Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays. To read this newsletter as soon as it sends, sign up to receive it in your email inbox.
From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Campus Politics and the Primordial Dramas of Race
That the disputes over language, canon, culture, and politics playing out on campuses since 2015 or so involve the repetition of an earlier moment in the history of the American university — the curricular battles of the late eighties and early nineties — is an increasingly common piece of wisdom. It’s encapsulated, as I discussed a couple of months ago, by the sociologist and historian of the canon John Guillory.
We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
That the disputes over language, canon, culture, and politics playing out on campuses since 2015 or so involve the repetition of an earlier moment in the history of the American university — the curricular battles of the late eighties and early nineties — is an increasingly common piece of wisdom. That wisdom was recently encapsulated, as I discussed a couple of months ago, by the sociologist and historian of the canon John Guillory: “For various reasons, the canon wars lapsed into dormancy in the first years of the 21st century, only to reemerge more recently, this time oriented more urgently to race than to gender.”
As Guillory hints, comparing and contrasting the earlier and later eruptions will be an important task for future historians and analysts of American higher education. Is it the case that the current debates are more focused on race than the older ones? To some extent, the answer is probably discipline-specific, and it’s true that in Guillory’s home field, English literature, the widening of the canon to include more women authors was felt to be especially imperative in the eighties. But in general, race seems to have been the paramount category in the earlier period as it is now.
One piece of evidence: a 1990 collection of essays in The New York Times, "A Campus Forum on Multiculturalism.” (Hat tip to the journalist Michael C. Moynihan, who brought the forum to my attention via a tweet.) It’s quite a time capsule, both uncannily familiar and remote. The word “multiculturalism” has fallen out of favor, replaced in general by “diversity,” but the concerns it captures will surprise no one today. The forum opens with two equally uncompromising essays, a point-counterpoint between the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, then at Stanford, and the Brandeis philosopher Frederic T. Sommers (who died in 2014).
Both Rosaldo and Sommers understood debates about “political correctness” to be primarily about ethnocultural inheritance. Rosaldo writes:
Try beginning to teach a diverse classroom with: “We must first learn our heritage. It extends from Plato and Aristotle to Milton and Shakespeare.” The students ask, “Who’s the ‘We’ ?” At Stanford, over 40 percent of the entering undergraduates are Asian-Americans, African Americans, native Americans and Chicanos. Who, they wonder, is included in the phrase “our heritage?” Are they included? Must they continue to look into the curricular mirror and see nothing?
Sommers, from the opposite vantage point, agrees that what’s being argued about is mainly race, (though he mentions gender, too): “Pluralists tend to believe that the American university, supposedly liberal and humane, serves to perpetuate an oppressor class. (For feminists this is the ‘hetero-patriarchy'; more generally, it is the white, ‘Eurocentric’ elite that ‘imposes prevailing cultural norms.’)”
Other contributions, no matter their political valence, are equally race-focused. Harvard Divinity School’s Jon D. Levenson complains that “the preoccupation with race tends to assimilate the experience of all whites to that of elite Protestant groups from northwestern Europe and helps perpetuate the anti-Catholicism still potent in academia.” (While quite official anti-Catholicism infected academia for much of the 20th century, I would not have guessed that anyone was still concerned about it in 1990.) The Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter pays equal attention to race and gender: “In the 1960’s and 1970’s, most of academia rejected racial/ethnic and women’s studies as narrowly particular, as though only nonwhite people had race and only nonmale people had gender.” The assumption of almost all the participants, in other words, was that political correctness and multiculturalism, whatever you thought of them, were episodes in the primordial American drama of race.
The forum’s concluding essay, by Henry Louis Gates Jr., then at Duke, does not exactly depart from that focus, but it does adjust the lens. In the eighties, Gates writes, academics have “made a pendular swing from the silly notion that scholarship existed wholly apart from politics to the equally silly position that everything we did had the very gravest political significance. We fell into what I call academic autism: close your eyes tight, recite the mantra of race-class-gender, and social problems will disappear.”
The question for Gates here is not whether students see themselves reflected in what Rosaldo calls “the curricular mirror” but whether such questions are properly political in the first place. Curricula may be, in some sense, political, but in such a highly mediated and complex fashion that the activist commitment to canon reform becomes a kind of delusion locating political efficacy where it does not exist. That is why Gates uses, derisively, the word “mantra": He thinks that the excessive, even melodramatic, emphasis on discourse is a kind of magical thinking — like “mood rings and Earth Shoes.” I had to look up “Earth Shoes": From Denmark, they were a faddish ‘70s product whose “negative heel technology” was supposed to have all manner of health benefits.
Check in on what was happening in 1990 by visiting the Times’s “A Campus Forum on Multiculturalism” here.
- “‘They did not wait to bury the teaching with the teacher,’ Jaffa recalled his father saying. ‘What they are trying to do is put a top hat on Jefferson Davis and call it Abraham Lincoln and the dust cover of the Nicomachean Ethics on Atlas Shrugged and call it Aristotle.’” In the Washington Post, Marc Fisher and Isaac Stanley-Becker with an in-depth report on the state of the Claremont Institute.
- “In terms of media ecology, Trump’s ascension completed the Occupy Wall Street movement, but on a different demographic basis.” In City Journal, Andrey Mir on how the evaporation of media advertising revenue polarized the press — and the public.
- “But when I get back to my desk later that afternoon, I am reluctant to open the document. The next day, when I finally do, I see that the magnitude of Bello’s plagiarism is on a scale worse than I imagined.” In Air Mail, Johanna Berkman on the rise and fall of Jumi Bello, compulsive plagiarist.
- “The hosts believe the institution’s mystique allows fundamentally political actors to masquerade as enlightened and neutral arbiters.” In the New York Times, Reggie Ugwu writes about the podcasters behind “5-4.” The program’s longstanding skepticism of the Supreme Court is shared by an ever-larger share of the public. (For what this skepticism means for law schools, see Aziz Huq and Jon Michaels’s recent Review essay, “Law Schools Have a Supreme Court Problem.”)
Write to me at email@example.com.