Now political correctness is connected to politicization. The
university is politicized, the politicizers say. But they do not
recoil, appalled at their conclusion that every scholar deep down
is a politician. Nor do they try to minimize the fact which they've
uncovered. No, they embrace it. They furthermore say, "It's
necessary to replace the politics we've had up to now with our
politics, or, rather, my politics." This is a claim of
tyranny, somewhat disguised by the demand in the speech of
the politicizers to democratize everything.
Politicization, therefore, leads to political correctness, the
new orthodoxy to replace the old one. And those who speak of it are
quite open about it: We must give scholarship, we must give the
university a progressive perspective, an ethnic one, a homophilic
one, and so on. Scholarship must not only be inspired by, but
infused with, political correctness.
Now these two things - politicization and PC - are manifest in
three aspects of the universities: first, in the admission of
students and recruitment of faculty, and the related question of
affirmative action; second, in campus life and the demand for
sensitivity; and third, in the curriculum and the criticism of the
Affirmative action I won't discuss, except to mention the two
parts of the questions that I think are raised by the
politicization of campus life: first, justice; and second,
As to the justice of affirmative action, I think that to most
people it's gradually sinking in that two wrongs don't make a
right. And as to the matter of pride, affirmative action is the
only government program that's ashamed of itself and that cannot
identify its beneficiaries: "Here is the new affirmative action
candidate we've just found." That cannot be said, of course,
without hurting the candidate's pride.
Affirmative action is perhaps not yet on the run, but I think
it's on the defensive. It's of course very strong in the
universities, entrenched in bureaucracy. Everything else will be
excused there, even certain conservative views, if you accept
affirmative action. But the new Harvard president, I was encouraged
to see, has said that the problem of affirmative action is a
problem of supply, of finding sufficient and qualified minorities.
The suggestion is, therefore, that it's not a question of
recruitment. (Of course, the original premise of affirmative action
is that the problem is not supply, but rather in the racism -
conscious or unconscious - of the recruiters.) So I think that's a
I turn now to the politicization of campus life. We've become
familiar with speech codes on the campus that require students and
faculty to avoid speech that may be offensive to certain groups.
These have been set up in many universities, not yet at mine,
Harvard, which does, however, have regulations on sexual
harassment, requiring professors to teach classes "without
unnecessarily drawing attention to the sexual difference."
What about the use of "he or she"? Would that kind of speech be
required to avoid sexually harassing your audience? That usage to
me seems compulsive and ridiculous. Ridiculous because "he or she"
is a formula intended to draw attention away from the sexual
difference, and instead it does the opposite. Indeed, this new
usage seems to say that there is no impersonal pronoun, and it is
based on the premise of feminism, or at least of the original
feminism. Everywhere there is a "he" you could put a "she," and
everywhere there's a "she" you could put a "he." In other words, it
is based on the interchangeability of the sexes.
It's also compulsive. The most recent example of this I saw was
in a letter from our chairman, in which he spoke of "anyone worth
his or her salt."
"He or she" is, I think, a prime example of political
correctness and the way it works, which is not confined to
universities, or even to ideologues. It's an attempt to create an
atmosphere of self-censorship, also known euphemistically as
Self-expression at Harvard
There was a sensitivity incident - widely reported - at Harvard
this last spring. A young woman put out a Confederate flag from her
dormitory window as an act of self-expression to display her
political views. She was attacked as insensitive to the opinions of
others, and she was defended as giving us an instance of free
speech, which, of course, has been expanded, as we all know,
to "free expression." Harvard did nothing to prevent this young
woman from hanging out her flag. It accepted the reason why she did
it. It spoke of the right of free expression, but deplored this
particular use of it. This was very much, I think, in line with the
policy of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Question: should conservatives - or, rephrase that: should
reasonable or sensible people - adopt the ACLU view of this matter?
A short-term alliance with them might be all right, but what about
their view? I think not. It's time to reconsider the identification
of free speech with free expression. Of course, I'm not the first
to suggest this; Justice Scalia has been making the point for some
time. This identification first began with the Flag Salute cases in
the early 1940s; so it has a history.
