Beating back political correctness in the English Dept.

Dr. Elizabeth Kantor
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Posted: Dec 01, 2006 5:03 PM
Beating back political correctness in the English Dept.

It’s official: you spend tens of thousands of dollars to send your kids to college. In return, the colleges turn out graduates who are more ignorant than when they enrolled.

According to a recent report from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, seniors at Yale, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and several other top schools actually know less about American history and government than entering freshmen.

But students don’t just learn (or unlearn, as the case may be) facts in college. They also learn attitudes and principles. In other words, they form their characters—which, Aristotle pointed out more than 2,000 years ago, means learning to love and delight in certain things and spurn others. For example, American students used to learn more from the Gettysburg address than just the facts of Civil War military history. They also learned to love self-government—and its necessary condition, the courage and sacrifice of the patriotic soldier.

But today’s politically correct college professors aren’t interested in persuading young Americans to adopt any such traditional attitudes as patriotism, civic responsibility, or traditional morality. In fact, American colleges seem to be teaching students to spurn the very things that students used to learn to love and delight in.

Today’s trendy English professor doesn’t read Shakespeare for the beauty of the poetry or its peerless insights into human nature. The point is to uncover the oppression that’s supposed to define Western culture: the racism, “patriarchy,” and imperialism that must lurk beneath the surface of everything written by those “dead white males.” (The latest book from U. Penn. professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, investigates how Macbeth contributed to the “domestication of women.”) With their low opinion of Western civilization, it’s no wonder that so many English professors teach material that isn’t English literature at all: Marx and Derrida—and even comic books, politically correct bestsellers from the eighties, foreign films, and pornography—rather than Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

To a lot of professors, Western culture is something students need to be liberated from. It is not something to pass on and preserve.

What a pity. Especially now, when we’re under attack from enemies who want to replace our civilization with a very different kind of culture.

Western culture isn’t in our genes. It’s learned. And despite what the typical twenty-first-century college professor may believe, Western civilization has conferred enormous benefits on the human race: extraordinary freedom and respect for women, workable self-government, freedom of speech and the press.

If students actually studied the classics of English and American literature under the guidance of sympathetic teachers, they’d learn many other politically incorrect truths as well. From Beowulf, students could learn that military virtue is both necessary and noble. In Chaucer, they might come to understand chivalry, and see how it changed the position of women. In Shakespeare, students could glimpse the existence of universal underlying patterns that shape and define human characters (as well as all our institutions, from marriage to government). From Milton, they could learn about the origins—in Christian theology, not in anti-religious Enlightenment thought—of our intellectual freedoms. From Jane Austen, they might pick up insights into the real perennial problems between men and women, which have very little to do with an excess of “patriarchy.” From Dickens, they could learn about the risks of unintended consequences and the costs of revolutionary expedience.

Some of these lessons are characteristically Western. Others—respect for military virtue, for example—are typical of almost any healthy culture. But English professors are detached not just from the heritage of the West but in a sense from culture at all, or even from objective reality. “Essentialist” is the term of abuse that feminists and “queer theorists” apply to anyone who suggests that the stubborn facts of nature—the differences between men and women, for example—limit or define human beings in any way.

These are the folks we’ve entrusted with the formation of young people’s minds and the preservation of our culture. Isn’t it time we reconsidered whether we can trust them with the job?