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Against political correctness: a liberal’s cri de coeur

Even a half-century ago, the question of life’s meaning had a more central and respected place in higher education than it does today. Institutions of higher learning felt they had the right and duty to address, in an explicit and disciplined way, the question of how to spend one’s life, of what to care about and why, of which relations, projects, and pleasures are capable of giving life purpose and value. The responsibility for doing this fell in particular to the humanities.

The culture of political correctness has dominated the humanities for the past 40 years.

Since the 1960s, the humanities have largely abandoned this responsibility, under pressure from the modern research ideal. The result has been a deepening anxiety within these disciplines about the nature and value of their contribution to higher education. The culture of political correctness that has dominated the humanities for the past 40 years has sought to allay this anxiety by offering teachers of the humanities a new role as the champions of racial justice and other liberal values. These values are fundamental and worthy of support. But by converting them from political to pedagogical values, the humanities have not strengthened their authority but compromised it instead. The concept of diversity is a case in point.

Today’s defenders of diversity assume that the interpretive judgments of their students will differ according to their race, gender, and ethnicity. But at the same time they expect their students to share a commitment to the values of political liberalism on which the concept of diversity is based. These values may be the fairest and most durable foundation on which to build a political community. I believe they are. A legal and cultural environment marked by the freedoms that political liberalism affords may be the setting in which institutions of higher education are most likely to flourish. I think it is. But when a presumptive commitment to the values of political liberalism begins to constrain the exploration of the personal question of life’s meaning—when the expectation that everyone shares these values comes to place implicit limits on the alternatives that may be considered and how seriously they are to be taken—the enterprise itself loses much of its power and poignancy for the students involved and their teachers lose their authority to lead it.

Whatever fails to accord with the values of political liberalism fits uncomfortably within the range of possibilities that the prevailing conception of diversity permits students to acknowledge as serious contenders in the search for an answer to the first-personal question of what living is for. The political philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, with their easy acceptance of the natural inequality of humans, offend these values at every turn. So, too, does the theological tradition that runs from Augustine to Calvin, with its insistence on church authority and its doctrines of sin and grace. And much of poetry is motivated by an anti-democratic love of beauty and power.

Today’s idea of diversity is so limited that one might call it a sham diversity.

All of these ideas and experiences are suspect from the standpoint of liberal values. None represents the “right” kind of diversity. None is suitable as a basis for political life, and hence—here is the crucial step—none is suitable (respectable, acceptable, honorable) as a basis for personal life either. None, in the end, can perform any useful function other than as an illustration of the confused and intolerant views of those who had the misfortune to be born before the dawning of the light.

Today’s idea of diversity is so limited that one might with justification call it a sham diversity, whose real goal is the promotion of a moral and spiritual uniformity instead. It has no room for the soldier who values honor above equality, the poet who believes that beauty is more important than justice, or the thinker who regards with disinterest or contempt the concerns of political life. The identification of diversity with race and gender has thus brought us back full circle to the moral uniformity with which American higher education began, nearly four centuries ago.

Yale’s Directed Studies program, in which I teach, offers a different model of education, one premised on a deeper respect for the diversity of answers to the question of what living is for. Students in the program read a range of enduring texts—Homer, Dante, Plato, Eliot, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Marx, Tolstoy, and others—that express with matchless power a number of competing answers to this question. They consider the irreconcilably different ways of living that have been held up by different authors at different times as the best life a human being can live. They are encouraged to consider each with interpretive generosity—to enter as deeply as they can into the experiences, ideas, and values that give it permanent appeal. And they are invited to consider which alternatives lie closest to their own evolving sense of self, with all the risks this entails.

Today, the humanities numb and distract. But the desire to understand is eternal, and in an age of forgetfulness, when our humanity is concealed by the powers we possess and the question of life’s meaning is monopolized by the churches, to whom our colleges and universities have relinquished all authority to ask it, the tradition of education that Directed Studies represents offers a spiritual alternative to the fundamentalists who invite us to give ourselves up and to the science that invites us to forget who we are. With wonder and sobriety and the courage to face our mortal selves: let our colleges and universities be the spiritual leaders they once were and that all of us, teachers, students, parents, citizens of the republic, need for them to be again.  the end


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