Free speech is something necessarily associated with reason;
it's offering an opinion containing a reason. When you give a
reason, you give some common ground, offered to convince or
persuade someone else. It's not me imposing on you. Therefore free
speech implies a community, a common citizenship. The original
purpose of free speech was to make possible democratic government:
How can we get together to decide things if we don't have the
capacity to speak freely before and during our deliberations?
Free speech makes you think of someone else. Even if you have a
selfish reason, you must claim that the other person would do the
same. A man comes to a fancy dinner party. A plate of asparagus is
passed around, and he cuts off all of the tips and sweeps them onto
his plate. The lady sitting next to him looks at him in horror and
says, "Why, sir, why ever did you do that?" "Because, madame,
they're much the best part."
Now, "free expression," by contrast with this example of sweet
reason, is self-centered: You express yourself, and you express
yourself as opposed to others. It's my identity, my roots, my
values. The Harvard student was from Virginia, and she hung out the
Confederate flag to celebrate George Washington's birthday. George
Washington led a movement for secession from Britain, so he would
have therefore approved the movement of secession of the South in
The Right to offend
With self-expression you have no duty to placate or appease
other people. If you do that, you're not being honest to yourself.
So self-expression culminates in the right to offend. It doesn't
matter that this student had so much trouble in identifying
herself, in finding her ethnicity, that she had to go searching in
The student was offending black students at Harvard. She didn't
mean to, or so she said, but this wasn't believed. And the black
students had a right therefore to take offense at this. One of them
put out a Nazi flag. Well, it's hard to see the meaning of that,
but it's clear that this student wanted to do her worst. You take
offense by giving offense.
This is not a recipe for a happy, or even for a stable, society,
not to mention a university. Such a system can work only through
the forbearance of certain groups who give up their right to give
and take offense. Some groups have a right to offend; others don't.
And the point of the Confederate flag was to challenge that
The ACLU doctrine, the identification of free speech with free
expression, leads to this result: Do your worst, because you're not
free unless you can carry freedom to an extreme; rather to an
unhealthy extreme, indeed, to an admittedly unhealthy
Besides, the identification of free speech with free expression
is open to the possibility of reversal. Instead of considering the
Confederate flag as symbolic speech that is, understanding
expression as speech - you might consider a tirade of racial slurs
as an expressive act - that is, understanding speech as a deed. And
then, logically, you could prevent the speech, because it amounts
to an offensive action. That's what Brown University did recently
in expelling a student. Because almost all human actions are
capable of some meaning or some imputation of meaning, it's hard to
draw a line between meaningful free speech and a meaningful act.
Therefore, I think, it's foolish to throw away the distinction
between speech and expression. It's a difficult distinction in
theory, but in practice it makes sense.
And another distinction is needed, one between free speech and
academic freedom. The purpose of free speech is to make democratic
government possible. The purpose of academic freedom is to further
inquiry. Inquiry means becoming more aware, not becoming more
sensitive, and being "aware" means being open-minded to what is
new, and is reflected in a desire to learn.
Giving and taking offense is especially inappropriate to a
campus. It's perhaps part of politics, but certainly not part of
inquiry. Unlimited free inquiry requires courtesy, academic
etiquette. Miss Manners made this point recently, and I think very
correctly. There should be, I think, no right to protest at
universities. There should be, on the contrary, a duty to
listen. Universities should teach courtesy and require it of
their students. But, of course, professors should feel free to
embarrass the hell out of their students, to shame them for their
lack of knowledge. The end of education is greater awareness,
greater openness, not greater sensitivity.
Education is a drawing-out, literally. It doesn't mean finding
your roots in the sense of creating your values. Those things are
pre-rational. Too many students nowadays come to universities to
find out where they're coming from instead of where they're going.
In education, your goal is more important than your roots.
Academic freedom is more wide-ranging than free speech; in
principle it is unlimited. Academic freedom, for example, would
take up the question whether democracy is a good thing; whether all
men really have been created equal. Under a healthy regime of free
speech, these questions might be taken for granted in a liberal
But academic freedom also requires greater decorum than free
speech in society at large. The right to speak, therefore, must in
universities be accompanied by the duty to listen.
