Robin Fox

What’s Politically Correct … On Campus?

VTR Date: April 15, 1991

Guest: Fox, Robin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Robin Fox
Title: “What’s ‘Politically Correct’ on Campus?”
VTR: 4/15/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

And I want to focus today, as on several other programs, on the winds of change that have blown rather fiercely through even major American universities in recent years, and the cannot simply be dismissed as only “an academic matter” by those not immediately or intimately involve with the life of the campus. I refer, of course, to what’s now called “politically correct” in the academy.

Indeed, what is deemed “politically correct” today – at Stanford or Michigan, or Duke, or Harvard, or wherever – may not make all that much difference to most thoughtful viewers right now. But that something, anything at all, could be labeled “PC” by today’s university students, or faculty, or administrators, is what may come to haunt us all.

Back in 1948, when I first went to Rutgers University to teach American history and government, the very idea of being constrained academically by what was considered not “politically correct” in matters touching on race of gender or sexual identity, or just about anything else at all, would have seemed laughable. Less so now, however. No laughing matter as the academy seems – at least in some important places – to be driven today by notions of what can and what cannot be said or taught or perhaps even thought on campus and still be “PC”, politically correct.

So, today I want to discuss this tendency with the world renowned anthropologist Robin Fox, who holds there the distinguished designation of University Professor of Social Theory, and is my colleague at Rutgers.

Now, Professor Fox recently had the occasion himself to do battle within the academy with those who demonstrate a tendency to fanaticism…a passion, as he put it so generously, to lay blame upon and to punish those they find embracing ideas that are not, in their estimation, politically or scientifically “correct”. And what I would ask him first today is “what in the world is happening today to the life of the mind”?

Fox: Well, that’s…that’s the big question. What’s happening, I think is a narrowing down of the life of mind. The, the broadness, the openness, to inquiry which is supposed to characterize the university, which is supposed to be what the university is about, is being whittled away by political pressures, by radical groups, by fashionable Leftists, by feminists, by neo-Marxists. They go under numerous labels, but they’re basically, I think, the leftover characters from the Vietnam revolt who got tenured, stayed on in the universities, and now they’ve no longer any real battle to fight, mainly the Vietnam War…have turned to using the university as a, as a battle ground for their ideologies and for their political points of view. And what they’re doing essentially, at least this is the accusation, is they’re substituting the ideological position for fair and decent and reasonable teaching of ideas.

Heffner: How can you explain the fact that there seems, not to be perhaps too many enormous battles, but to be having and to be making a very great impact upon the university?

Fox: Well, it’s partly their own…it’s partly their own passion and devotion to what they’re doing. And it’s partly the fact that most academics like me and you, I guess, are sort of wishy-washy middle of the road moderates, tolerant, decent fellows, who don’t want to be thought ill of, and like to feel that we are up with the, the Liberal tendencies of the times…we tend to be superindulgent of them. So it’s, it’s two, two things. One, they have the passion, the organization, the intensity to, to try and get their own way in these things, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences, or some departments, well actually, I don’t think the music department’s so much affected by all this. In the humanities and social science they were. So that’s one thing. The other thing is the, as I say, the supineness really of the tolerant majority in university, who wants, who want to be well thought of and who let them get away with it.

Heffner: Would you ever have thought, 30 years ago when we first met, that you would characterize most of us as “supine”?

Fox: Yes. I, I did then. I think in those days I was a young Turk, and I was about…I was trying to change my discipline for the better and swing it around in, in ways I thought would improve it. Not I think, politically motivated the way they are today, but intellectually motivated. And I was, I, I think, kind of depressed as many young Turks are by the general willingness of the vast majority of academics to prefer the easy life to the hard and tough one. Most people’s attitudes then was, as it is now, “Don’t bother me, I’ve got these papers to publish, I want to get my next promotion, and I’ve got to put my kids through college…so, so don’t push me so hard”. Along with the fact that we all want to be well thought of. We none of us want to be thought to be whatever the current bad things are…sexist, racist…it used to be neo-fascist or whatever the…whatever the “boo-words” are at the time. So we go along.

