The 'PC movement' is a phantom

Mark Chalkley

June 20, 1991|By Mark Chalkley

THE biggest problem in discussing the controversial "politically correct" movement on U.S. campuses is that no such movement exists. This so-called "movement" that has been so widely discussed has never held a convention, a rally or even a meeting. The "PC movement" is a phantom.

What does exist -- and what has outraged the conservative columnists who invented the phantom movement -- is a trend in higher education away from the traditional focus on the accomplishments and viewpoints of Anglo-Saxon American men to the exclusion of others. This is not a recent trend. It began in the 1970s with the impact of the black and women's liberation struggles. The trend has gathered strength lately as academics who were products of those experiences gained tenure and positions of influence on campuses.

The attempts of these people to change college curriculum have irked right-leaning commentators like George F. Will. He and others feel threatened by the feminists, advocates of multicultural instruction, black nationalists and advocates of gay and lesbian rights. The conservatives seek to stifle all these challenges to their version of Americanism, and so have conjured up a "movement" that aims to "impose" a political agenda on the universities. In the scaled-down demonology of post-Cold War conservatism, the myth of the PC movement is roughly equivalent to the old international communist conspiracy.

The very use of the term "politically correct" betrays both intellectual dishonesty and a certain measure of ignorance. The expression was first popularized in America by the Maoists of the 1970s, who got it -- predictably enough -- from Mao Tse-tung. (Mao said: "To not have the correct political line is like having no soul.") Of course, what is "correct" depends on one's point of view. But to the young American Maoists of the '70s, there could be but one "correct line," and they spent countless hours debating what it was.

As they tried to work for change in the labor movement, the black rights movement and other movements, the Maoists carried these debates with them and were inevitably overheard. So it was that the phrase "politically correct" came to be associated with an intense, painstaking and often simply dogmatic effort to apply one's principles to life. As time passed, the expression took on a tongue-in-cheek, ironic twist, as a way of describing or gently mocking someone's ideological scruples. She's very politically correct. Her wedding invitations were on recycled paper.") Often the suggestion was that someone with these rigid scruples was simply getting carried away by the latest political fad.

Enter the conservative columnists and the right-wing think tanks. They have seized on the "politically correct" label because they want to suggest that what is going on at American universities today is simply an ideological fashion show. They hope to make the American public see the efforts to introduce multicultural education or even simply to dilute the traditional Anglo-Saxon male bias of higher education as irresponsible trendiness.

jTC As in any time of change, there is an element of trendiness in some of the new curriculum changes. But it is only honest to admit that for at least a century, U.S. education has treated the Anglo-Saxon male as the central actor in national and world history. Students memorized the names of Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant, but never of Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass. Is it trendy to question this?

It is true that Anglo-Saxon men have played a leading role in U.S. history and culture, and college curriculum should reflect this. But it is also natural that since blacks, women, Hispanics, native Americans and Asians have been excluded from the teaching for so long, the adjustment to include them may take a long time.

That is exactly what is happening at some -- but only some -- universities. It is no more a matter of "imposing a political agenda" than was the teaching of traditional Western-oriented, Christian-influenced, Anglo-Saxon-slanted history and culture. So far as I know, no one has been forced to attend the University of California at Berkeley or Oberlin College. Every college curriculum is a reflection of what someone thinks it is appropriate (or even "correct," if you will) for the students to learn. If the students dislike the course content, they can always look at other schools.

The real danger to academic freedom is not from the mythical "politically correct movement." On the contrary, the campaign of the conservatives against this alleged conspiracy is a much greater danger. With it, the media have become a club over the head of educators, threatening to bludgeon any professor who "forces" a fraternity brother to read a feminist novel or who, in a history class, wants to digress a little on the destruction of Indian cultures.

There is no conspiracy to impose a left political agenda on American education. There is a conservative backlash against diversity in higher learning.

Mark Chalkley is former resident of Baltimore who teaches Spanish at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

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