One of the central pieces of the right-wing attack on academia in the late eighties and early nineties, which resulted in the phrase “politically correct’ entering mainstream American discourse, was the debate over Stanford University changing one of its course requirements for all first-year students there. As the university community debated the changes, conservatives were quick to point to a group of students engaged in the debate, who chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture has got to go,” as a sign that the opposition to the “traditional” course requirement hated America and its values. From Rush Limbaugh’s increasingly-popular radio show to Dinesh D’Souza’s bestselling book Illiberal Education, these students were held up as representatives of the allegedly invidious leftist forces destroying America from within, with George Will comparing them to Saddam Hussein, and Allan Bloom referring to them as “barbarians” who had “taken over the citadel.”
As with so much of this pablum, the omission of context here is crucial. While the students’ chant about “Western Culture” was told in a way that was technically factually accurate, it leaves out the important detail that the name of the course that the students were protesting against was literally named Western Culture. The students were not saying that the culture of the West (assuming such a thing even exists) needed to be eradicated; they were protesting against all Stanford students being forced to take a course that was framed as a way to begin interacting with the “greatest thinkers” of all time, to help them develop not just their identities as budding scholars but as people, that limited the examples of those “greatest thinkers” to just white, Western, long-dead males. Without that context, many people (right-wingers or otherwise) were led to believe that a massive curriculum change took place at one of the most prestigious universities in America because of a few vocal, “America-hating” student agitators.
Even with the background on this particular incident, so much of the popular retelling of this era of American politics omits crucial details of the crucible that forged the movements that sprang up on university campuses across the country around this time. Right-wing rhetoric from this era, which eventually became mainstreamed (in large part because academia, as usual, did a piss-poor job of defending itself against conservative attacks), would have you believe that a small coterie of left-wingers got angry at the continued success of Republicans around this time, and exercised an undue amount of influence in academia to turn it into even more of a fount of “left-wing indoctrination.” The demonstrable truth is that the student movements and protests of this era were in response to a visible surge in attacks on minorities on college campuses that had begun in the first years of the Reagan presidency — both verbal and physical — that left many with the understandable feeling that they were no longer safe on campus.
For more on this rash of attacks, as well as the other details mentioned above, I highly recommend John K. Wilson’s excellent book The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. Even though the book was published in the mid-nineties, in the aftermath of the initial wave of right-wing press over these issues, much of what Wilson talks about in terms of how conservatives fought these attacks decades ago still largely holds true for what’s going on in the cross-section of academia and politics today. For example, Wilson goes into detail debunking the popular retelling of another controversy over changing the curriculum of a first-year writing course at the University of Texas at Austin, where Lynne Cheney said that it was okay that conservative forces outside of the university were able to scuttle a plan to make the course’s readings more diverse, by saying that it was okay for non-academic entities to tell academia what it could or couldn’t do, because the left-wing forces within the university community who proposed these changes were “political” in nature.
The clear implication here, of course, is that the decisions that not only made old academic canons the exclusive province of dead white males, but made whiteness and maleness and Christianity and heterosexuality and so on the “normal” by which all deviations from the “normal” were judged, were somehow not a product of the politics of their time. Everything from sodomy laws to the mass murders perpetuated during the Crusades are framed as the “natural order of things,” and not the product of those in power using that power to eradicate all opposition to it. Everything that right-wingers want to force on the rest of us, from morality to capitalism, isn’t political; only those who oppose them are political, and so those people can’t be trusted because they’re the only ones who hold any biases. When those in opposition say that they are no more political than the conservatives who promote this kind of thinking, it is taken as a prima facie confession that non-conservatives are political agitators, and right-wingers are apolitical actors just enforcing what is “normal” and what is “right” in the world.
By this logic, then, any teaching which introduces the idea that maybe those outside of the canon had ideas that are worth studying and considering, even to the smallest extent, is nothing short of heresy, and must be eradicated immediately. This underlying logic behind the right-wing attacks on higher education thirty years ago has remained the same, from the battles over “students’ rights” in the aughts, to the battles over ethnic studies courses in Arizona years ago, to so much of what we have seen come out of Florida in the past few years. The old quip that minorities used to say was, “Your history is a requirement, but my history is an elective.” Now we should probably revise that to “Your history is a requirement, but it’s against the law to teach my history.”
Much more than that history is at stake of being lost here; as we have seen in Florida, the very mechanisms by which individuals in the school systems can make any decisions for themselves in a way that they have never been tested in the past fifty years. There are already rumblings that my home state of Ohio will be the next state to push this approach to eradicate minority history and voices in its schools, and more are sure to follow. Stopping this is not some abstract philosophical matter to be debated in the pages of academic journals; it is a conflict that is raging this very second, and the bad people are winning, and more good people need to stand up against it.