Our current controversies over free speech on campus actually represent the second set of battles in a culture war that erupted in the U.S. during the late 1980s and that subsided by the mid-1990s — its cessation probably due to the emergence of the World Wide Web as a vast, new forum for dissenting ideas. The openness of the web scattered and partly dissipated the hostile energies that had been building and raging in the mainstream media about political correctness for nearly a decade. However, those problems have stubbornly returned, because they were never fully or honestly addressed by university administrations or faculty the first time around. Now a new generation of college students, born in the 1990s and never exposed to open public debate over free speech, has brought its own assumptions and expectations to the conflict.
As a veteran of more than four decades of college teaching, almost entirely at art schools, my primary disappointment is with American faculty, the overwhelming majority of whom failed from the start to acknowledge the seriousness of political correctness as an academic issue and who passively permitted a swollen campus bureaucracy, empowered by intrusive federal regulation, to usurp the faculty’s historic responsibility and prerogative to shape the educational mission and to protect the free flow of ideas. The end result, I believe, is a violation of the free speech rights of students as well as faculty.
What is political correctness? As I see it, it is a predictable feature of the life cycle of modern revolutions, beginning with the French Revolution of 1789, which was inspired by the American Revolution of the prior decade but turned far more violent. A first generation of daring rebels overthrows a fossilized establishment and leaves the landscape littered with ruins. In the post-revolutionary era, the rebels begin to fight among themselves, which may lead to persecutions and assassinations. The victorious survivor then rules like the tyrants who were toppled in the first place. This is the phase of political correctness — when the vitality of the founding revolution is gone and when revolutionary principles have become merely slogans, verbal formulas enforced by apparatchiks, that is, party functionaries or administrators who kill great ideas by institutionalizing them.
What I have just sketched is the political psychobiography of the past 45 years of American university life. My premises, based on my own college experience at the dawn of the counterculture, are those of the radical Free Speech Movement that erupted at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall of 1964, my first semester at the State University of New York at Binghamton. The Berkeley protests were led by a New York-born Italian-American, Mario Savio, who had worked the prior summer in a voter-registration drive for disenfranchised African-Americans in Mississippi, where he and two colleagues were physically attacked for their activities. When Savio tried to raise money at Berkeley for a prominent unit of the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he was stopped by the university because of its official ban on political activity on campus.
The uprising at Berkeley climaxed in Savio’s fiery speech from the steps of Sproul Hall, where he denounced the university administration. Of the 4000 protestors in Sproul Plaza, 800 were arrested. That demonstration embodied the essence of 1960s activism: it challenged, rebuked, and curtailed authority in the pursuit of freedom and equality; it did not demand, as happens too often today, that authority be expanded to create special protections for groups reductively defined as weak or vulnerable or to create buffers to spare sensitive young feelings from offense. The progressive 1960s, predicated on assertive individualism and the liberation of natural energy from social controls, wanted less surveillance and paternalism, not more.
The entire political and cultural trajectory of the decades following World War II in the U.S. was a movement away from the repressions of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, when the House Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives searched for signs of Communist subversion in every area of American life. A conspicuous target was the Hollywood film industry, where many liberals had indeed been drawn to the Communist Party in the 1930s, before the atrocities of the Stalinist regime were known. To fend off further federal investigation, the major studios blacklisted many actors, screenwriters, and directors, some of whom, like a favorite director of mine, Joseph Losey, fled the country to find work in Europe. Pete Seeger, the leader of the politicized folk music movement whose roots were in the social activism of Appalachian coal-miners in the 1930s, was banned from performing on network TV in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s.
There were sporadic landmark victories for free speech in the literary realm. In 1957, local police raided the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco and arrested the manager and owner, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for selling an obscene book, Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem, Howl. After a long, highly publicized trial, Howl was declared not obscene, and the charges were dropped. The Grove Press publishing house, owned by Barney Rosset, played a heroic role in the battle against censorship in the U.S. In 1953, Grove Press began publishing affordable, accessible paperbacks of the voluminous banned works of the Marquis de Sade, a major thinker about sex and society at the close of the Enlightenment. In 1959, the Grove Press edition of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, then banned in the U.S., was confiscated as obscene by the U.S. Postal Service. Rosset sued and won the case on federal appeal. In 1961, the publication by Grove Press of another banned book, Henry Miller’s 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer, led to 60 obscenity trials in the U.S. until in 1964 it was declared not obscene and its publication permitted.
