When ACAD asked for permission to republish my 1992 paper on “Political Correctness and the Metapolitics of Deaning,” it took me awhile even to find a copy of the original; “PC” as a term seemed out of date and I wanted to think the world had moved on in the past 28 years. But when I found and read it, I was reminded that, although terminology has changed somewhat, the issues have only become more polarizing and more widespread in our society. While the academy is still the focus of critique, many more lay citizens have gotten exercised over what now are called issues of Free Speech. The politics involved are not confined to campuses but spread over all aspects of communication. And in 1992, of course, we had never dreamed of the instant, ubiquitous, unmediated communication power of electronic media, social or anti-social, in 2020.
I can’t hope to update now what I said then in any kind of comprehensive way; that could easily become a book. And while I spent another ten years as dean (chief academic officer) at Carleton, I have since then been carrying on the fight for academic freedom in the classroom rather than the inner circle of administration, so my vantage point is different now. But I can offer a few reflections, which I hope will encourage your own.
First, there is colossal irony in accusations that colleges and universities are too often violating freedom of speech if they don’t invite “controversial” speakers to campus and thereby encourage a full range of discussion – for the very backbone of the academy is the sacredness of academic freedom, which is the educational first cousin of the political right to freedom of speech. Of course, there have been widely publicized instances of speakers disinvited by institutions or blocked by students from speaking (Berkeley, Middlebury, Evergreen State). But in most such instances, speakers who are excluded or protested are deliberately provocative; instead of arguing rational, evidence-based ideas in good faith, they intend to incite controversy or even violent protest. Often climate change or Holocaust deniers, they flout the academy’s basic purpose of rational argument backed by evidence in the pursuit of truth; they even go so far as to see facts and truths as matters of opinion or conspiracy. And it’s often off-campus conservative groups who facilitate their invitation (or propose their invitation so they’ll be turned down or rescinded) in order to provoke conflict. They’re “right-wing trolls masquerading as free speech martyrs,” to quote my colleagues Jeffrey Snyder and Amna Khalid;1 it’s a new sort of “Freedom of Speech Frame Up,” with thinly veiled hate speech masquerading as intellectual discourse. The alarming polarization of national politics has put higher education in the crosshairs.
Second, in 1992 I was naïve about how soon the PC controversy might pass. I concluded that debate was so strong then because American society in general and campus culture specifically were undergoing tremendous change, and that was true: there was a huge diversification of faculty, students, and staff – what had been by and large bastions of white male privilege were increasingly multi-racial and multi-national institutions, populated by first-gen students as well as legacies, with more women knocking on the doors of tenured ranks and upper echelons of administration. But I seem to have thought all that would settle out and the controversy might recede; instead those changes have only accelerated. Now our campuses and our society at large are more diverse than ever; earlier concerns about “racism, sexism, classism,” would now be joined by alarm over homophobia, ableism, ageism, Islamophobia, resurgent incidents of anti-Semitism, and defense of white supremacy. Women are still under-represented in many academic fields and some ranks of administrators, and people of color are under-represented everywhere. Change needs to continue, but as multiculturalism advances, so does reaction.
Third, there are new issues related to “political correctness” and “freedom of speech” that we should be concerned about on campus. Much has been made about the increased “fragility” of current students; more of them have suffered some kind of trauma in the past or come to college with mental health issues. A book published two years ago called The Coddling of the American Mind got a great deal of press for asserting that colleges have compromised their educational mission (which inherently involves challenging students with new and uncomfortable ideas) to “safetyism,” emphasizing the classroom as a “safe space” where emotional comfort supersedes intellectual challenge.2 This idea has been blown out of proportion, but a number of campuses have encouraged trigger warnings, established bias response teams, and even instigated some form of censorship. I’m encouraged by the level of debate about all these issues at Carleton College; instructors show great concern about accommodating disabilities and there’s good attendance at workshops on teaching sensitive materials. But the faculty rejected a proposal to institute a bias response team, and trigger warnings are optional for faculty and don’t usually result in students’ being excused from coursework. However, some self-censorship no doubt occurs. These are all issues that faculty and deans should be talking about.
Finally, I would reaffirm the values I argued for in the 1992 piece: that freedom of speech is a broader human rights version of academic freedom; that open discussion of ideas – even or especially uncomfortable ones – is essential in developing our students’ critical powers of curiosity and learning as well as for faculty continuing to push the boundaries of knowledge; that civility is essential to free enquiry on campus. As I said then, we must try to turn confrontation into conversation, try to put politeness back into politics – at least on our campuses. If we can’t uphold these values here, how can we hope to recover them in our society?
1. Amna Khalid & Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, “Not a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: Why Left-Leaning Faculty Should Care About Threats to Free Expression on Campus,” FIRE Faculty Conference Papers, 2018. https://a47079ce-1df3-44e0-b81b-07461625dbdf.filesusr.com/ugd/5c295d_a46c0ab3b499427baf233303dbf5b2ad.pdf