Pressure To Be `Pc' Is Restricting Course Content At Universities

While the uproar over speech codes and other formal attempts to regulate opinion on campus has died down, pressure on faculty and students to stay within "politically correct" bounds is increasingly restricting course content and classroom discussions, many professors say.

Tenured faculty who have nothing to fear in material terms are limiting what they teach and how they teach it simply to avoid the unpleasantness of clashes with the "PC cops," according to scholars who believe the exclusion of some, largely conservative, ideas is hurting academia.

Self-censorship, they say, is particularly acute among junior faculty and students who are not affiliated with advocacy organizations that provide support either on the left or right.

Reports abound of respected professors who are avoiding teaching "agenda-issue" classes - those in which discussions of race, gender and sexual preference are most likely to arise.

"This is an issue that is very widely discussed," says Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, "but it is discussed in hushed tones. People don't want to be out front on the issue, and the education of the students is suffering."

Dershowitz said some female students told him recently they were considering charging him with sexual harassment for creating an atmosphere hostile to women during two days of classroom work on the situation of men falsely accused of rape.

The experience is unlikely to intimidate Dershowitz, who is

widely known for his defense of free speech and his combativeness, but he and many other professors say there is a widespread effort among faculty members to ensure they are never caught in such a situation.

Glenn Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, said he was recently contacted by a friend at Harvard who was planning a course on the economics of black America. Loury is a black conservative; his friend is white.

The friend "decided - wisely, I thought - not to talk about slavery in the course - despite the huge body of literature on slavery - because it's a minefield of these traps where you get up and try to present the evidence and analysis and you run the risk of giving offense, being misunderstood," Loury said. "It's a lot more trouble than it's worth."

Similarly, Dershowitz tells of "a young friend who teaches at an elite law school, and who refuses to teach criminal law. He doesn't want to get involved in a situation where everything he says will expose him to charges of racism and sexism. . . . So he teaches torts," which isn't controversial.

Though most observers say that extremists of both the left and right would like to make certain assertions and hypotheses taboo on campus, many see greater danger coming from the left because of the difference in tactics between the two sides.

Says Christopher Ricks, a professor of English literature and authority on T.S. Eliot who teaches at BU and at Balliol College, Oxford: "Conservatives say, `Of course you're not free to say whatever you want; at least we're honest about it.' Liberals say you are free to say what you want, but don't mean it, and try to limit what you say by applying peer group pressure."

The hypocrisy of the politically correct left, Ricks said, is illustrated by its differing reactions to the anti-Semitism of Eliot and that of Paul de Man, a Yale professor and leading light among left-wing literary critics, who was unmasked as a Nazi collaborator.

"Eliot's anti-Semitism was considered deeply vulgar because he was a figure of the right," Ricks said, while for de Man, "every excuse under the sun was offered" to explain away his prejudices.

"Something has gone wrong when people" - widely known as "PC cops" by observers - "say only whites can be racist, only men can be sexist, only the right practices censorship," Ricks said.

MIT linguistics professor Noam A. Chomsky thinks observers and critics of the PC wars generally have things backward.

"There is a major right-wing takeover of the ideological system that is quite extreme," Chomsky said. "That's the major thing, and if we were serious, we would use the term political correctness to refer to this."

Chomsky said that while the left PC has produced "quite unconscionable stuff - constraints on free speech that shouldn't be allowed, nonsense about how we have to abandon `white man's science' - this is on the fringes of a quite positive, healthy expansion of moral concern."

Pointing to the proliferation, since the mid-1970s, of think tanks and faculty positions endowed by conservative foundations, Chomsky asserted that constraints on speech and thought imposed by the right are far more effective than those from the left.

"Every major college has a lavishly funded, abusive, extreme right-wing newspaper," Chomsky points out. "There's nothing like that on the left. If there's been a left-wing takeover of the culture, how come everyone's attacking it? You would think some commissar would stop that."

Boston University President John Silber said, "There would be no reason to attack the PC people unless they were powerful and effective. Chomsky's statement refutes itself."

Unlike other critical observers of PC pressures, Silber thinks "the high tide of political correctness has been reached and it is rapidly being reduced to the absurdity that it is. As people begin increasingly to laugh at it, its influence will diminish further."

Despite some differences of opinion over the nature of efforts to control the intellectual environment on campuses, there is broad agreement on several points. One is that considerations of political correctness run deeper in the academic enterprise than has been reported; another is that the media bear significant blame for the deterioration of discourse.

Camille Paglia, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia whose book "Sexual Personae" two years ago catapulted her into the front rank of the opponents of political correctness, said that "when people say the media has exaggerated the problem of PC, that's nonsense. The media hasn't begun to report the depth of the problem with PC."

One of the most sought-after and most vilified speakers on the campus lecture circuit, Paglia says she sees demoralized faculty everywhere she goes. "Everyone is exhausted from the left-vs.-right battles," she said. "People are afraid to speak out because they know they will be abused. They're walking on eggshells."

Ricks feels that competition among universities and among faculty members to be stars, "to be able to say `we are important, we get talked about,' " has made institutions and individuals alike susceptible to pressure to be politically correct.

There are three types of faculty on campus these days, says Christina H. Sommers, a veteran anti-PC warrior and professor of philosophy at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.: sincere missionaries of an ideological line, careerists and skeptics.

"The careerists find it essential to go along with the missionaries. The skeptics are disorganized, in complete disarray - though they are many, a silent majority," she says. "The men have all run for cover."

While Loury, the BU economist, says considerations of political correctness are affecting the campus environment for the worse, he also believes this is a stage the academy must go through, and that the debate may be becoming more constructive.

"People say it's McCarthyism. Well, what was McCarthyism? There had been real compromising of the national interest" that empowered conservative anticommunists but ultimately created excessive pressure for a rigidly defined patriotism.

Similarly, he said, the empowerment of women, blacks and other groups on campus was bound to lead to some excessive pressure for conformity to those groups' notions. "That," Loury said, "is the backdrop against which the PC discussion is taking place."