One of the supreme symbols of newly militant free speech was Lenny Bruce, who with Mort Sahl transformed stand-up comedy from its innocuous vaudevillian roots into a medium of biting social and political commentary. Bruce’s flaunting of profanity and scatology in his improvisational onstage act led to his arrest for obscenity in San Francisco in 1961, in Chicago in 1962, and in New York in 1964, where he and Howard Solomon, owner of the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, were found guilty of obscenity and sentenced to jail. Two years later, while his conviction was still under appeal, Bruce died of a drug overdose at age 40.
This steady liberalizing trend was given huge impetus by the sexual revolution, which was launched in 1959 by the marketing of the first birth control pill. In Hollywood, the puritanical studio production code, which had been adopted in the early 1930s under pressure from conservative groups like the Legion of Decency and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was gradually breaking down and was finally abandoned by the late 1960s. The new standard of sexual expression was defined by European art films, with their sophisticated scripts and frank nudity. Pop music pushed against community norms: in 1956, Elvis Presley’s hip-swiveling gyrations were cut off by the TV camera as too sexual for the Ed Sullivan Show, which was then a national institution. As late as 1967, the Ed Sullivan Show was trying to censor the song lyrics of major bands like the Doors and the Rolling Stones, who were imitating the sexual explicitness of rural and urban African-American blues. (The Stones capitulated to Sullivan, but the Doors fought back — and were never invited on his show again.) Middle-class college students in the 1960s, including women, began freely using four-letter words that had rarely been heard in polite company, except briefly during the flapper fad of the 1920s. In the early 1970s, women for the first time boldly entered theaters showing pornography and helped make huge hits out of X-rated films like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones.
In short, free speech and free expression, no matter how offensive or shocking, were at the heart of the 1960s cultural revolution. Free speech was a primary weapon of the Left against the moralism and conformism of the Right. How then, we must ask, has campus Leftism in the U.S. been so transformed that it now encourage, endorses, and celebrates the suppression of ideas, including those that question its own current agenda and orthodoxy?
My conclusions are based on my personal observation as a career academic. Despite the longstanding claim by conservatives that “tenured radicals” invaded the universities in the 1970s, I maintain that no authentic 1960s radicals, except for Todd Gitlin, the president of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), entered the profession and attained success. If they entered graduate school, most of them dropped out. To enter grad school at all was in fact viewed as a sell-out. For example, during my last semester in college in 1968, I was confronted near the fountain on the quad by the leader of the campus radicals, who denounced me for my plan to attend the Yale Graduate School. “Grad school isn’t where it’s happening!” he contemptuously informed me. “And if you go anywhere, you go to Buffalo!” As it happens, I had indeed applied to and been accepted at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I would have happily worked with the psychoanalytic critic Norman Holland and the notorious Leftist critic, Leslie Fiedler, whose controversial 1960 masterwork, Love and Death in the American Novel, had had a huge influence on me. Indeed, Fiedler had just become a folk hero of the counterculture the year before, when police raided his Buffalo house and arrested him for drug possession, a disastrous incident that he would chronicle in his 1969 book, Being Busted. At any rate, I had chosen Yale because of its great library, which I sorely needed for my research, but my fellow student’s warning stung and shook me.
There can be no doubt that elite universities like the Ivy League at that period were in drastic need of reform. Their prevailing WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) style was not a hospitable climate for racial or ethnic minorities, including Jews and Italian-Americans. Medieval Anglo-Saxon was actually still a required first-year course for graduate students in English literature when I arrived at Yale in 1968. There had evidently just been a purge of gay male professors from the English department — it was rumored they had migrated up-country to all-female Smith College in Western Massachusetts. The English department had only one woman faculty member, a rather conservative medievalist. While women had been admitted to the graduate school for a century, undergraduate Yale College was still all-male and turned coeducational while I was there — which was a huge relief, because I was tired of being stared at like an exotic trespasser in the cavernous main reference room of Sterling Library. In my Anglo-Saxon class one day, the otherwise very affable young WASPy professor did a crass sexist stunt, also involving an ethnic slur against working-class Italian-Americans, that still shocks and disgusts me after all these years. We first-year students said nothing — there was no framework yet for critique or complaint.
