Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus

Comment: Though written in 1991 this article is absolutely prophetic as to the current landscape of American universities.

A review of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus by Dinesh D'Souza

[A] cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; these... are the objects of a University.
-John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852)

The idea that the curriculum should be converted to any partisan purposes is a perversion of the ideal of the university. The objective of converting the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation (leftist, rightist, centrist, or whatever) is the very opposite of higher education.
-John Searle, "The Storm Over the Universities" (1991)

It was not long ago that these preeminently liberal propositions drawn from Cardinal Newman and the philosopher John Searle could have been embraced as mottos by the American academic establishment. This is not to say that our institutions of higher education necessarily lived up to the ideal that Newman enunciated, or that they always avoided the perversion against which Professor Searle warns. But the ability to recognize an ideal as an ideal, or a perversion as a perversion, had not yet atrophied. Indeed, until quite recently there was robust agreement about the intellectual and moral purpose of a liberal-arts education. Above all, there was a shared commitment to the ideal of disinterested scholarship devoted to the preservation and transmission of knowledge, pursued in a community free from ideological intimidation. If one fell short of the ideal, the ideal nevertheless continued to command respect and allegiance.

There is perhaps no more dramatic index of the disaster that has befallen liberal-arts education in this country than the contempt in which the new academic orthodoxy holds this constellation of ideas about the nature and goals of higher education. It would be difficult to overstate the resulting intellectual carnage. Because the degradation of education implies the degradation of the future, "disaster" may be too weak a word. Everything about Newman's description-from its lucid diction and lofty tone to its praise of the dispassionate cultivation of the intellect -is an object of derision in the academy today. Likewise, Professor Searle's insistence that the curriculum not be reduced to a tool for partisan propaganda, "leftist, rightist, centrist, or whatever," is now widely derided as hopelessly naïve or insidiously reactionary.

It would be difficult to overstate the resulting intellectual carnage.

Are there exceptions? Yes, of course. But they are increasingly just that, exceptions. Those dominating the discussion are committed to discrediting the ideal of disinterestedness and injecting politics into the heart of the educational enterprise. The recent, much-publicized controversy over attempts to enforce "politically correct" thinking on American campuses in the name of multiculturalism underscores the extent to which higher education has been transformed into a species of ideological indoctrination-a continuation of politics by other means. Anyone still harboring doubts is invited to try the experiment of proposing the gist of either of my epigraphs to the humanities faculty at any major college or university in the country. There may be a handful of professors who will agree privately-some will whisper their support afterwards if no one is looking-but most will sit in abject silence as you are informed by their politically correct colleagues that these ideas are reactionary, white, male, elitist, Western, and exclusionary, not to say outmoded. If the institution is up-to-date, you may even be directed to a sensitivity training class in order that you might avoid such gaffes in the future.

What has happened? The new academic elite-the tenured or soon-to-be-tenured radicals now controlling our most prestigious humanities departments-will tell you not to worry, that nothing has happened that need concern parents, trustees, alumni, government or private funding sources. On the issue of enforcing politically correct behavior on campus, for example, they will assure you that the whole thing has been overblown by "conservative" journalists who can't appreciate that the free exchange of ideas must sometimes be curtailed for the higher virtue of protecting the feelings of designated victim groups. And the curriculum, they will say, has not been politicized, it has merely been democratized: opened up to reflect the differing needs and standards of groups and ideas hitherto insufficiently represented in the academy. You are not against democracy, are you?

While the cynical and self-justifying arguments oozing out of the academy seem to satisfy those making them, the truth is far more dismaying than our new academic mandarins let on. What we are facing is nothing less than the destruction of the fundamental premises that underlie both our conception of liberal education and a liberal democratic polity. Respect for rationality and the rights of the individual, a commitment to the ideals of disinterested criticism, color-blind justice, and advancement according to merit, not according to sex, race, or ethnic origin: these quintessentially Western ideas are the bedrock of our political as well as our educational system. And they are precisely the ideas that are now under attack by bien pensants academics intoxicated with the thought of their own virtue. As the distinguished historian Jacques Barzun observes in Begin Here- a new collection of essays and addresses on education that displays the uncommon virtue of great common sense- "The current obscurantism, which attacks the Western tradition with the zeal of censorship, comes not from those supposedly unrepresented in the curriculum, but from academics and other intellectuals who are represented and hate their own heritage."1 In the context of this fashionable variety of intellectual self-hatred, Professor Barzun goes on to note the "moral suicide" taking place in American higher education; since the victims include students as well as faculty, we may speak of something akin to "moral homicide" as well.

