This essay originally appeared in The Earlhamite, 111, 2 (Spring 1992) 23-25. Copyright © 1992, Peter Suber.

Unsimplifying Political Correctness:
When the Right and Left are Right and Wrong
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

A set of routine academic controversies has recently been fanned into a cause célèbre. I call the controversies 'routine' because they concern the design of curricula and syllabi, the regulation of campus life, and the recruitment of faculty and students. These are important but ordinary affairs for a college or university. They call for choices that arise from fundamental convictions on the purpose of education, the nature of knowledge, the firmness of standards, the value of community, and the mission of the institution. So dealing with these routine affairs is routinely attended with controversy. What is new is that the public is watching closely as academics thrash through these controversies nowadays. At least some journalists and politicians are watching closely and talking loudly about what they see. These conflicts would be what they ought to be, occasions for self-examination and growth, if they were not absolutized by observers who have raised the stakes by raising their voices and simplifying the issues.

The problem does not lie in the issues, for the academy will work through them as it does all of its routine controversies —now leading, now following the larger society in coping with social change. Nor does the problem lie in public scrutiny, for the academy should always be open to public inspection. The problem lies partly in polarization, which can be traced to oversimplification and anti-intellectualism, and partly in what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of public opinion. These perennial vices of American life have stoked important but routine controversies into ominous ones.

One of these ordinary controversies focuses on curricular revision. (Is the inclusion of non-European voices really to lower standards?) Another focuses on syllabus design. (Which is more important, what is inside a book or what kind of person wrote it?) Another focuses on the purpose of a college. (Which is more important, to convey four years' worth of knowledge or to build self-esteem and model adult life?) Another focuses on faculty hiring. (May we hire another white male?) Another focuses on the ethics of public speech. (May fraternity boys hold up a banner at a hockey game saying "No means yes"?) Another focuses on the status of offended sensibilities. (If this book, or that epithet, or that photograph, offends me, have I been injured in a way that should call down the college judicial system?)

These are hard questions. Conservatives complain that colleges and universities tend to answer them by appeal to a leftist orthodoxy that stifles candid discussion. The left replies with detailed justifications of its curricular revisions, recruitment policies, and campus regulations. Here is where the two sides begin to misunderstand each other. On their side, conservatives seldom answer these detailed justifications on the merits. But on the other side, leftists usually mistake the conservative objection for a general dismissal of leftist thinking. The more thoughtful conservative critics do not object to the domination of leftist thinking per se; they object to rigging this domination through the stigmatization and abuse, if not formal punishment, of students and faculty who take the unpopular side of any of these controversies, vitiating the freedom of discussion.

My position in a nutshell is that the conservatives are largely right about the atmosphere, leftists about curricular revision and related policies.

Because liberalism includes a commitment to the freedom of vigorous, even offensive discussion, the left-wing should not be called 'liberal' here. For the same reason, the proper name for what conservatives are demanding is 'liberalism'. These routine controversies have jumbled the customary political alliances. But popular opinion has not caught up with the nuances of this inverted world. The hegemony of leftist opinion on campus has made it difficult for liberal students and faculty to join conservatives in the call for more liberalism. The hegemony of rightist opinion off campus, similarly, has made it hard for conservative columnists and politicians to join the left in revising the curriculum and amending campus regulations. These pressures therefore increase polarization.

Should we expand the curriculum to include other voices or assign classics that have proved their worth over time? We can do both. The question arises because reading lists and human life are finite. At some point a new voice must push out an old one, or vice versa. The finitude of college life is a painful reality for faculty who want to educate students to the entirety of their beloved discipline; but in fact we must be content with what we can do in four years. Or less, for a major is only 10 courses, give or take. A bachelor's degree, then, is already the result of editing. We perform triage on the books most worth reading and assign the result to students. Every term, faculty confront the need to omit many valuable voices from a well-designed course or major in order to include others; it is routine.

To set up a defense fund for some of the preempted books, simply on their merits independently of triage, is to deny our finitude. It is also special pleading, since a case of equal strength could be made for more books than we have time to read. The conservative complaint to be answered here is that the core of a student's work is already laid down by history. This claim can be elaborated in many ways, but too often it implies that new works can never earn a place in the curriculum by surpassing, or even complementing, older ones. Hence it implies that received opinion is infallible and that triage is unnecessary. In my heart I believe that people who deny the necessity of triage do not love their fields enough. For to love a field of scholarship is to know more books that are worth reading than we have time to assign.

If the wisdom of the past is so far above the attainments of the present that it is not subject to our revision, correction, or completion, then the task of education may seem both easy and necessary. But on the contrary, education would be impossible and pointless, except in the form of submission to authority. Our ancestors would possess a magical access to wisdom beyond our reach. If we can attain their level of understanding by education, then we can recognize, reject, or revise their results; but if not, then we are just going through the motions when we try to bring that understanding to our students and nurture their wisdom.

If the new voices in the curriculum are not time-tested, are we not lowering standards? We will lower standards if we make bad choices, but maintain or raise standards if we make good choices. The faculty making the choices are paid to use their judgment. Most, in fact, have had their judgment molded and refined in a curriculum of standard classics. Moreover, of course, no book becomes time-tested unless it is given time. Curricular design is always a risk, but it is the responsibility of the living generation to take the risk of using its best judgment on what works must enter the curriculum. The alternative, as Jeremy Bentham said, is 'the rule of the living by the dead.' The conservative presumption that traditionally excluded voices are inferior to traditionally included ones is false, needlessly inflammatory, and question-begging.

