By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 10/19/98
In olden days, ''before the oppression began,'' as Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate put
it, there existed at the University of Pennsylvania an institution called Van Pelt College
House. This was a residence in which diversity flourished - real diversity, not the
sour quasi-apartheid common at American universities today. Van Pelt House brought
together instructors and students of every stripe - ''evangelicals and gay activists,
Catholic Newman Center members and
radical feminists, conservatives and revolutionaries,
blacks and whites of all persuasions, including the first few presidents of the militant
Black Student League and blacks majoring in finance at the Wharton School.''
What the residents of Van Pelt experienced, Kors and Silverglate write in a blistering
new book, ''The Shadow University'' (Free Press), was the authentic ''discovery of
difference'' that once made the best colleges incubators of tolerance and
broadmindedness. ''Its members moved each year from distance to conversation, and
from mutual suspicions to various degrees of understanding, and, usually, to touchingly
kind relationships. People offended each other all the time, but they learned to
talk to each other and to understand each other.''
Try to find a Van Pelt House at Penn, or anywhere else, in the 1990s. Rarely are
students today encouraged to view each other as individuals. They are pushed instead
to divide themselves by race, sex, and ethnicity. Higher education once offered
undergraduates the time and tools they needed to shape their own identities; now
undergraduates get their identities handed to them as they arrive on campus.
At Smith College, freshmen in 1990 were provided with handbooks from the Office of
Student Affairs. These began with a definition of ''ethnic identity'' and went on to
supply a glossary of ''oppression'': Ableism, Ageism, Antisemitism, Classism,
Ethnocentrism, Heterosexism, Lookism, Racism, Religious Discrimination, Sexism.
These terms would prove valuable, the new students were told, ''as groups of people begin
the process of realizing that they are oppressed.''
It isn't only at Smith that administrators are engaged so tendentiously in bringing
students to political enlightenment. Incoming Columbia freshmen a few years ago were
lectured on ''the archetypes and stereotypes in American society that support racism and
prejudice''; they then gathered to hear three students - one gay, one Asian, one black -
discuss their encounters with bigotry and discrimination. Dartmouth's mandatory
orientation dealt with what the assistant dean of freshmen termed ''the various forms of
`isms': sexism, racism, classism.'' For newcomers at Bowdoin, there was a program
snappily called ''Defining Diversity: Your Role in Racial-Consciousness Raising and
Cross-Cultural Social Enhancers.''
Kors, a professor of history, is on most issues a conservative; Silverglate, a noted
attorney, is a liberal. What they share is a commitment to freedom, especially
freedom of speech and conscience. The two men, who were undergraduates at Princeton
in the 1960s, have watched with alarm the transformation of US campuses from places of
robust expression to grim zones of censorship and repression. When they were
students, the Free Speech movement was germinating. Today free speech is out,
and speech codes are in.
No longer do universities prize the uninhibited clash of ideas and opinions. On
campuses from sea to shining sea, political correctness is the ruling orthodoxy and The
Right Not To Be Offended trumps every consideration. The authors describe case after
case of professors and students silenced, punished, or exiled for daring to say things
somebody deemed offensive. Some of the episodes are notorious - a chapter is devoted
to the shocking ''water buffalo'' inquisition at the University of Pennsylvania.
Others are little known. Consider the fate of Don Staples, a professor of film at
the University of North Texas:
''At a university forum on ways to improve the experience
of minority students, a black undergraduate complained
that courses contained inadequate materials by minorities.
Staples replied that his own course incorporated a large
number of contributions by black filmmakers, but that
minority students in his class still had poor attendance.
For that remark, the university suspended Staples for one
week. Chancellor Alfred F. Hurley [explained] that while
free speech would be protected, `racism will not be
How bad is it? In 1993, a motion was introduced at a faculty meeting of Hampshire
College in Amherst. It affirmed ''the right of all members of the college community
to the free expression of views in speech or in art, and the right of all members of the
community to hear the expression of any views'' and condemned ''the censorship or
prohibition of non-criminal speech.'' The motion was defeated, 26-21. THAT
''A nation that does not educate in freedom,'' Kors and Silverglate warn, ''will not
survive in freedom, and will not even know when it has lost it.'' All tyrannies
eventually crumble; so will the tyranny of thought in American higher education. But
between now and eventually, how many free minds and spirits will be crushed? ''The
Shadow University'' sends up an unignorable flare, but it may be a long time before help
Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.
This story ran on page A23 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.