Now to my third point, the curriculum and the canon. This arises
out of the question of academic freedom. The politicizers speak of
a traditional curriculum - the great books - as a "canon." When
they use this term they compare a university curriculum to the
decision of the Catholic Church as to what writings are the
word of God. The implication is that the curriculum is an
authoritative decision in favor of certain books that uphold the
power of the decision makers. Living white males require the
reading of books authored by dead white males. We should not accept
this tendentious term, canon. It's an example of what it claims to
deplore, an arbitrary and authoritative decision given without
There's no need, I think, to defend the traditional curriculum
or great books curriculum as untouchable or unchangeable. Paul
Cantor at the University of Virginia has recently made this point.
There are perhaps great authors in our time, even in the Third
World: Vargas Llosa, Salman Rushdie. William Faulkner, Flannery
John Steinbeck are American classics, not so long in their
graves. We should keep an open mind, examine candidates for
inclusion, but on the basis of their quality, not of their PC.
There's another reason not to be so touchy about Western
civilization: All civilization is more or less Western now. Western
civilization is a relatively new expression, dating, I think, from
the late 19th century, characteristic of an historical - or,
rather, historicist - way of thinking. It makes it seem as if the
essence of our civilization is merely its location on the globe,
"west of east." The distinction between "west and east" gives a
hint of the uniqueness of the West. But it's necessary, especially
now, to be a little bit more explicit.
It's fashionable today to doubt the value of the great books
because they do not promote equal rights against discrimination by
sex, lifestyle, and race. Another objection is that they are
ethnocentric, because they're Western. You can use the second
objection against the first. In no Eastern classic will the
principle of equal rights be found. That principle is best argued
in Western classics, authored, generally, by bourgeois white
Let us define "Western" as having access to the Greeks, who
discovered philosophy and science. Philosophy and science permit
all human beings who know them to be self-critical. Only in the
West does one find such a term as "ethnocentric," such a science as
anthropology, or such a philosophy as relativism. Those who accuse
the great books of being Western forget that their very accusation
is Western. It's impossible for the great books really to reflect
Western values, because Western values are in tension. Western
philosophy and science are opposed to Western divine revelation,
custom, tradition, to whatever resists reason.
One cannot become aware of Western values without realizing that
they present a problem, rather than furnish a solution. What books
are great is not decided by a local board of censors or by any
government, but by common consent of the educated over generations
and across national boundaries as to which books most memorably
pose a human problem; for example, justice in Plato's
Republic, love in Cervantes' Don Quixote.
So the authors of the great books are not agents of oppression.
Authors who defend tyranny or lie for a cause soon lose their
following when times change. Many of the great authors, it is true,
were not revolutionaries. They were anxious to preserve the
critical stance in all circumstances, and so they did not give
their hearts to a political ideal, but offered their criticism in
the soft voice of irony.
Indeed, the critics of the great books today are not
revolutionaries either; they merely repeat the dominant values of
our time, those of equal rights, which they often assert with the
complacent outrage of a newspaper editorial. Such critics seem to
risk nothing, neither life nor liberty nor career. In fact, of
course, they risk everything. When small critics try to demean
large ones, reason turns on itself and the principle of criticism
is in danger. That principle is the only friend that equal rights
have ever had.
I recently saw Spike Lee's movie "Do the Right Thing." It's a
movie that is full of thought, I was surprised to see. It ends, as
you know, with two quotations from dead black males; one from
Martin Luther King against violence, and one from Malcolm X in
favor of violence. One character in the movie says, "You've always
got to do the right thing." But what is the right thing? The movie
ends with a question mark. And that, I think, is Western
civilization at its best. I perhaps don't share all of Spike Lee's
opinions, but he isn't politically correct, I'll hand him that.