Heffner: What, then, is the downside? You don’t want to be concerned about those who attack fascism and sexism and all the other “isms” that are out now, do you?

Fox: Well, what, what happens…to people like myself is that we get our toes trodden on…so you, you may want to stay out of it and have the quiet life. And there’s another aspect of this, and I think that’s the university administrations have changed. One of the big questions people usually ask is “why do the administrations allow them to get away with this?” Why do they allow, particularly for example, the Department of English and History and Political Science to be totally taken over by these people, but the “politically correct” campus radical crowd? And I think university administrations have changed considerably from being essentially people like ourselves who got sort of pushed into administration out of a “noblesse oblige” sense. We, we had to do our turn as dean, but we did it unwillingly, but graciously. It’s changed and what we have now is a professional cadre of administrators, whose business is administration, whose life is administration. And whose major concern I think is that they don’t want trouble on their watch. No officer wants trouble on his watch. If an administrator has too much trouble, he’s put down as a bad administrator and therefore there’s a tendency I think, on the part of the administrators to do pretty much anything that will keep things quiet in, in the…in, in the academy. And one of those things is just simply giving into the extremists. It’s easier to give into them, than to stand up to them. And also, if they did stand up to them, they’d really have no mobilized faculty support. The faculty who are mobilized are essentially the radical faculty. I don’t know if that answered your question, but I…

Heffner: It does with a vengeance. The question is…the point is that it answers it so well that I sit here wondering what then can be done? Where is that entry point into bringing about some change in what we’re seeing?

Fox: Well I think that, that those of my colleagues who have woken up to what’s happening, finally, and have decided that something has to be done, I think are divided on this. There are some who are real doom-sayers…who think Armageddon is around the corner for the universities. They think that once, for example, in the private universities…once the parents and the Boards of Trustees and the alumni figure out what’s happening at places like Duke in the English Department, which has been now totally politicized…that once they realize what’s happening there’s going to be a terrible backlash against this, and the villains will be somehow rooted out. They say, “How can this happen? All these people are tenured”. You know the expression, “The tenured Left”…someone has even written a book called The Tenured Left. These are the leftover radicals as I say from the sixties and seventies who having got tenure and now established in the universities…the Mercedes-Marxists, as some people were…

Heffner: I like that expression…

Fox: …like to call them. Yes. Because they’re all there on these handsome salaries, busily abusing the institutions that provide them…for them. One of the ideas is that they’re really going to…there’s going to be a backlash against them, the public…in the public universities the taxpayers are going to discover what’s happening. And they’re going to discover that in sending their children to these universities, for example, to get an education in the English language and literature…in fact they’re getting an education in Marxism and de-construction or the abuse of White males or oppression studies or anything but English literature (laughter) and language. And once the public realizes this they will sort of rise up in their wrath. There, there are precedents for this. I mean in the sixties and the seventies don’t forget, modern language departments used to be huge on the campus. They were the ones we envied. They had all the students because modern languages were compulsory…they, they had all the money…and they were very powerful. But then suddenly it was decided that these subjects were not relevant anymore…you remember relevant…relevant…yes, you remember relevant…

Heffner: I remember the…

Fox: Well, they weren’t relevant so that suddenly modern language departments began losing lines. They were not renewed, they fell in importance…this has to some extent swung back again now. But it can happen. And the feeling is that this will happen, that people…that, that…there will be a backlash. I don’t know about that. I really don’t know because I don’t know how or where or how much the public and the alumni people really care or really understand what’s happening…what’s happening on the campuses.

Heffner: You say “really care”…

Fox: Yes.

Heffner: You mean that?

Fox: I think the vast majority…I think they probably would care if they knew…if they knew enough about it. But I think, you know, everyone is afraid of the specter of McCarthyism…that is of interfering with academic freedom and the like. And nobody, I think, wants to start up again the, the “Get the Reds out of Rutgers” sort of campaigns that politicians used to, used to run. And we in the universities fear that, too, we don’t want interference in our academic life from outside. So the other answer to your question, I think, is that if there’s going to be real reform, it’s probably got to come from the inside…it’s got to come from within the universities, but I don’t see too much signs of that happening, except for the formation of an interesting organization called the National Association of Scholars. I don’t know that you know about that.

