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The Faculty Feuds Over The Politics of Scholarship

By Lan N. Nguyen

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."

But some Harvard professors and administrators disagree. They say the PC "problem" is more fiction than reality.

"Much of it is the creation of the media," says Henry Rosovsky, outgoing acting dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS)."

But even with many faculty and administrators refusing to acknowledge the presence of liberal orthodoxy, outgoing President Derek C. Bok notes that there is some problem, but that it is often exaggerated.

"I think there are certainly zealous students and student groups that have sometimes been a bit overbearing in trying to press their particular point of view and that, therefore, have inhibited some of their fellow students from expressing themselves," says Bok. "I think there are probably some professors who have at least said things...that have suggested a little less than what I would regard as tolerance for freedom of ideas."

"But I still believe that the PC issue has been overblown, that it represents to some extent a conservative backlash against universities, that a limited number of incidents has been repeated over and over again," Bok continues.

Many scholars say What they fear more than the perceived problem of PC is a backlash that could halt the gains that liberal scholarship has made. PC has, unfortunately, been an effective rallying cry for conservatives, they say.

"What amazes me is how the political right has latched onto the word and treated it as a battle cry of dogma," says Gregory Nagy, Jones professor of classical Greek literature. "It is hype being spread from above, by people with political axes to grind."

"People are latching on to isolated incidents to show how the other side is intolerant, but it is simply a way of masking the fact of assualt on freedom of speech by the other side," he continues.

Nagy says he remembers when the term PC was used in a joking, self-mocking manner by "avant-garde" students at Currier House at the beginning of his tenure as Master of the dorm.

Although the majority of Harvard professors interviewed say PC does not pose a problem for scholars or students, a growing movement to counteract its influence is gaining momentum. Already, several prominent University professors have joined an organization whose goal is to counteract what they say is the leftist indoctrination of students through the curriculum.

The group--called the National Association of Scholars (NAS)--was formed in 1987 to protect traditional canon from changes which would have added women and minority voices. The canon has become a symbol of embattled scholarship in the time of "political correctness."

NAS members, which include Harvard scholars Wilson, Thernstrom, and Thomson Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53, say that universities must retain the traditional canon or risk fragmenting education and depriving students of a solid intellectual base for their studies.

According to NAS's official literature, the group is "devoted to preserving the traditional western curriculum" and disclaims the importance of PC areas of scholarship such as women's studies and Afro-American studies.

Says the NAS statement, "an examination of many women's studies and minority studies courses and programs disclose little study of other cultures, but maintains that too often these fields are put into the curriculum for political, not academic reasons."

Thernstrom criticizes Harvard's creation of an Afro-American studies department. He says that in order to avoid the staffing problems currently faced by the field of concentration, the area of study should have been made a committee. He blames the lack of Afro-American scholars to the PC belief that only Blacks can teach the subject, but only a tiny number of Blacks have taken doctorates in the subject.

"History rests on the assumption that you don't have to be a caesar to understand a caesar," says Thernstrom. "It rests on the assumption that [scholarship] transcends barriers of time, race and place."

As for women's studies, Thernstrom says he is doubtful that it constitutes a distinct discipline. He says "men and women are inseparable. I am dubious about a segregated program, but I did support it initially."

The organization has gained popularity not only among conservative scholars, but also among liberals at schools such as Duke University. Says Wilson, NAS has evolved to include people on both sides of the political spectrum.

"The NAS is a group of academic libertarians," Wilson says. "It has both liberal and conservative thinkers. The group argues for the libertarian view against excess."

But critics charge that the group is fighting a nonexistant war. They say that the canon is dynamic, and that to reflect the changing face of American culture and scholarship, it must include women and minority voices.

"There is no such thing as a western canon," says Barbara E. Johnson, who this year chaired Harvard's Atro-Am Department, and will next year head its Women's Studies Department. "The canon is alive. It changes over time. You don't have to read books because your elders have read them, but because you find them interesting."

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