With the publication of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus2, Dinesh D'Souza takes his place as one of the most important critics of these trends in the academy. A native of India, Mr. D'Souza came to this country in 1978. He was graduated from Dartmouth College in 1983 (where, incidentally, he was an editor of that notorious bane of politically correct liberals, The Dartmouth Review), and is currently a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

As its subtitle suggests, Illiberal Education focuses primarily on the way racial politics and feminism have transformed the intellectual and social life of American higher education. In the course of eight chapters, Mr. D'Souza examines recent changes in admission policies that favor minorities, the multiculturalist effort to discredit and replace the traditional curriculum, the rise of racial and ethnic separatism on campus, preferential hiring policies for minorities and women, and efforts to restrict free speech in the name of ethnic sensitivity and political rectitude.

While Mr. D'Souza has garnered evidence from dozens of institutions, he concentrates on incidents and policies at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, Howard University, the University of Michigan, Duke, and Harvard. He visited campuses, conducted interviews with faculty and students, canvassed course catalogues and student newspapers, and dug into the background of various academic controversies. His main thesis is that there has been (in the words of the title of his first chapter) a "victim's revolution on campus," a revolution undertaken in the name of freedom and diversity but whose chief effects have been the enforcement of intellectual conformity, a destruction of academic standards, and a revival of brutish ethnic tensions. As always, the real victims are the students bamboozled by the new academic radicalism. As Mr. D'Souza notes in an eloquent summary near the end of his book,
by the time these students graduate, very few colleges have met their need for all-round development. Instead, by precept and example, universities have taught them that "all rules are unjust" and "all preferences are principled"; that justice is simply the will of the stronger party; that standards and values are arbitrary, and the ideal of the educated person is largely a figment of bourgeois white male ideology, which should be cast aside; that individual rights are a red flag signaling social privilege, and should be subordinated to the claims of group interest; that all knowledge can be reduced to politics and should be pursued not for its own sake but for the political end of power; that convenient myths and benign lies can substitute for truth; that double standards are acceptable as long as they are enforced to the benefit of minority victims; that debates are best conducted not by rational and civil exchange of ideas, but by accusation, intimidation, and official prosecution; that the university stands for nothing in particular and has no claim to be exempt from outside pressures; and that the multiracial society cannot be based on fair rules that apply to every person, but must rather be constructed through a forced rationing of power among separatist racial groups. In short, instead of liberal education, what American students are getting is its diametrical opposite, an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance, which is to say, illiberal education.
Many of the examples, arguments, academic figures, and case studies presented in Illiberal Education will be familiar to anyone who has followed the controversy over the fate of higher education in this country: the replacement of a required course in Western civilization at Stanford with a multicultural smorgasbord, the antics of the Duke English department, and so on. But if Mr. D'Souza covers well-trod ground, he and his researchers have been diligent in following up on controversies reported elsewhere and in assembling additional supporting examples and evidence. The liability of this approach is that it sometimes makes the book read like a collection of news clippings (and in this context one must note that Mr. D'Souza is generally stronger when reciting evidence than when analyzing the intellectual movements they represent). Nevertheless, in its sheer accumulation of data, Illiberal Education is indispensable reading for anyone hoping to understand the cultural revolution that is transforming American campuses from institutions devoted to learning into "institutional grievance factories."