Read ItSexual Personae by Camille Paglia
To understand how political correctness was later able to sweep like a plague through U.S. humanities departments, it must be stressed that the prevalent approach to literature in Great Britain and the U.S. since the 1940s had been the New Criticism, which in its focus on textual explication minimized or totally excluded history and psychology. When Buffalo’s Leslie Fiedler, who grounded literature in both history and psychology, including sex, gave a lecture at Yale while I was there, not one professor from the English department attended. Fiedler’s insulting ostracism could not have been more obvious. Hard as it is to believe now, my doctoral dissertation, Sexual Personae, was the only dissertation on sex in the Yale Graduate School at the time. Asking questions about sex and gender was considered bad form. That, as well as my fervent interest in mass media and popular culture (which were regarded as frivolous), certainly complicated and nearly derailed my first search for a teaching job.
After the 1960s cultural revolution, it was clear that the humanities had become too insular and removed from social concerns and that they had to reincorporate a more historical perspective. There were many new subject areas of contemporary interest that needed to be added to the curriculum — sex and gender, film, African-American and Native American studies among them. But the entire humanities curriculum urgently demanded rethinking. The truly radical solution would have been to break down the departmental structure that artificially separated, for example, English departments from French departments and German departments. Bringing all literature together as one field would have created a much more open, flexible format to encourage interdisciplinary exploration, such as cross-fertilizations of literature with the visual arts and music. Furthermore, I wanted an authentic multiculturalism, a curriculum that affirmed the value and achievements of Western civilization but expanded globally to include other major civilizations, all of which would be studied in their chronological unfolding. Even though I am an atheist, I have always felt that comparative religion, a study of the great world religions over time, including all aspects of their art, architecture, rituals, and sacred texts, was the best way to teach authentic multiculturalism and achieve world understanding. Zen Buddhism was in the air in the 1960s as part of the legacy of the post-war Beat movement, and Hinduism entered the counterculture through the London scene, partly because of Ravi Shankar, a master of the sitar who performed at California’s Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
However, these boundary-dissolving expansions were unfortunately not the route taken by American academe in the 1970s. Instead, new highly politicized departments and programs were created virtually overnight — without the incremental construction of foundation and superstructure that had gone, for example, into the long development of the modern English department. The end result was a further balkanization in university structure, with each area governed as an autonomous fiefdom and with its ideological discourse frozen at the moment of that unit’s creation. Administrators wanted these programs and fast — to demonstrate the institution’s “relevance” and to head off outside criticism or protest that could hamper college applications and the influx of desirable tuition dollars. Basically, administrators threw money at these programs and let them find their own way. When Princeton University, perhaps the most cloistered and overtly sexist of the Ivy League schools, went coeducational after 200 years in 1969, it needed some women faculty to soften the look of the place. So it hastily shopped around for whatever women faculty could be rustled up, located them mostly in English departments at second-tier schools, brought them on board, and basically let them do whatever they wanted, with no particular design. (Hey, they’re women — they can do women’s studies!)
I maintain, from my dismayed observation at the time, that these new add-on programs were rarely if ever founded on authentic scholarly principles; they were public relations gestures meant to stifle criticism of a bigoted past. In designing any women’s studies program, for example, surely a basic requirement for students should be at least one course in basic biology, so that the role of hormones in human development could be investigated — and rejected, if necessary. But no, both women’s studies and later gender studies evolved without reference to science and have thus ensured that their ideology remains partisan and one-dimensional, stressing the social construction of gender. Any other view is regarded as heresy and virtually never presented to students even as an alternative hypothesis.
Today’s campus political correctness can ultimately be traced to the way those new programs, including African-American and Native American studies, were so hastily constructed in the 1970s, a process that not only compromised professional training in those fields over time but also isolated them in their own worlds and thus ultimately lessened their wider cultural impact. I believe that a better choice for academic reform would have been the decentralized British system traditionally followed at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which offered large subject areas where a student could independently pursue his or her special interest. In any case, for every new department or program added to the U.S. curriculum, there should have been a central shared training track, introducing students to the methodology of research and historiography, based in logic and reasoning and the rigorous testing of conclusions based on evidence. Neglect of that crucial training has meant that too many college teachers, then and now, lack even the most superficial awareness of their own assumptions and biases. Working on campus only with the like-minded, they treat dissent as a mortal offense that must be suppressed, because it threatens their entire career history and world-view. The ideology of those new programs and departments, predicated on victimology, has scarcely budged since the 1970s. This is a classic case of the deadening institutionalization and fossilization of once genuinely revolutionary ideas.
