Scholars Organize Against PC Backlash

Gates Joins 29 Professors to Defend Multicultural Curriculum Changes

Responding to a wave of conservative criticism aimed at the increasing politicization of university curricula, a group of scholars from across the country--including Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.--have banded together to present a united front against such attacks.

The group, Teachers for a Democratic Culture, was created to oppose charges by organizations such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) that "political correctness" has endangered free speech and stifled academic debate on America's college campuses.

"The public needs to hear the other side of the story," said Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Chicago and one of the group's founders.

"We feel that the kinds of changes that have been going on in the curriculum are very positive and very important and have improved the quality of education," Graff said. "Yet the way that they have been predominantly reported, one would think that it's the collapse of Western civilization."

Thirty scholars, mostly from the humanities, are participating in the group. "This organization is designed to end needless polemics," said Gates, the only member from Harvard.


"Given the extreme right wing position members of the NAS have taken, this organization might be useful in bringing us back to the center," said Gates.

Besides attacking the NAS, the group's prospectus criticized Dinesh D'Souza, author of Illiberal Education and National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Lynn V. Cheney, accusing them of "blatant hypocrisy" and intolerance.

Stephen H. Balch, president and executive director of NAS, called the group's formation "a defensive reaction."

"It's rather strange that people who have been so powerful in academic life feel the need to form such an organization," said Balch. But Winthrop Professor of History Stephen A. Thernstrom, a member of NAS and a prominent critic of political correctness, said that he welcomed the opportunity for increased debate.

"I am not trembling at the news, nor am I outraged by it," he said.

"I do think their point of view has been in ascendance in many disciplines, especially literary ones. However, most of the interesting commentary has come from people from my side," Thernstrom said.

Thernstrom has been portrayed as one of the early victims of "political correctness" ever since he was accused of racism for his treatment of slavery in a course on American history.

Calls Upon Media

In its prospectus, the group also called upon the media to be more objective in its coverage of the PC debate, although Graff admitted that the academic community was largely to blame for not adequately articulating its position.

"We acknowledge that professors have not always been as clear as we should be in making clear...what it is we do," Graff said. "[One goal of the group] is to help to improve the quality of education between the academy and the public."

The group has called for a wider discussion of its aims at a meeting of the Modern Language Association later this year.