Heffner: Yes.

Fox: Which now has branches on a whole lot of campuses, and is precisely a group of people who have sort of woken up to what’s happening and are trying to, to somehow bring this to the people’s attention. They have a journal they publish now, which, of course, has been duly condemned by the American Association of University Professors and all the radical groups as a Right wing, sexist, fascist rag (laughter)…

Heffner: Okay. Let me ask you about that. How fair is it to say that the NAS has a political complexion of its own, that it is not urging upon the universities the same course of action, “strike them down”, that the others you’ve described are doing, but that you are a reflection, or the NAS is a reflection, essentially of a conservative political attitude. Political attitude.

Fox: I, I think that yes, there’s something in that. There’s…certainly…the people who tend to join it tend to be of a more conservative stance, but I don’t think in a viciously political way, but conservative in the sense of that they, they want to conserve what they see of being the good things about the academy and the academic life. And at least this is the official line and the one I support, which is that what they’re doing is, is doing what the AAUP should do, but doesn’t seem to do…which is to defend academic freedom…freedom of speech and to oppose the imposition of political ideologies. You see, the, the radicals have a good point. They say…usually when you put this to them, when, when you argue with them, insofar as they will, they will argue rationally as opposed to sloganeering, what they will say is that everything is ideology. Se…this is, this…so that it’s no good saying there was once a beautiful non-ideological university, you see, that wasn’t political and where no particular point of view was being preached in history or political science…there always was an ideology. And, of course, they have a point to some extent because we’re all of us colored by our times and our opinions and naturally this will influence what we teach and how we teach it and since most of those people were White males, it was…as the feminists say, it was a “fella-ocracy”, you know. It was the White male view that was being preached. But at least I think those of us who remember those days with perhaps too much nostalgia, perhaps too much rose-tinted nostalgia, remember that it was a time when, even if that was the case, you had…you were slightly ashamed of it…if it ever came to light. You had to try to avoid it. There was a notion that there were objective truths out there…that there was a real world out there, that you had to measure your opinions against…that they could be challenged, that they could in fact be proved wrong. Now that’s what’s gone away, you see, not, not the…not the…no, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have ideologies in the universities…we’ve always had them. Of course. But the idea is now that…among the radicals…that’s it’s the…that since everything is ideology all that matters is that we’re picking the ideology and promoting it. Not putting it up for test…not, not putting it up fro grabs. And that’s, I think, what we want to see restored. We want to see the ideologies put up for grabs once again, not preached as doctrines.

Heffner: Do you think that’s possible?

Fox: I think it’s possible if enough people wake up to what’s happening…yes. But I think it’s not possible as long as administrations and complacent or, or frightened, or quiescent faculty go along with what’s happening.

Heffner: You think the key is to be found in the administration, I gather.

Fox: Well I think they could do a lot. But I don’t, you know, they could do a lot.

Heffner: Don’t expect them to?

Fox: Well, after all, it was administrations, you know, that founded…and built all the universities in the first place and they had some idea what went into them…and they made bold decisions and they created departments and disciplines. They…you know, it’s not impossible…

Heffner: But…

Fox: …to think that you might get an enlightened president who would say “I want a campus that’s a real university campus, not something that has been politicized and become simply a propaganda ground for Marxists and feminists”.

Heffner: But that’s when there was, indeed, an idea of the university.

Fox: Yes, that’s true. And that’s slipping, I think. That’s slipping away. That’s, that’s one of the things that alerted people to, to the crisis I think that’s looming in the universities now.

Heffner: What about…

Fox: The idea of the university as a place for open, free discussion which can always been held up to the test of, of truth is…does it, in fact, correspond to facts. When you have a whole army of people saying, “There are not facts, there are only political positions…”, we’re in terrible danger, I think.