PC at the universities is the suicide of the intellect. In the
West now we find many intellectuals who take part against the
intellect. If you want an example, look at Richard Rorty in the
July 1, 1991 New Republic. Consider his philosophy of
anti-foundationalism. There is no foundation to things discoverable
by the intellect, and no foundation to the things that we believe,
no reason to believe them; they're mere assertions. And being mere
assertions, they're ultimately political assertions. Activating
your intellect, using your bean, doesn't help. It doesn't change
anything. The rational merely endorses the non-rational, so the
university should merely endorse political views, the correct
The Ivory Tower
Soon after I graduated from college, there was a commencement
speaker at Harvard, a famous art historian whose name was Erwin
Panofsky, who gave a speech on the ivory tower. Since he was an art
historian, he was interested in the image, and the history of the
image, of an ivory tower to represent a university. But he also
gave a defense of the ivory tower. It signifies a certain moral
superiority based on intellectual superiority, and therefore not
open to the usual ills of moral superiority, namely
self-righteousness and intrusiveness. (It's not that professors
could do better at politics than politicians can; they can't. But
politicians are looking not for truth, but for power. Professors
are more naive than politicians, not out of ignorance, but because
they're more knowing.) Now, however, the ivory tower no longer
believes in the ivory tower, and you wouldn't hear that speech at a
commencement these days. This development has a long history. It's
a phenomenon known as "post-modern."
Once upon a time, in the Renaissance, philosophers formed the
idea that the intellect would reform and spread civilization
through an enlightenment of all mankind. The name for this came to
be "modernity." It was a great project for the relief of man's
estate, as one of the philosophers described it. Now Rousseau was
the first modern philosopher to question that project, the first
post-modem. Rousseau was represented in the figure of the noble
savage. The noble savage is not civilized, obviously, but
he's noble; or, rather, he's not civilized, and
therefore he's noble. Rousseau represents modern Western
civilization in criticism of itself
Rousseau's noble savage could remind you of the multiculturalism
today, which says that we in the West shouldn't be so proud of our
mechanical, material civilization. It destroys nature, neglects
human creativity. But there's this difference between the noble
savage and multiculturalism: To be politically correct we dare not
call our noble savage noble, and we dare not call him a savage. We
can't call him a savage because all civilizations are equal.
There's really no such thing as civilization, no such thing as
being civilized; there are only cultures, and being in a culture is
not the same thing as being cultivated. Cultures have replaced
civilization. You cannot call the Third World uncivilized, but
also, and for the same reason, you cannot call it noble. We want
something noble, but we're so far from it as to be unable to
pronounce the name.
But education is a noble thing. Every society has socialization,
but only civilized society has education. Education is the intrepid
questioning and self-criticism of reason: only the West has
institutions of self-criticism. Those are our universities. All
other cultures have self-expression only. You don't need a
university to express yourself; you can do that with an army.
So, self-criticism is our uniqueness and our special nobility.
I've been trying to show that the problem of politicization and PC
goes very deep. It has to do with the rise and fall of modernity in
Western politics and Western philosophy.
Our test now is, in part, intellectual - to understand our
predicament. But, of course, it's also practical; it's to rally in
defense of our universities. The universities have to take their
help where they can get it, from Washington even, from the
American people, who have more and better appreciation of education
than our educators. And above all, we in the universities must stir
ourselves; we must begin to oppose things we professors have
allowed to happen at our universities without protest. We mustn't
let things get by that we know are wrong; we must start to raise a
little hell. We shouldn't despair, because the cause of the
university is the highest there is. It's up to us to give it more
power - the power to teach, the power to learn, and the power to
Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. is Frank G. Thomson
professor of government at Harvard University.
Dr. Mansfield's remarks were delivered to an audience of Salvatori
Fellows at a colloquium sponsored by the Heritage Foundation on
June 26, 1991 al the University Club in Washington, D.C.
ISSN 0272-1155. Ó 1991 by The Heritage
Political correctness, you all should know, is a term that seems to
come from students, not from faculty. I told my son about the new
phrase I was hearing from my colleagues, and he said, "Oh, we used
to say that three or four years ago." Ultimately I suppose
political correctness comes from the Communist Party, where one
presumes it was not used sarcastically.