Throughout his saga, Mr. D'Souza's tone is cheerfully moderate; he often pauses to note the unsatisfied idealism he discovered in students, or the good intentions and pathos of the professors and administrators he interviewed. About motives, anyway, he seems always willing to give his interlocutors the benefit of the doubt. About results he is not so forgiving. While he has produced a casebook, not a polemic, the picture he paints is a deeply melancholy one. In providing a bestiary of contemporary campus life, Mr. D'Souza has chronicled the intellectual and moral degradation of a great liberal institution. "A new world view is consolidating itself," he notes in his first chapter. It is a world view in which the battle for ethnic and sexual redress trumps the battle for truth, in which group prerogatives have precedence over individual rights, and in which notions like excellence, merit, and quality are subverted by an effort to legislate virtue.

Even those who are well acquainted with the current academic Kulturkampf will find Mr. D'Souza's narrative chilling. Because even now many observers in and out of the academy persist in arguing that things aren't as bad or as widespread as critics have maintained, it is worth retailing in some detail a handful of his most illustrative examples. A large part of Mr. D'Souza's story is about affirmative action run wild. Writing about admissions policies, for example, he notes that "Virtually all American universities have changed their admissions rules so that they now fill a sizable portion of their freshman class each year with students from certified minority groups-mainly blacks and Hispanics-who have considerably lower grade-point averages and standardized test scores than white and Asian American applicants who are refused admission."

Mr. D'Souza provides numerous examples of the results of this scramble for minority candidates. Florida Atlantic University offers free tuition to every black student who is admitted, while at Pennsylvania State University black students who maintain a grade point average of C to C+ get a cash bonus of $580 a year; if they do better, they receive $1,160; neither white nor other minority students are eligible for this reward. As one observer remarked, "Everybody wants a piece of these students. The competition for them has become very keen." A black graduate from Stanford was rejected from Harvard Law School only to receive a flurry of phone calls a few days later from embarrassed administrators who offered him admission: with your grades, they explained, "We assumed you were white."

Not surprisingly, there have also been numerous calls for revising the Scholastic Aptitude Tests and other objective measurements of accomplishment in order to make them less culturally "elitist." A professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee whom Mr. D'Souza quotes epitomizes this attitude: "when you see the word 'qualifications' used, remember that this is the new code word for whites." And what is meant by an alternative to traditional "white" academic "qualifications" (the ability to read, write, and compute fluently, a good stock of general historical and literary knowledge, etc.)? James Loewen of Catholic. University is among those charging that the standardized tests are biased, and he offers the following multiple choice question as an example of what would be more comprehensible to blacks seeking admission to college:
Saturday Ajax got an LD:

(a) He had smoked too much grass
(b) He tripped out on drugs
(c) He brought her to his apartment
(d) He showed it off to his fox
(e) He became wised up
I wonder if one could contrive a more patronizing question-or one more demeaning to serious black students?

In his discussion of changes in admission policies, Mr. D'Souza concentrates on the University of California at Berkeley, the premier campus of the California system and a leader-if "leader" is the appropriate term -in granting preferential treatment to applicants on the basis of skin color and ethnic origin. What Ira Michael Heyman, former Chancellor of the University and one of the architects of Berkeley's aggressive affirmative-action campaign, called "a little social engineering to reach deeply felt needs" has produced a situation in which black and Hispanic students are up to twenty times more likely to be accepted than Asian Americans who have the same academic qualifications. To appreciate what Berkeley's policy means, consider this comment from Donald Werner, headmaster of Westminster Prep School in New Haven, Connecticut.
The University of California at Berkeley made decisions on two of our students, both Californians. Student A was ranked in the top third of his class, student B in the bottom third. Student A had college board scores totaling 1,290; student B's scores totaled 890. Student A had a record of good citizenship; student B was expelled this winter for breaking a series of major school rules. Student A was white; student B was black. Berkeley refused student A and accepted student B.
As Mr. D'Souza observes, "a program that began as a campaign to eliminate race as a factor in decision making has come to enforce race as a factor in decision making." It is also worth noting that, at Berkeley and elsewhere, there is a kind of "intramural" hierarchy established within particular minorities such that some are regarded as more victimized, and hence more attractive, than others. Thus one gets more virtue points for Latinos than for Spaniards, more for Filipinos than for other Asians.