Heffner: Well, you know, in your own essay that I briefly made reference to…when you’re talking about his question of the human tendency toward violence or toward war, and you say, well, you don’t necessarily know about that, but there seems to be an innate tendency in the minds of men, a tendency more terrible than aggression, a tendency we are doomed to express and live by and that explains all this passion to lay blame and punish. And you point out that a letter you had written was impudent enough to suggest that fanaticism is just such a tendency…I really want to ask you, as an anthropologist, as a historian of man…do you feel that this involvement wit fanatic this, fanatic that…fanaticisms of all kinds that I see about me is something that is a phenomenon that is increasing, growing, in our times?

Fox: I think so…yeah. See, when you had small, cohesive societies everybody could be more or less fanatical about the same thing. You know, their own totem…their own language, because they all shared it and it was, it was something that they didn’t really see any alternatives to. The name, you know, anthropologists are fond of telling their students that they…most people’s name for their tribe means “the people”. They’re “the people” and the rest of the world is out there and different. And you could share that. But when you become as big and diverse and complex as, as we are, and there isn’t a single fanaticism to share, and you get divided up into dozens of different fanaticisms…But people adhere to them just as strongly…that…those same…that same urge to belong to that tribe, to defend its totem to the death, to defend its religion against all comers…whatever that happens to be, is still very strong in us, so we attach ourselves to little tribes, you know, the feminist tribe, or the Marxist tribe, or whatever. And we, we follow out the fanaticisms with regard to these rather restrictive ideas.

Heffner: Is this your definition of multiculturalism?

Fox: (Laughter) Well, my description of multi…it’s what multiculturalism often, often boils down to…yes…is the battle of one fanaticism against another. That’s true.

Heffner: So that the larger a nation, the more disparate groups in it, the more fanatical will be the battling?

Fox: Yes, particularly when, when people feel, you know, that they’re, they’re fighting for their political and social and economic lives over these, over these things. I think we can…we will see as a nation gets more diverse…you see a grater diversity of fanaticisms. I mean it’s really the interesting things about America that draws so many of those of us who came from somewhere else to it is that it’s extraordinary ability to survive this kind of, this kind of battery. And, you know, still maintain a viable democratic political situation.

Heffner: But the battering is much more recent. I mean we used to absorb…

Fox: Yes.

Heffner: …in a program that Arthur Schlesinger and I did we talked about the Tower of Babel and that is much more important today than the, than the unity of the nation.

Fox: Well we used to absorb…because we had some firm idea of what was American, and what we could therefore require of people who wanted to join the club. You know, it was a good club to be a member of, and lots of people wanted to join. But there were certain ground rules, you know, and you had to obey those rules, and there were certain forms and codes of behavior, there was a certain language that everybody spoke and you had to know those things and you had to abide by them if you were going to be an American. I think to some extent now we’ve lost the sense of that. I mean this whole move towards multiculturalism, which is another “buzz word”, you know, it’s another of the pop words now that are going around. Every year…every president if he wants to be accepted has to declare himself a multiculturalist, you know. And, and poo-poo the great books and Western civilization and the core curriculum and all those bad things in favor of multiculturalism. But what isn’t often understood is that multiculturalism is fragmented and these fragments are going to tend to fly apart rather than come together. There’s very little that holds, that holds together these disparate cultures. You’ve got to have something. The old Americanization programs where kids learned, you know, to brush their teeth and drink orange juice as they came in as immigrants, as well as salute the flag had something to be said for them. They produced people who had a rudimentary common sense of what it was to be an American.

Heffner: You know, I have to smile at that because you say “had something” to say for them, almost as if you and I still were back in those days when we feel a little bit embarrassed about those things.

Fox: We have, we have to be apologetic now about saying that it’s very good that people should, should be Americans, yes. We have to be apologetic about it because God knows we might expect them to speak English or do something terrible like that, you know, which would immediately brand us as elitists.

Heffner: Now, anthropologically…historically speaking, can you trace back many societies that lost that sense, that initial sense of unity and never regained it?

Fox: Oh, I think all those that fell apart. I mean they, they all got too big…they all got too diverse…

Heffner: They never regained it.

Fox: …they never regained it, no. Rome went…you know Rome. Yes.

Heffner: And so if you were asked to be…perform as a prophet…

Fox: As a prophet I would say it is extremely dangerous to, to push multiculturalism to the point where you don’t have a central sense of belonging and sharing among all the people of a culture…yes.

