Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Political Correctness Run Amok: A Case Study

If you haven't already seen it, Charlotte Allen's November 12 cover story for The Weekly Standard is a must read. In fascinating detail, Ms. Allen describes the decline and fall of Antioch College in Ohio. According to her analysis, this situation was caused to a large extent by a campus climate of political correctness that makes the typical Ivy League school look like Hillsdale College:

A July 20 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Ralph Keyes, author of the bestselling Is There Life After High School? and a 1967 graduate of Antioch who moved with his family back to Yellow Springs some 20 years ago, described similar adventures by Antioch students in the intimidation of people who do not share their views. Keyes took pains to reassure the Chronicle's readers that he himself had been proudly "left-wing" as an Antioch student, but he also detailed a once-tolerant campus culture that had deteriorated since his student days into "insults, name-calling, and profanity." As Keyes described it (and others connected to the campus corroborate his observations), Antioch students regularly engaged, both inside and outside their classrooms, in the practice of "calling out" (public humiliation followed by social ostracism) their classmates for even the most trivial violations of an unwritten campus code of ideological propriety. One of the called-out was a Polish exchange student who had made the mistake of using the now-taboo word "Eskimos" instead of "Inuit" in reference to Alaskan aboriginals. Another called-out student had worn Nike sneakers, verboten among the radically sensitive because they are supposedly products of Indonesian sweatshop labor (the Nike-wearer was so demoralized by his treatment that he transferred). Keyes lamented what he called the "crack-house décor" of Antioch's student union, whose second floor features a 30-foot wall of student-painted graffiti with themes and language running the gamut from revolutionary to obscene. The Antioch school "uniform" for many students seems to consist of as many tattoos and piercings as the human dermis can hold (a tattoo parlor in downtown Yellow Springs looks designed to accommodate this student fashion statement).


You might call the current sad state of Antioch College death by political correctness. The rigorous academic programs that fostered Nobel laureates such as Capecchi are no more: Antioch scrapped its 40-odd traditional majors in 1996 in favor of eight vaguely delineated interdisciplinary programs that allow the students themselves to design their courses of study. The civic activism of yore--registering African American voters, starting a proto-Peace Corps--gave way to in-your-face street theater at shopping malls. It has been a long, slow death, and it would be unfair (although certainly tempting) to blame the current crop of students for the pending demise of their alma mater. The blame might be more fairly placed on four decades of decisions made by Antioch College faculty and administrators in the name of keeping Antioch at the forefront of "progressive" academic fashion, which led inexorably to today's campus nearly bereft of students and treasury nearly bereft of funds.

The July 2007 Chronicle piece from Ralph Keyes is available on his web site (link in PDF). It is worth quoting at length to illustrate just how intolerant the campus climate has become:

Compared with students David and I had seen on our college tour, Antiochians now struck me as more bizarre than bohemian. Nor did their campus culture seem as understandable as the one I'd been part of from 1962 to 1967. I remembered Antioch as a lively, demanding institution, full of contentious students and professors. Many, including myself, were ardent left-wingers. Others stood elsewhere on the political spectrum. As we understood it, one's political convictions were beside Antioch's point. Its emphasis was on thinking for one's self and keeping an open mind. "Re-evaluate your basic assumptions in the light of new evidence" was a campus cliché. I felt constantly challenged to justify my points of view. But I didn't assume that reassessing those views would move me left. It might move me to the right, or toward the center, or nowhere at all.

The Antioch Muriel and I returned to did not emphasize that kind of open inquiry. The assumed endpoint was always to one's left. As a result, Antioch's emphasis had gone from searching for the truth to propagating the truth, from asking questions to teaching answers. One alum told me of asking a women's-studies professor at Antioch if she ever assigned Camille Paglia. The professor recoiled, saying "I wouldn't!" Why not? "Because she's the enemy."

In promotional pieces, Antioch billed itself as a "progressive" institution. Accepted applicants were invited to share notes on an online message board called "Radical Chat." Inevitably Antioch's appeal narrowed to an increasingly esoteric group of progressive-alternative students. When a longtime history professor reminded colleagues that Antioch was a college, not a "boot camp for the revolution," students began wearing Boot Camp for the Revolution T-shirts. Eventually this became a campus credo.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Antioch is, in short, a case study of what happens when the principle of free inquiry is replaced by a commitment to radical leftist politics and social activism. Once it became clear that those not sharing such views were no longer welcome on campus, the institution gradually marginalized itself and went into decline. Considering the number of people who want to make radical politics a litmus test for librarianship, this is a lesson that librarians would do well to keep in mind.

Allen's essay was prompted by an announcement that Antioch would cease operations at the end of the 2007-08 academic year. Since then, the school has announced that it will continue offering classes to current students, though this will "require the closing of some facilities, a reduction of faculty and staff, and the curtailment of some student services that are currently offered to give the College the necessary time to address the facilities and curriculum."

While this is good news, it is still a long way from solving the college's problems. Unless Antioch stops being an ideological conveyor belt for the radical left and returns to being an institution devoted to free inquiry, it will continue to be insignificant and marginalized.


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