Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses by Paul BermanDebating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses by Paul Berman

Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses

EditorPaul Berman

Paperback | January 4, 1995

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The debate over "P.C." at America's universities is the most important discussion in American education today and has grown into a major national controversy raging on the covers of our top magazines and news shows. This provocative anthology gives voice to the top thinkers of our time, liberal and conservative, as they tackle the question. From the multicultural perspective of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who argues passionately for more diversity, to the erudition of Irving Howe, who stresses the profound value of the literary canon, this exciting collection is required reading for thinking Americans . . . and for everyone concerned with the future of higher education and the shaping of young minds.

Contents include:

“The Big Chill? Interview with Dinesh D’Souza” by Robert MacNeil
“On Differences: Modern Language Association Presidential Address 1990” by Catharine R. Stimpson
“The Periphery v. the Center: The MLA in Chicago” by Roger Kimball
“The Storm over the University” by John Searle
“Public Imaged Limited: Political Correctness and the Media’s Big Lie” by Michael Berubé
“The Value of the Canon” by Irving Howe
“The Politics of Knowledge” by Edward W. Said
“Whose Canon Is It, Anyway?” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Why Do We Read?” by Katha Pollitt
“’Speech Codes’ on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech” by Nat Hentoff
“Freedom of Hate Speech” by Richard Perry and Patricia Williams
“There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too” by Stanley Fish
“The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus” by Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano
“Radical English” by George F. Will
“Critics of Attempts to Democratize the Curriculum Are Waging a Campaign to Misrepresent the Work of Responsible Professors” by Paula Rothenberg
“Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures” by Diane Ravitch
“Multiculturalism: An Exchange” by Molefi Kete Asante
“The Prospect Before Us” by Hilton Kramer
“P.C. Rider” by Enrique Fernández
“Diverse New World” by Cornel West
“The Challenge for the Left” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Paul Berman is the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight of the Intellectuals, A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, and Power and the Idealists. He writes for The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and The New York Times Magazine.
Title:Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College CampusesFormat:PaperbackDimensions:356 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 0.75 inPublished:January 4, 1995Publisher:Random House Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385315333