Heffner: But what do you do with the people whose participation in the sharing as you call it, was so minimal? Historically was so minimal…And you and I know that, that we can talk, you and I can talk as White males…

Fox: Yes.

Heffner: …we can talk about everyone sharing, but we know perfectly well that the sharing was left largely to us. Now what do we do about those people, how do we, how do we pull the teeth from their, their fanaticism today?

Fox: Well, I don’t know…

Heffner: Without making…

Fox: Yes.

Heffner: …the concessions that you attribute to the university administrations.

Fox: I really don’t know that I have any good prescriptions for how to do these things…I’m not a social engineer. I can see some of the ways you don’t do them, and I see…

Heffner: The way they’ve been done.

Fox: The way they’ve been done. I mean…although, of course, again you can’t say this without being…getting all the bad labels, I think perhaps one of the worst things that was ever done, was the…was all the affirmative action programs. The affirmative action programs, it seems to me, have the opposite effect of what they’re intended to have. A lot of the so-called, for example, increase of racial tension on campus and racial incidents, it seems to me, is probably as much a product of affirmative action as it is a product of the nastiest or racism of White students, which I, I frankly don’t see. I don’t see the White students as being as, as they’re in fact painted. But I do see them being under a lot of provocation. And I don’t see Black students benefiting particularly from the so-called affirmative action programs.

Heffner: You attribute this to some considerable extent to affirmative action. To affirmative action, per se, or to affirmative action…

Fox: As carried out.

Heffner: …poorly…poorly carried out.

Fox: Poorly carried out. Yes, I mean the, the admission of large numbers of unqualified students who, who then feel even more oppressed having got into a situation where they’re, they’re expected to perform to standards they, they can’t meet. Or standards get lower to meet them, as it were. So they then feel patronized because they’re being put through a parallel system in Black studies or whatever it is, that everyone knows is running at a lower standard than the rest of the university, so their degrees aren’t taken seriously. I mean they’re not being turned out as doctors, lawyers, engineers and things like that, which the Black community could use. But they’re being turned out as students of oppression studies as they’ve been sarcastically called.

Heffner: But that’s our fault, isn’t it?

Fox: It’s our fault.

Heffner: Because we didn’t put into this venture what universities might have put into the venture.

Fox: That’s right. Instead of taking students from…you see, what’s happening here, too, a lot of the resentment you’re getting, of course, is among poor White students. If you can call them that. That is, students themselves from White working class backgrounds whose schools and backgrounds weren’t that much better in many cases than the Black students, but who are being…see themselves as being discriminated against while Black students are being favored and Hispanic students or even someone with an American Indian grandmother, is being privileged as against them and they don’t think they have it so hot. They had to struggle, they had poor inner city backgrounds as well. A lot of the resentment is coming from them and that’s, that’s where you’d expect it. No, if we’d have…the place to start here, of course, is in the community and in the schools and in the homes. And the universities can’t pick it up at a later stage and somehow hope to reverse it without causing all these problems. Then having caused all these problems, turning around and pretending it’s a moral issue, saying “the bad White racist students” you see.

Heffner: Do you think with…and we have a minute left…do you think that with resources, appropriate resources now, universities could do more…much more and perhaps turn the tide?

Fox: They could, but they’d have to completely re-think what they were doing and they would have to give up all the shibboleths and holy cows that they’ve erected over the past twenty years and start, I think, from the drawing board…do it again.

Heffner: Anthropologically, once more. Are there examples in history of societies doing that…starting anew?

Fox: Picking themselves up and starting again?

Heffner: Yes.

Fox: Yes, yes, there are. Not spectacularly, I think, but (laughter) this isn’t as though this is a model mistake…we’re not asking to re-create the Roman Empire, we’re only asking, I think, to make a few sensible adjustments in one institution within the society, namely the university.

Heffner: That’s an optimistic and an upbeat note to end on, it seems to me, when you talk about a few changes. Let’s end it on that and thank you very much for joining me today, Robin Fox.

Fox: My pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s fascinating theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.