Should we assign books because they cover certain material well, or because they were written by certain kinds of people? Framed this way, the right wins: content is decisive. But the right has been slow to appreciate that the content of a book and the kind of person who wrote it are not independent variables. The position of the right is self-subverting here. If 'status' questions were always separable from 'content' questions, then minds must always be unaffected by their circumstances. That would make virtuous life easy and boring literature unavoidable. On the other hand, the left has been slow to appreciate the differences between the sciences and the humanities. Even if science (like literature) is conducted by embodied human beings inextricably enmeshed in their historical, economic, cultural, political, and sexual conditions, and even if this situatedness affects the construction of knowlege in science, it does not follow that justifiable 'canon revision' in the humanities has an obvious analogue in science. If the calculus was invented by white, Christian, European, heterosexual males, it must still be taught and still deserves its dominant place in the physical sciences.

Which is more important, to convey four years' worth of knowledge or to build self-esteem and model confidence among traditional victims of oppression? Again, we can do both. The question arises only if we are tempted to assign some books because of the status of their authors, regardless of their content. But who is really tempted to do this? Here, the conservative protest is from one willing to hire any qualified person, or read any good book, but who worries that our standards will be violated solely because that candidate or author is not 'like us'. There are such conservatives, but there is no reason why a college should satisfy their provincial fears. Faculty on the left only give cause for concern here if they are willing to assign 'worse' books to get 'better' authors. I doubt there are any such leftists; I have never met one. But if there are, there is no reason why a college should subvert its mission to satisfy their counter-productive zealotry.

If this book, or that epithet, or that photograph, offends me, should we punish the offender? The question arises because everyone is offended by something, and offense hurts. But the absurdity of treating offended sensibilities as true injuries is shown by the converse fact: that anything will offend someone. None of us could teach anything if an offended student sufficed to stop us. No professor of literature could assign Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, or even Huckleberry Finn. No religion professor could assign any book of the Bible. No biology professor could teach evolution. Even if we could find pablum that would pass the no-offense test, we would eviscerate our mission to fill our curriculum with it. I am perverse enough to hope that a genuine liberal education will create foreseeable offense as a matter of curricular philosophy. A basic duty of teaching, or perhaps a side-effect of a basic duty, is to challenge a student's inherited ideas and values, to confront the student with alternatives that have been lived and defended with integrity. Nietzsche said that the unquestioned is questionable. Classroom teachers know from experience that questioning what has been unquestionable for students can be painful and offensive for them. But if we belong here, that pain and those offended sensibilities are part of the growth we are fostering, not reasons to stop. (Needless to say, this argument does not extend to all pain and all offense.)

Today, the left is more often guilty than the right of mistaking offended sensibilities for injuries. Only a few years ago it was the other way around. On the other hand, the right is guilty of overlooking the distinction between abuse and dissent. In the name of free speech, many conservatives tolerate abuse as if were nothing more than dissent that hurts. This is to ennoble a vicious practice. A dissenting evaluation of a book is very different from a racist prank. Conservatives are correct that much abuse is pure speech that we may have to tolerate; but the left is correct that much abuse is harassment that goes beyond speech and may be prohibited without limiting anyone's rights.

These routine controversies do not have easy answers; on the contrary, they are more difficult than oversimple partisans have made them out to be. The motives of oversimplification are the usual suspects: laziness, ignorance, one-sidedness, anger, grand-standing, pre-conceived notions. But there is an additional motive in this case: anti-intellectualism. For the many columnists and politicians who did not criticize the academy for segregation, fraternity crime, athletic scandals, or administrative malfeasance, the concern for academic excellence which they say underlies their crusade against political correctness on campus is suspect and hollow. Instead, I detect older, anti-intellectual criticisms behind the contemporary political ones. Many conservative critics object to liberal education not because it inculcates the wrong values but because it questions inherited values; not because it leads students to think like leftists but because it leads them to think for themselves; not because it is liberal, but because it is liberating.

While the left mistakes conservative objections to oppressive leftist orthodoxy for conservative objections to leftism, the right mistakes the challenge of inherited ideas for the rejection of inherited ideas. As a result, conservative critics conclude that higher education is a world apart, out of touch with traditional political values, and dangerous for exercising its power over 18 year olds while it is in this state. In this form, the complaint is strikingly similar to the charges against Socrates 2400 years ago: making the weaker argument appear the stronger, disbelief in the gods, and corrupting youth. These routine controversies are not new.

I hope that at Earlham we can separate the issues of the public environment, where the complaints from the right are justified, from the substance of academic policies, where the arguments on the left are compelling. Long before leftists first used the term 'political correctness' in mocking self-deprecation, at Earlham we were already a campus given to swallow or disguise conflict rather than face and discuss it. In the subsequent, more polarized political atmosphere, we are in danger of cramping our public discourse with the fearful evasion of taboo subjects, and saying only in private what we should say in public. We are fortunate that our curriculum, campus regulations, and recruitment policies have evolved over the past few years with less acid controversy here than elsewhere. But these policies are only half the problem. We may now turn our attention to the question how we got into the position of cultivating fear of giving offense, both among students and faculty, rather than compassionate listening and courageous speaking.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber.