This past Thursday and Friday, I enjoyed the warm hospitality and vibrant intellectual company of professors and students at Louisiana Tech University. The historians at Tech host an “International Affairs” speaker series every year; this year their theme is “America and the World in the Age of Trump,” and they kindly invited me to participate.
A few weeks ahead of the event, I sent a title for my talk to Drew McKevitt, one of my marvelous hosts, so that he could pass it along to the student who would be designing the poster. My title was, “Toward a Correct History of ‘Political Correctness.’” Here’s the poster for the event:
When I saw that poster, I said, and I quote, “Holy shit.”
I mean, that is one provocative image.
Right up to the moment that I started to speak on Friday, I was pretty worried that what I had planned to talk about and how I planned to approach the subject just wouldn’t measure up to the expectations prompted by this image, in terms of controversy or boldness or political critique. But the talk went well, and it was well received. I got to throw a little shade at Stanford (more on that below) and at the people who are continually invoking some version of the canon wars or the abandonment of “Western Civ” or the rise of “political correctness“ as a pivotal moment of cultural declension.* The problem, of course, is what people are trying to do with that already problematic narrative: delegitimize and defund traditional institutions of higher education, turning what was once viewed as a public good into a private financial burden, while at the same time figuring out ways to turn a profit from the public’s distrust.
The Q&A afterwards was lively, it seemed to me, with a number of students challenging some of my stated and unstated assumptions about higher education as a public good. Every student who posed a question or made a comment was thoughtful, courteous and marvelously sharp. The next time I give a talk on this topic, I will be sure to build in those questions and my (revised) answers to them in the presentation itself. So many thanks to the Louisiana Tech students whose polite skepticism will make future iterations of my argument sharper and better.
Now, about that shade…
As it happened, while the bold poster advertising my talk was hanging in the hallways at Louisiana Tech, Stanford University managed to embroil itself in a controversy over the use of an old photo of the current President on a poster for an upcoming conference at the Law School. The title of that conference, much like the title of the speaker series at Louisiana Tech, posits the advent of a new age, the “age of Trump.” The conference, organized by Michele Landis Dauber, is called “The Way Forward: Title IX Advocacy in the Trump Era,” and the image Dauber wanted to use was this screengrab from Trump’s Access Hollywood interview with Billy Bush:
You can read the various rhetorical contortions of Stanford administrators’ successive findings and backtrackings in the Inside Higher Ed article linked above. The laughable rationale offered by the administrators who first denied Dauber permission to post the image on the Law School website or distribute it on posters advertising the event was that “these Access Hollywood images could give the appearance of partisanship” – as if the title of the conference had not already posited some potentially problematic connection between sexual harassment and Donald Trump.
My suggestion to the students at Louisiana Tech was that perhaps Stanford has a political correctness problem: it is apparently policing the speech of professors to make sure they do not say anything that might be construed as offensive to anyone.
What I didn’t mention to the Tech folks was the history behind Stanford’s current, diffident assertion of official nonpartisanship — nonpartisanship for some. That history has to do with the vexed relationship between the University and the Hoover Institution. (George Nash touches on some of this history in his book on Herbert Hoover and Stanford.) After a series of controversies in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, controversies which involved faculty insisting that a too-close association with the politically partisan Hoover Institution was jeopardizing Stanford’s reputation as a research university that fostered independent intellectual inquiry, the university apparently (and, some would say, belatedly) settled on its current policy.
And even in its backtracking, Stanford is standing by that policy, which basically boils down to the insistence that faculty speech must be apolitical. Of course, this policy doesn’t apply to Hoover Fellows when they are writing or speaking under the aegis of that institution, though the Hoover Institution itself may have other expectations regarding what sorts of political speech would be out of bounds for the scholars and public intellectuals affiliated with it. It is quite unlikely that those expectations overlap with the expectations of Stanford University for its faculty. Indeed, much of the work of the Hoover Institution is unabashedly, designedly political.
So, in effect (if not in intention), this insistence on neutrality or nonpartisanship, allegedly a long-standing policy of Stanford University, ends up protecting the political speech of conservative intellectuals on campus while muffling the political speech of liberal or Left intellectuals on campus.
Now, tell me again: who won the campus culture wars?
*See, for example, David Brooks’s most recent execrable column (as opposed to his “most recent, execrable column”). This kitchen-junk-drawer-full of non-sequiturs was not on my radar screen yesterday morning, but it typifies the broader genre of jeremiads blaming every national and international problem on the revision of somebody’s syllabus.