Of course, such aggressive affirmative action cannot stop with admission. Because most of the minority students recruited under affirmative-action initiatives are poorly prepared, they tend to perform poorly and have a much, much higher dropout rate than whites or Asians. Moreover, as Mr. D'Souza points out, their inability to compete effectively tends to foster separatism and ethnic "balkanization." Universities across the country are lowering standards and offering all manner of inducements in order to acquire an impressive portfolio of minority students. This may help them meet various guidelines for affirmative action, and it may allow them to "celebrate" their "difference," but it is not at all clear that it helps the students themselves. Indeed, Mr. D'Souza correctly observes that "American universities are quite willing to sacrifice the future happiness of many young blacks and Hispanics to achieve diversity, proportional representation and what they consider multicultural progress." In their effort to achieve equality of result, universities have trampled on the idea of scholarly merit as well as on the ideal of equality of opportunity. Not only is this unfair to the students who are systematically excluded for reasons other than merit, it is also unfair to the recruited minorities as well, who turn out to be casualties of the effort to legislate virtue.

Affirmative-action thinking is also rife in other aspects of academic life, with similarly dismal and divisive results. It has helped transform the curriculum-leading to the inclusion of many works solely because they were produced by authors of the requisite skin color, ethnic heritage, sex, or sexual orientation-and is increasingly affecting hiring and advancement policies as universities across the country compete with each other to fulfill affirmative-action quotas. The Duke administration-to take one typical example -recently adopted a new policy that requires every department and program in the university to hire at least one new black teacher by 1993. (Ah, Duke! Where else would we find the provost teaching a course in "feminism and botany"?) Here again, demographics is a great problem. According to data that Mr. D'Souza cites, in 1987 half of the 780 Ph.D.s awarded to blacks were in education or related fields. That year, there was one-one -Ph.D. awarded to a black in computer science, three were awarded in chemical engineering, fourteen in economics, three in political science, two in philosophy, four in religion. In 1988 there were no Ph.D.s awarded to blacks in several fields, including classics, botany, European history, comparative literature, Russian, and astrophysics. These statistics are indeed distressing. But, here as elsewhere, exchanging truth for a palatable lie is not the answer to social problems.

Troubling though the metastasis of affirmative-action thinking in the academy is, in some ways even more appalling is the much noted assault on free speech that is being waged on campuses across the country. Once again, we see an abridgment of fundamental liberal principles in the name of "diversity," "difference," and "pluralism." Mr. D'Souza is absolutely right that "hostility to free expression in the name of race and gender sensitivities is now the norm, not the exception, on the American campus." With legislation that is utterly typical, the University of Connecticut has outlawed "harassment," defined as "all remarks that offend or stigmatize women or minorities," including "the use of derogatory names," "inconsiderate jokes," "misdirected laughter," and even "conspicuous exclusion from conversation." Penalties range from reprimand to expulsion. In a breathtaking example of academic virtue-mongering, the university officials can propose such moralistic legislation in one breath and then go on to note in the next that will make no effort to restrict sexual behavior because "the university shall not regard itself as the arbiter or enforcer of the morals of its students." That is, it shall regard itself as the arbiter or enforcer of the morals of students only on certain politically correct issues.

Other examples abound. Mr. D'Souza reports that an editor of a student newspaper at UCLA was relieved of his post for publishing controversial material "without permission," while at Evergreen State College in Washington a student editor was suspended from a campus newspaper for "lack of coverage" of minority and ethnic issues. At Harvard, a law professor was upbraided by feminists because he illustrated a legal concept in his textbook on contracts with two lines from Byron's Don Juan: "A little still she strove, and much repented, / And whispering, I will ne'er consent'-consented." This, you see, is unfair to women because it encourages rape. Mr. D'Souza does not say whether these feminists also wished to burn Byron's works. They certainly went after the law professor. What is most disturbing is that Harvard officials, far from taking the professor's side, issued various pusillanimous statements warning against "alienating messages" and so on. The situation-is it Orwellian or Kafkaesque?-occasionally waxes so bizarre that it seems almost funny. Tufts has decreed that the speech of its students and faculty will henceforth be regulated according to zone: In public areas, speech is unregulated; in classrooms, libraries, and dining halls, "derogatory and demeaning speech" is subject to punitive action; and in dormitories, offensive remarks held to violate a student's "right to privacy" are liable to punishment. Students have dubbed these zones the "Free Speech Zone," the "Limited Speech Zone," and the "Twilight Zone."

