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COLUMN LEFT : New Times, Fossil Minds on the Campus : Academia: The old guard fights the 'politically correct' new orthodoxy.

January 20, 1991|RUTH ROSEN | Ruth Rosen, professor of history at UC Davis, has taught courses on the history of women for the past 20 years

Hysteria over "politically correct" thinking on campuses has become one of the media's favorite stories. A spate of books, followed by a sardonic Newsweek cover story, claim that the 1960s generation has injected its political agenda of racial and gender equality into the nation's universities, stifling free expression in the process.

Why this backlash? Do these refugees of the '60s, now an established and distinguished part of the country's professoriate, deserve to be bashed?

The attack on "political correctness" is, in part, an old guard's last moan at the passing of a coherent world view. Life was much simpler when everyone believed there was one (Western) civilization in which all the great books were written by white men. Certainly, my own teaching would be infinitely easier if I ignored the ways in which gender, race and class have helped shape people's historical experience. But I cannot. Many of the Great Books must remain an integral part of the curriculum. But, like many of my generation, I have devoted the past 20 years to excavating other voices from the past that make a simplistic world view seem anachronistic.

The attack on "tenured radicals," then, should be read as an important sign that the 1960s generation has gained the intellectual offensive. The evidence is abundant. Across the country, campuses are creating integrated courses that speak to the confusing and interdependent world civilization we inhabit.

The furor over politically correct thinking also represents an old guard's cry against affirmative action and the diverse population entering the universities and the labor force. By the year 2000, women and minorities will constitute the new majority in both. Whatever anyone thinks about this demographic change, it is an irreversible fact.

The tenured radicals, for their part, have much to celebrate in these initial victories. They have played an honorable part in challenging the university to reconsider its curriculum and mission as the second millennium draws to a close. The tragedy is that a vocal but critical mass has adopted a self-righteous dogmatism that scares many of us who have fought the same battles. In the worst cases, one rigid world view has been replaced with a politically correct new orthodoxy.

One sees the hypocrisy of the new orthodoxy in many guises: the armchair Marxist who never finds time to help the homeless or organize against the war; the feminist literary critic who makes a personal career out of demonstrating that the self is "decentered" and everything can be "deconstructed" except her own resume; the black studies department that attacks a political science department's course on black politics (taught by a black scholar) because it does not promote "the right African-American perspective." What these have in common is that they use the language of political righteousness to mask turf wars and academic ambition.

Some of these individuals, in fact, mistake academic debates for the larger world of political and social change. During the 1960s, a few of these tenured radicals made careers on the left by condemning others for insufficient revolutionary fervor or expressing the wrong political line. Political correctness never made good politics; it makes even worse thought. Embattled by the backlash, few of us have been willing to admit publicly that good and honorable dissent is being muffled when people fear their intellectual honesty will be misunderstood as racist or sexist.

The fact is, the tenured radicals don't need (and should never use) such a heavy hand. The effort to create a curriculum that reflects diversity while trying to make sense of the whole is under way. Universities are actively recruiting a more diverse student and faculty population. What has been achieved is still not enough, but time is on the side of the new majority. It is not necessary--and never right--to pollute intellectual life with political litmus tests.

Ever since the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964, my generation has questioned the relevance and rigidity of the old curriculum. Now, as tenured professors, we bear a solemn responsibility to encourage not only diversity of gender, skin color and sexual preference, but also diversity of opinion.

We can achieve both these goals without fostering an atmosphere of intimidation. This is a project that requires determination as well as patience and forbearance. It also requires the humble recognition that one day, we, too, must step aside as a new generation strives to leave its mark on the universities we have so successfully challenged.

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