smart and funny loaded with tales of wisdom and a sharp-eyed perspective. Speaking the truth is a form of tough love.

I would note that President-elect Obama himself has specifically called on the African-American community to do certain things. Certainly, white Americans should get off their butts and work harder in every way to improve their children's lives and the rest of the world. So should Asians. So should Latinos. So should everyone. Mentioning a particular group's particular travails and challenges is no crime or smear. Good grief.

Would that certain people posting on this blog have more in their hollow smears than the mere association of Professor Weissberg with another party that they do not like. Wisen up. Attend a Weissberg lecture and see for yourself.

Here is to Professor Nagel. He made me 238% smarter than I was when I first met him. Thank you, sir.

Money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations. Thomas Jefferson

I wish to advocate anybody studying this to view the comments above opposing this post to indicate how ridiculous it could actually be.

It is never too late to learn.

Natalya:

A couple of months ago I discovered another website that talked in depth about this subject. I'm glad you were able to shed some light on what's truly happening out there. Some webistes are overtly biased towards points like this. Where do you think the industry is going in response to this?

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