What we are witnessing on our campuses is a tyrannical combination of extreme license with an almost puritanical censorship. Reflecting on the new demand for intellectual conformity, Donald Kagan, Dean of Yale College, notes that he "was a student during the days of McCarthy, and there is less freedom now than there was then." It is a strange situation. All indications are that American society is far more tolerant of diversity now than at any time in the past. Yet in their zeal to nominate themselves as victims of a repressive society, our academic radicals pretend to find sexism, racism, elitism, "heterosexualism," and various other "isms" everywhere. Thus we have Donna Shalala, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, claiming that "The university is institutionally racist. American society is racist and sexist. Covert racism is just as bad today as overt racism was thirty years ago." In addition to being grossly irresponsible (especially in the mouth of a university president), such unfounded charges of racism, sexism, and so on make it all the more difficult to discern or criticize the real thing when it does occur. As the philosopher Sidney Hook observed in his review of the onslaught of multiculturalism at Stanford,
morally offensive as is the expression of racism wherever it is found, a false charge of racism is equally offensive, perhaps even more so, because the consequences of a false charge of racism enable an authentic racist to conceal his racism by exploiting the loose way the term is used to cover up his actions. The same is true of a false charge of sexism or anti-Semitism. This is the lesson we should all have learned from the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because of his false and irresponsible charges of communism against liberals, socialists, and others among his critics, many communists and agents of communist influence sought to pass themselves off as Jeffersonian democrats or merely idealistic reformers. They would all complain they were victims of red-baiting to prevent criticism and exposure.
Mr. D'Souza locates the origin of the academy's problems in the ethos of victimhood. "By converting victimhood into a certificate of virtue," he writes, "minorities acquire a powerful moral claim that renders their opponents defensive and apologetic, and immunizes themselves from criticism and sanction." As we see on campuses across the country, the elevation of victimhood into a sign of political and moral election has converted victim status into a weapon that students, faculty, and administrators use to stifle debate and enforce intellectual conformity. Mr. D'Souza's courageous and clear-eyed examination has provided us with an astute anatomy of this phenomenon and its baneful effects on liberal learning. But it is not clear that the "victim's revolution" he discerns is itself the cause of the university's embrace of what he calls "illiberal education." Behind the cult of victimhood is the insinuation of a Sixties-style radicalism into the center of academic life. It is this radicalism that is primarily responsible for the attack on the curriculum and the rise of politically correct thinking. Mr. D'Souza laments that "the middle ground seems to have disappeared as a consequence of ideological fracas and polarization." But the point is that "the middle ground" is now occupied by radicals, which is one reason that the traditional ideals of a liberal-arts education can be blithely disparaged as "conservative."

The issue is not the politics of this or that individual but the attempt to politicize education tout court, the attempt, as John Searle put it, to convert the curriculum "into an instrument of social transformation." Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a much-courted black professor of literature who is moving from Duke University to Harvard next semester, was quite frank about the nature of this political ambition. "Ours was the generation that took over buildings in the late 1960s and demanded the creation of Black and Women's Studies programs," he wrote recently in The New Tork Times, "and now ... we have come back to challenge the traditional curriculum." A professor from Middlebury College whom Mr. D'Souza cites was even bolder: "Now we have tenure and the work of reshaping the university has begun in earnest."

The noble goal of Mr. D'Souza's book is to reclaim higher education for a pluralistic democracy. This means reclaiming for the academy the ideals of advancement according to merit, color-blind justice, and the rights of the individual. It means resuscitating the ideals of rational inquiry and disinterested judgment as the strongest bulwarks against parti pris indoctrination. Critics warn that we must prepare for the multicultural society of the future by "democratizing" excellence. But the United States has always been a diverse, multicultural society. The best way to preserve equality and liberty in the future will be the same as it has always been: by rewarding merit and doing everything possible to insure equality of opportunity. As Mr. D'Souza observes, "High standards do not discriminate against anyone except those who fail to meet them."