Skip to main content

Identity politics eroding American universities’ integrity

Written By | Apr 5, 2016

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2016 — Strange things are taking place at America’s universities. An aggressive form of identity politics is replacing free speech, a dedication to learning, and academic freedom itself.

At Stanford University, a group called the Who’s Teaching Us Coalition (WTU) demanded that administrative diversity is necessary in order to “break both the legacy of white leadership and cisgender male leadership” and demanded that the school’s next president be nonwhite and either transgender or female.

Other demands call for the university to hire “at least 10 tenure-track ethnic-studies professors,” a requirement that all faculty go through “comprehensive identity and cultural humility training,” racial quotas be established for the undergraduate and graduate student bodies, and the humanities majors must “require double the current number of required classes on works by people of color.”

The group claimed that “classrooms dominated by white professors and Western focused curricula reproduce the social conditions that globally oppress non-White/non-Western people” and said it engaged in a struggle to “decolonize education in the 21st century. This line of thinking at Stanford goes back many years to the era when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest of students in chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go.”

Intolerant of diversity: Liberals declare war on thought

This effort was successful at Stanford and many other universities. Students could now choose a wide variety of courses to replace “Western Civ.” One such course at Stanford was called, “Food Talks: The Language of Food.”

At Stanford, some students are fighting back and have signed a petition declaring,

“In recognition of the unique role Western culture has had in shaping our political, economic and social institutions, Stanford University should mandate that freshmen complete a two-quarter Western Civilization requirement covering the politics, history, philosophy and culture of the Western world.”

The identity politics we see at many universities is based on a contemporary illusion that particular works of art, literature or music are, somehow, the possession of only those who can trace their lineage to the creators of such culture. Should only Jews read the Bible? Only Greeks read Plato or Aristotle? Only those of English descent read Shakespeare, and only Italians appreciate Dante or Machiavelli?

Western culture is relevant to men and women of all races and backgrounds, particularly those living in the midst of our Western society. The distinguished black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois recognized this reality when he wrote a century ago:

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line, I walk arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously, with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

In his Wriston lecture on “Universal Civilization,” V.S. Naipaul, the son of immigrant Indian laborers, who grew up in post-colonial Trinidad and was educated in England, contrasts some of the static, inward-looking, insular “non-Western” cultures with the spreading “universal civilization” he found to be based above all on Jefferson’s belief in the pursuit of happiness.

Naipaul characterizes Western civilization in these terms:

“The ideal of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system nor generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

We are now failing to transmit our history and culture to the next generation. Historian David McCullough observes,

“We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don’t know. It’s shocking.”

McCullough, who has lectured on more than 100 college campuses, tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a renowned university in the Midwest. “Until I heard your  talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast,” she said.

Historian Paul Johnson points out:

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. stated that those engaged in identity politics “would have our educational system reinforce, promote and perpetuate separate ethnic communities and do so at the expense of the idea of a common culture and a common national identity.”

In response to student demands at Stanford, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, dismissed the notion that the university should hire administrators on the basis of characteristics irrelevant to the job. He declared:

“I would think any educationally and intellectually serious university would choose its next president on the basis of outstanding scholarship and ability to lead a very largely complex and prestigious university in our time. The sorts of demands being put on the search for a candidate of a particular ethnicity, gender preference and sexual identity are manifestly silly and destructive.”

Wood pointed out that Stanford has

“invited this by coddling students who make these sorts of claims. Instead of simply dismissing them out of hand, they’re invited to the discussion. They shouldn’t be. The price of getting admission to the discussion is a certain degree of intellectual seriousness which is completely absent from this set of demands. The movement is partly reflective of the profound ignorance of the students about the nature of higher education and universities. To sort out people according to superficial characteristics such as race or sex or sexual preference or sexual identity or whatever these things amount to is a direct assault on the very foundations of what a university should be.”

Our universities face student bodies that no longer seem committed to free speech and academic freedom. In February, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released a survey of 141,189 full-time, first-year students attending about 200 public and private institutions around the country. About 71 per cent of freshmen surveyed said they agreed with the statement that “colleges should prohibit racist/sexist speech on campus.”

This question has been asked for several decades and this was the highest percentage of positive responses on record. Needless to say, what constitutes “racist” or “sexist” speech is itself a subject of debate. On some campuses, opposing race-based affirmative action admission policies has been called “racist.”

In recent days a variety of speakers considered unacceptable by vocal student groups have been disinvited from speaking at various universities. These include feminism critic Suzanne Venker, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde and Narendz Modi, the Indian prime minister.

At Harvard, there is an assault on history itself. In March, a university governing board declared that the seal of Harvard Law School must be retired because it is tied to that of a slave-holding family that funded the school’s first professorship more than 200 years ago.

Where will this end?

Ted Gup, professor of journalism at Emerson College, asks,

“Can Harvard Law School make peace with the Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures? These honor the Supreme Court justice who authored the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision that led to the sterilization of epileptics, the ‘feeble-minded’ … and the poor who were neither … And how can Lowell House survive modern scrutiny? What of then-Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s ‘Secret Court,’ which in 1920 prosecuted students suspected of being gay?”

In Gup’s view,

“There is no end to Harvard’s offenders—or Yale’s or Princeton’s or, for that matter, most American institutions with a history. Few entities can withstand the scrutiny of the modern conscience, and physically disassembling the artifacts of the past, attacking its symbols and its ghosts, is a fool’s errand—no matter how lofty the cause … We can endlessly denounce the long-departed and disavow the already-discredited, but to what end? What we should do instead is devote ourselves to living our lives in a way that allows our descendants to take pride in the history we leave behind.”

The integrity of American higher education is being steadily eroded, and identity politics is one of the prime culprits. Universities seem not to know what business they are in. Do they exist to educate young people and transmit our history, culture and the skills necessary to succeed in the modern world? Or are they an adjunct to popular culture, promoting the trendy views of this moment in time at the expense of free speech and open inquiry?

At some point, universities must decide what their mission really is. Right now, this is increasingly unclear.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.