ISBN - 13:9780385315333


Read from the Book

INTRODUCTION: THE DEBATE AND ITS ORIGINS     I.   The national debate over “political correctness” began in the fall of 1990 with a small, innocuous-seeming article in The New York Times—and within a few months was plastered across the covers of Newsweek, The Atlantic, New York, The New Republic, and The Village Voice, not to mention the TV news-talk shows and the newspaper op-ed pages. George Bush himself, not otherwise known as a university intellectual or a First Amendment hard-liner, weighed in with a speech at the University of Michigan defending campus freedoms against “politically correct” censors. Dinesh D’Souza’s book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus rose to the best seller list. The PEN American Center in New York held a major symposium, and the intellectual journal Partisan Review, a conference. Every ideology known on earth, plus a few others, was invoked in this debate, which made it hard to tell exactly what was under dispute. Yet at its heart, the debate consisted of only a few main points.   These points were by and large accusations, made at first by neoconservatives, later by liberals and a number of old-school leftists. According to the accusations, a new postmodern generation from the 1960s has come into power in the universities, mostly in the humanities departments but also in the central administrations. The postmodern professors promote a strange radical ideology that decries the United States and the West as hopelessly oppressive and that focuses on the reactionary prejudices of Western culture.   The new ideology tends toward nihilism, erasing any distinction between truth and falsity and between quality and lack of quality in art. Guided by these ideas, the postmodern professors have set out to undermine the traditional study of literature and the humanities. In the eyes of their accusers, they have reduced literary criticism to a silly obsession with political questions that don’t belong to literature, and to a weird concern with sexual questions. In some cases they have gotten their students to study cheap products of Marxist and feminist propaganda instead of the masterpieces of world literature. They fan the flames of ethnic and sexual discontent among the students.   But the worst thing they do, according to the accusations, the thing that arouses so much angry resentment, is generate an atmosphere of campus repression. In the name of “sensitivity” to others and under pain of being denounced as a sexist or racist, the postmodern radicals require everyone around them to adhere to their own codes of speech and behavior. Professors and students who remain outside the new movement have to walk on eggshells, ever reminding themselves to say “high school women” instead of “high school girls” or a hundred other politically incorrect phrases. Already the zealots of political correctness have intimidated a handful of well-respected professors into dropping courses that touch on controversial topics. They have succeeded in imposing official speech codes on a large number of campuses. And the resulting atmosphere—the prissiness of it, the air of caution that many people in academic settings have adopted, the new habit of using one language in private and a different and euphemistic one in public—has finally come to resemble, according to the accusers, the odious McCarthy era of the 1950s. Except this time the intimidation originates on the left.   The main accusation is summed up by the title of a 1986 article from Commentary magazine: “The Campus: ‘An Island of Repression in a Sea of Freedom’ ” (by Chester E. Finn, Jr.). But there are secondary accusations too. The repression, bad enough in the universities, is said to be spreading to the museums, where the political slant of the new ideas has a disastrous effect on art, and to the cultural journalism of a beleaguered politically correct city like Boston. And still worse, the same trends have made the fatal leap to the curriculum committees of public school education.   New curricular developments emphasizing hyperethnicity, Afrocentrism, and other notions of the avant-garde have been adopted in quite a few school districts around the country and are on the verge of being adopted in some of the major states, with effects that, in the view of the critics, can be predicted to be calamitous. There is going to be a deliberate miseducation of children from impoverished backgrounds. The educational emphasis on ethnic distinctions and the suspicion of American democratic institutions are going to wear down the bonds that hold the country together. And sooner or later, according to these accusations, problems that are political and social, not just educational, will come of all this, and the United States will break up into a swarm of warring Croatias and Serbias. “Deculturation prefigures disintegration,” in James Atlas’s sardonic phrase.   All in all, these were very exotic accusations, which made them interesting—but also easy to doubt, as some of P.C.’s severest critics have frankly acknowledged. Any number of liberal and left wing professors instantly stood up to challenge the entire complaint and to scoff at the alarmist tone. (In a moment I will mention some aspects of that response.) Yet the accusations were not without a historical background. In some respects they have been with us for a decade or longer—ever since the engagé art critic Hilton Kramer used to scandalize the readers of The New York Times with his thunderings against the radical counterculture and the left. Elements of the argument surfaced in the national political discussion as early as 1984, when William Bennett, at that time the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, criticized the universities in a pamphlet called To Reclaim a Legacy.   Allan Bloom’s oddball best seller of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind, brought the debate to a wider public. Bennett’s conservative successor at the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne V. Cheney, produced a pamphlet of her own called Humanities in America—which was answered by the liberal members of the American Council of Learned Societies in their own pamphlet, Speaking for the Humanities. There was a national debate in 1988 about the curriculum at Stanford University and the merits of substituting “multiculturalism” for the traditional study of Western Civ. And the same argument took other forms—the debates over artists like Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe (accused respectively of blasphemy and obscenity) and over Yale University’s literary theorist, the late Paul de Man, whose secret life turned out postmortem to include a stint as a pro-Nazi book critic in German-occupied Belgium.   Aspects of the debate turned up in other countries too. There was a battle at Cambridge University in 1981 when university authorities more or less declined to make room for some of the new literary theories. France saw the biggest arguments of all—measured in ink spilled and probable influence (once the news of these arguments begins to spread into other languages), with the subjects ranging from the influence and politics of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to the new glass pyramid at the Louvre to the meaning of Third World revolution.   What was new, then, in the American controversy over political correctness in the early 1990s? A few things, certainly. The name was new. “Politically correct” was originally an approving phrase on the Leninist left to denote someone who steadfastly toed the party line. Then it evolved into “P.C.,” an ironic phrase among wised-up leftists to denote someone whose line-toeing fervor was too much to bear. Only in conjunction with the P.C. debate itself did the phrase get picked up by people who had no fidelity to radicalism at all, but who relished the nasty syllables for their twist of irony. Apart from this phrase, some of the particulars had a fresh aspect: the focus on campus speech codes, and the amusing experience of watching people on the right argue for the First Amendment and people on the left against it. The way that certain liberals and old-school leftists joined the neoconservatives in making several of the arguments was also new, and perhaps quite significant, since previous debates tended to observe a chaste division of left and right.   Yet at bottom, the P.C. debate was just a continuation of an argument that is more than a decade old. And the longevity of this argument, the way it keeps reappearing in different forms, growing instead of shrinking, producing best-selling books about university education every couple of years, its international dimension, the heat and fury—all this should tell us that something big and important is under discussion. How to specify that big and important thing is not so easy, though. The closer you examine the argument over political correctness, the more it begins to look like one of Paul de Man’s literary interpretations, where everything is a puzzle without a solution. No three people agree about the meaning of central terms like “deconstruction,” “difference,” “multiculturalism,” or “poststructuralism.” Every participant carries around his own definitions, the way that on certain American streets every person packs his own gun. And when you take these numberless definitions into consideration, the entire argument begins to look like … what?   I would say it looks like the Battle of Waterloo as described by Stendhal. A murky fog hangs over the field. Now and then a line of soldiers marches past. Who are they? Which army do they represent? They may be Belgian deconstructionists from Yale, or perhaps the followers of Lionel Trilling in exile from Columbia. Perhaps they are French mercenaries. It is impossible to tell. The fog thickens. Shots go off. The debate is unintelligible. But it is noisy!