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Politically Correct Thinking and State Education

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You may recall seeing the December 24, 1990, issue of Newsweek on the newsstands. The cover had a granite wall with raised lettering, spelling out the words, “Thought Police.” If you read the article, you learned about something called “politically correct thinking.”

A growing number of institutions of higher learning around the country have been establishing new and stringent linguistic and behavioral guidelines for their students and faculties. All words and actions that may in any way be interpreted to contain racial, sexist or homosexual slum carry increasingly severe penalties. For students, it can mean anything from a financial fine to expulsion from the school. For faculty, it can mean grounds for dismissal, denial of tenure or lack of promotion.

From the Newsweek article, the innocent and uninformed reader would have gained the impression that in this new form of thought police was merely the temporary, if irritating, excesses of a few campus administrators, faculty members and students trying to redress the racist and sexist insensitivities of the past.

Even the discussion in the article about the often dramatic changes being introduced into core liberal arts curricula at these institutions was made to seem as merely the movement towards a more pluralistic view of man, society and culture. The dominant focus in liberal arts education on Western culture and tradition will now be modified. Other cultures, other world philosophies, other conceptions of man and community will be presented on an equal footing with the European and American contributions to the human heritage.

And what about the “thought policemen”? Newsweek ended the topic with an article by a young man who had been a thought policeman at one of these campuses. He assured the readers that he and others were merely trying to raise the consciousness of their fellow students so that they would be more aware of the “oppressiveness” of traditional language. What if students were not interested in attending the “reeducation” programs on campus? The author said, “Attendance wasn’t mandatory, but did we know who wouldn’t show? You bet.”

Contrary to the general impression that Newsweek conveyed, the movement for” politically correct thinking” is potentially one of the most dangerous intellectual currents in American academia today. Some of the recent books that explain what its proponents are all about include Destructive Generation by David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Tenured Radicals by Roger Kimball, and The Hollow Men by Charles Sykes.

What is the world-view of these advocates of “politically correct thinking”? In an excellent article entitled, “The Storm over the University,” which appeared in the December 6,1990, issue of The New York Review of Books, the well-known philosopher John Searle gave a succinct summary:

“The history of ‘Western Civilization’ is in large part a history of oppression. Internally, Western civilization oppressed women, various slave and serf populations, and ethnic and cultural minorities generally. In foreign affairs, the history of Western civilization is one of imperialism and colonialism. The so-called canon of Western civilization consists in the official publications of this system of oppression, and it is no accident that the authors in the ‘canon’ are almost exclusively Western white males, because the civilization itself is ruled by a caste consisting almost entirely of Western white males.”

As the authors to whom I have referred demonstrate, many of the proponents of “politically correct thinking” in American academia are refugees and exiles from the leftist political causes of the 1960s — for example, they who resisted American intervention in Vietnam because they supported socialist revolution in the Third World. They protested against “the establishment’ at home because they hated capitalism and saw themselves as the vanguard of a coming “people’s democracy” that would replace the existing “fascist Amerika”; and they protested because they hated the “commercial society” and resented the “oppression” of market relationships.

Unable to win their war in the streets or in the political world, they retreated into the halls of ivy, which they now increasingly dominate. Everything they dislike is the product of “white capitalist power.” Everything they cherish is found in the non-market communalism and collectivism of the Third World.

They use all the standard Marxian ideological and linguistic tricks. Language has no inherent objective meaning; words are tools of “class,” ” race” and “sexual” exploitation. Truth is not merely difficult to discover; it, in fact, does not exist. The claim that there are universal truths about man, society and nature — truths that are valid for all people in all places at all times — are philosophical tricks used by the “ruling class” to get the masses to accept their inferior stations in life and view their oppression and exploitation as both inevitable and necessary.

Even to think or speak in terms of individuals and individual rights is considered suspect; any person who does so is either the victim of or the apologist for the male, capitalist exploiting class. The rulers wish to deceive us into thinking about ourselves as “mere individuals” so they can hide from view the race, sex and class relationships that are the actual foundations of the existing social order.

The perversity of this view, of course, is that Western civilization has, in fact, been the most liberating cultural force inhuman history. It was ancient Judaism that told earthly rulers that there is a Higher Law and a Higher Morality than any man can create; and every man, as a creation of God, has recourse to that Higher Law and Morality against the tyranny of worldly rulers. It was Christianity that taught that every man is unique and precious in the eyes of God; that no worldly ruler may set himself between the individual and his relationship to God. Thus, Judaism and Christianity laid the foundation for our modem principles of individual freedom of thought and action.

From the ancient Greeks, Western man gained his appreciation of and confidence in the power of his reason to understand and master the forces of nature. And from the Romans have come our tradition of natural law and the rule of law.

It is modem capitalism that has created the moral order of voluntary and peaceful relationships among men. It is the market economy that has generated the prosperity and opportunities that are liberating both the body and spirit of increasingly larger numbers of human beings of all races and religions around the globe.

In terms of freedom, prosperity and the promotion of human dignity, Western civilization wins hands down against every other civilization in human history. This is precisely why the proponents of “politically correct thinking” wish to banish open discourse and cross-cultural ethical and philosophical comparison. Only by denying that such comparisons are possible, and only by impugning the motives of those who oppose them can they win — in other words, a victory through intellectual sleight of hand.

What about the opponents of “politically correct thinking”? Their arguments are usually sound and their defense of Western culture meritorious. But their strategy, in my opinion, is wrong. They hope to defeat the “cultural leftists” of academia through appeals to the constitutional right of “freedom of speech” or through political counterattacks in the university structure designed to recapture the halls of ivy.

While the ideologues of “politically correct thinking” are not limited to state-run universities, as Charles Sykes’ expose of Dartmouth College revealingly demonstrates, it is there that the battle need to be fought and won.

But the answer is not to capture the state universities for “the Right.” Rather the answer is to defeat the cultural leftists by denying them the source of their power: the socialist educational system. State universities dominate higher education in the United States. And what government does not control directly, it indirectly controls and manipulates through the regulations that come with government grants and scholarships to nominally private schools. (My employer, Hillsdale College, is practically the only institution of higher learning in America that takes no government money in any form and, as a result, is totally independent of government control.)

Eliminate government-provided and subsidized education, and these economically privileged and politically protected islands of philosophical collectivism will be forced to fight for their financial support in a marketplace of ideas. It would be a marketplace in which they would have to persuade the consumers of education that what they have for sale is actually worth the price of admission. The cultural leftists would no longer have their ideas subsidized by the general taxpaying public. They would no longer have a protected comer of the intellectual market through their special-interest influence on the socialized educational process.

Parents and students who desired an education inspired and policed by “politically correct thinking” would be asked to pay for the opportunity. Those who preferred a traditional liberal arts education emphasizing the Western heritage would be asked to do the same. The entire controversy would be diffused because it would be depoliticized through the privatization of education. And in a real marketplace of ideas, I personally have little doubt about which of the intellectual alternatives would tend to capture the largest free-market share.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).