Let me give just one example of political correctness run amok in campus women’s studies in the U.S. In 1991, a veteran instructor in English and women’s studies at the Schuylkill campus of Pennsylvania State University raised objections to the presence in her classroom of a print of Francisco Goya’s famous late-18th-century painting, Naked Maja. The traditional association of this work with the Duchess of Alba, played by Ava Gardner in a 1958 movie called The Naked Maja, has been questioned, but there is no doubt that the painting, now owned by the Prado in Madrid, is a landmark in the history of the nude in art and that it anticipated major 19th-century works like Manet’s Olympia.
The instructor brought her case to a committee called the University Women’s Commission, which supported her, and she was offered further assistance from a committee member, the campus Affirmative Action officer, who conveyed her belief that there were grounds for a complaint of sexual harassment, based on the “hostile workplace” clause in federal regulations. The university, responding to the complaint, offered to change the teacher’s classroom, which she refused. She also refused an offer to move the painting to a less visible place in the classroom or to cover it while she was teaching. No, she was insistent that images of nude women must never be displayed in a classroom — which would of course gut quite a bit of major Western art since ancient Greece.
Finally, the Naked Maja was moved, along with four other classic art prints in the classroom, to the TV room of the student community center, where a sign was posted to alert unwary passerby that art was present — a kind of enter-at-your-own-risk warning. This action by the university seems to have been widely regarded as a prudent compromise instead of the shameful capitulation to political correctness that it was. There was a spate of amused publicity about the incident in the mainstream press, with criticism passingly voiced by prominent journalists like Nat Hentoff (a free speech warrior) and Robert Hughes, the longtime art critic of TIME magazine. But the response from within the teaching profession was strikingly weak and limited. This was a moment for independent thinkers everywhere in American academe to condemn that puritanical exercise by a literature instructor who had made herself a dictator in the visual arts, a field about which she was conspicuously uninformed. All that she had was a rote ideology absorbed from anti-porn fanatics like the crusading feminist Andrea Dworkin, whose attempt to ban the sale of pornography (including mainstream men’s magazines) in Minneapolis and Indianapolis had been struck down in federal district court in 1984 as an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights. The instructor claimed that she was protecting future women students from the “chilly climate” created by the Naked Maja. But in a later published article about the controversy, she revealed that she herself was uncomfortable in the presence of the painting. She wrote, “I felt as though I were standing there naked, exposed and vulnerable.” I’m sorry, but we simply cannot permit uncultivated neurotics to set the agenda for arts education in America.
Here we come to one of the most pernicious aspects of identity politics as it reshaped the American university — the confusion of teaching with social work. The issue of improper advocacy in the classroom has never been adequately addressed by the profession. Teaching and research must strive to remain objective and detached. The teacher as an individual citizen may and should have strong political convictions and activities outside the classroom, but in the classroom, he or she should never take ideological positions without at the same time frankly acknowledging them as opinion to the students and emphasizing that all students are completely free to hold and express their own opinions on any issue, no matter how contested, from abortion, homosexuality, and global warming to the existence of God or the veracity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Unfortunately, because of the failure of American colleges and universities to seek and support ideological diversity on their campuses, the humanities faculties have trended so far toward liberal Democrats (among whom I number myself) that they often seem naively unaware that any other beliefs are possible or credible.
The old-guard professors at the Yale Graduate School in the late 1960s may have been stuffy and genteel, but they were genuine scholars, passionately devoted to study and learning. They believed they had a moral obligation to seek the truth and to express it as accurately as they could. I remember it being said at the time that a scholar’s career could be ruined by fudging a footnote. A tragic result of the era of identity politics in the humanities has been the collapse of rigorous scholarly standards, as well as an end to the high value once accorded to erudition, which no longer exists as a desirable or even possible attribute in job searches for new faculty.
