I'M RATHER surprised at the founding of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and that my colleagues Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53 and Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom appear to be contemplating a Harvard branch. Surprised because I am not aware of anything like an oppressive "politically correct" ideological movement in general on our college campuses, let alone at Harvard.
There are ethnic studies organizations here--Asian-American studies, Latino studies, Afro-American studies--and I have some contact with each of them and have not encountered a McCarthyite-type mindset among them. Nor am I aware of any such unacceptable posture among women's groups here that favor women's studies.
There are certainly activistic and even leftist elements among these groups, but neither of these orientations is intellectually illegitimate at Harvard, nor at any other serious university.
I am not, therefore, impressed by NAS's reasons for its formation. One does not have to politicize faculty ranks in the way NAS is doing in order to "preserve the traditional western curriculum." I'm for preserving this curriculum too, and so are ethnic studies organizations; but I'm also for expanding the definition of "western curriculum."
Latino-literature, Asian-American literature and surely Afro-American and women's literature are all western. What are the NAS people really talking about?
THE NAS charge that ethnic studies supporters represent a political constituency is certainly correct. But these groups are neither the first nor the last group with political concerns (concerns related to their group-knowledge needs) to bid for curriculum expansion at our universities.
Public policy studies and programs (the old Littauer Center, the new Kennedy Center, etc.) were political in inspiration--the push coming from government, private industry and interest groups galore. Business schools and many subfields within economics were political (and intellectual, too) in inspiration--the push coming from government, industry and interest groups. Regional studies (Russian, East Asian, Middle East, African, Latin American) were political (and intellectual, too) in inspiration. And so on and so forth...I think the political argument as used by NAS backers is phony.
Yet I think there is a genuine political concern--an anxiety and maybe phobia--among followers of NAS. They consider the quest for curriculum presence by Blacks, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women, gays etc. politically too radical or too leftwing, unlike the centrist and establishmentarian political thrusts that were behind earlier curriculum expansion like policy studies, regional studies, etc.
Also this quest is clearly inclusionary or pluralistic: it seeks to expand the composition of student bodies and of faculty in our heretofore mono-racial universities and uni-gender faculty. This concern, I think, is genuine, but need not be cause of anxiety and thus for counter-politicization thrusts like NAS.
With the new pluralism on our campuses does come a new set of behavioral obligations for all of us, at Harvard and elsewhere. From my progressive perspective, I think we are all obligated to put our traditional denigrating speech and mannerisms toward the newcomers to our campuses--Blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, gays, etc.--behind us.
Recently President Stephen Trachtenberg of George Washington University and Harvard's Ford Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus David Reisman '31 expressed their uneasiness with these new obligations, telling The Boston Globe that "People go to enormous lengths to avoid the tag `racist.'" This is, of course, part of the NAS backer's talk about "politically correct" ideology.
But I say why shouldn't persons on our campuses go to great lengths to avoid the tag "racist"? Or the tags "homophobic," "sexist," "anti-Asian," etc.? Just like I'd expect them to go to great lengths to avoid the tag "anti-Catholic," "anti-Irish," "anti-Italian" and "anti-Semitic." What is wrong with that?
I think NAS represents an overkill neoconservative response to some measure of fouling of the atmosphere of open and creative discourse on some campuses consequent to overzealous behavior by supporters of ethnic studies and women studies. All of us--conservatives, liberals, leftists--must take care not to allow our response to each others' occasional zealotry Lebanonize our universities. NAS strikes me as having failed to take care in this regard.
Martin L. Kilson is Thomson Professor of Government.
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