The Faculty Feuds Over The Politics of Scholarship

Three years ago, a Harvard professor was publicly criticized for allegedly displaying racial insensitivity in a lecture to a Core class.

Several students found some of his comments on slavery and recent Black history objectionable. They said he had painted a benevolent picture of slavery and had said that Jim Crow laws benefitted Blacks.

Since then, the professor, Stephan A. Thernstrom, has not offered his segment of Historical Studies A-25, "The Peopling of America." He says that he is uncomfortable teaching the class after such a negative experience, where he was "McCarthyized" by the media and students.

"I was subject to trial by a newspaper," Thernstrom says of The Crimson's treatment of the allegations of racism. "The PC thought police [were the] editors at The Crimson."

In what some would term is a classic example of "political correctness" affecting scholarship, Thernstrom's case has been taken up by the national media to support their claim that a set of political views and sensitivities--otherwise known as PC--has taken control of college campuses across the country.


In its coverage of the issue, the media claim that PC has become entrenched in liberal universities across the country and is contributing to the "chilling" of academic life.

Thernstrom says that he was labeled a racist because his use of historical narratives introduced viewpoints that ran counter to the liberal consensus. Thernstrom--who had been reading from slave-owners' journals--says that his personal defense of his teaching practices can never dispel the stigma of having been called a racist.

But are Thernstrom's case and others like it the norm? Or are they isolated instances that the media has chosen to focus on and blow out of proportion?

Some Harvard scholars, including Thernstrom, say PC totalitarianism does exist at the University. They say non-mainstream, anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-affirmative action positions have not been granted fair representation at the College or on other college campuses.

The professors say the stifling of such unpopular opinions poses a dangerous threat to freedom of speech and scholarship. "The test of a university as an open-minded institution is the degree in which these positions are welcomed and treated," says Edward O. Wilson, Baird professor of science, who has also come under fire for his assertions that genetics determine social behavior.

"If you cannot discuss unpopular ideas in the forum of dedicated scholars and students, where can you discuss them," Wilson asks.

PC opponents say that while political correctness resembles McCarthyism, PC is an internal movement to oppress, while McCarthyism was external to the universities.

"During McCarthyism, I didn't see any case of a professor being called before a committee because of what he said in class," says Thernstrom. "People got in trouble because of their political involvement in private life...It did not affect the daily life of the university."

Wilson, agrees and says PC is just another name for McCarthyism.

"PC at Harvard has been waxing and waning since the 1950s. In the 1950s, it came from the right during the McCarthy period," Wilson says. "In the 1960s, PC turned 180 degrees from radical right to radical left. The leftist orientation of PC has been waxing and waning at most universities ever since."