Another problem in 1970s academe was a job recession in the humanities that arose just as deconstruction and post-structuralism arrived from Europe. The deconstructionist trend started when J. Hillis Miller moved from Johns Hopkins University to Yale and began bringing Jacques Derrida over from France for regular visits. The Derrida and Lacan fad was followed by the cult of Michel Foucault, who remains a deity in the humanities but whom I regard as a derivative game-player whose theories make no sense whatever about any period preceding the Enlightenment. The first time I witnessed a continental theorist discoursing with professors at a Yale event, I said in exasperation to a fellow student, “They’re like high priests murmuring to each other.” It is absurd that that elitist theoretical style, with its opaque and contorted jargon, was ever considered Leftist, as it still is. Authentic Leftism is populist, with a brutal directness of speech.
Post-structuralism, in asserting that language forms reality, is a reactionary reversal of the authentic revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, when the arts had turned toward a radical liberation of the body and a reengagement with the sensory realm. By treating language as the definitive force in the world — a foolish thesis that could easily be refuted by the dance, music, or visual arts majors in my classes — post-structuralism set the groundwork for the present campus impasse where offensive language is conflated with material injury and alleged to have a magical power to create reality. Furthermore, post-structuralism treats history as a false narrative and encourages a random, fragmented, impressionistic approach that has given students a fancy technique but little actual knowledge of history itself.
The woeful decline in quality of humanities scholarship was quite obvious during the five years of research I did for my art book, Glittering Images, which was released four years ago. I chose 29 images extending over 3000 years since ancient Egypt and read through the major scholarly literature on each work of painting, sculpture, architecture, or film, beginning in the 19th century and continuing to the present. In the great period of German philology, writing about art had a tremendous range of both conception and detail. The impact of philology could be felt well into the 20th century, as in the work of the great Marxist art historian, Arnold Hauser, whose magisterial The Social History of Art, published in 1951, had a huge impact on me in graduate school. Writing on art remained strong through the 1960s but began to weaken with the impact of postmodernism and post-structuralism in the 1970s and ‘80s. From the 1980s on, I was shocked by the drop-off. Yes, there was the occasional specialist whose work was rigorous and reliable, but there was none of the broad learning and expansive vision of early 20th-century art historians like Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, and Erwin Panofsky. Even worse, humanities books of the past two decades are suffering from shrinking bibliographies, where young academics are revealing that they have systematically consulted no books published before the 1980s.
The problem of political correctness is intensified by the increasing fixation of humanities and even history departments on “presentism,” that is, a preoccupation with our own modern period. Even the Renaissance is being redefined: it is now clumsily and in my view inaccurately called “Early Modern.” Presentism is even afflicting major museums, when they repair and over-restore ancient objects so that they look brand-new. A year ago, for example, in conjunction with my current research project into Native American culture of the late Ice Age, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, a beautiful modernistic building on the Mall in Washington, D.C. I had very high expectations — hence my surprise and horror at how vapid and unscholarly the exhibits were. The entire museum looks like a glorified gift shop, stocked with glossy fabrications, poster-board displays, light shows, and annoying recordings of vacuous happy talk. After a long search, I finally found something old and authentic — a small, sad picture-frame display of a handful of genuine arrowheads and unremarkable stone tools from the Washington area. I have found far better artifacts right here in the plowed fields of Southeastern Pennsylvania! The worst crime of political correctness is that it has allowed current ideologies to stunt our sense of the past and to reduce history to a litany of inflammatory grievances.
To break through the stalemate and reestablish free speech on campus, educators must first turn away from the sprawling cafeteria menu of over-specialized electives and return to broad survey courses based in world history and culture, proceeding chronologically from antiquity to modernism. Students desperately need a historical framework to understand both past and present.
Second, universities should sponsor regular public colloquia on major topics where both sides of sensitive, hot-button controversies are fully discussed. Any disruptions of free speech at such forums must be met with academic sanctions.
Third, it is my position, stemming from the 1960s sexual revolution that ended campus parietal rules, that colleges and universities must stay totally out of the private social lives of students. The intrusive paternalism of American colleges in this area is an unacceptable infringement of student rights. If a crime is committed on campus, it must be reported to the police. There is no such thing as a perfectly “safe space” in real life. Risk and danger are intrinsic to human existence.
As tuition costs rose stratospherically over the past quarter century, American colleges and universities shifted into a consumerist mode and have now become more like shopping malls than educational institutions — they don’t want to upset the paying customers! But the entire college experience should be based on confronting new and disruptive ideas. Students must accept personal responsibility for their own choices and behavior, and university administrators must stop behaving like substitute parents and hovering therapists. The ultimate values at any university should be free thought and free speech. •