Postmodern Immunity

George Seaver

From time to time the NAS invites our members and other guests to write articles for NAS.org. The opinions expressed therein do not necessarily reflect the official position of the National Association of Scholars.

Michael Kellman, commenting on the March 17 NAS article, “Free to Agree,” wrote that a group of tenured faculty at the University of Oregon attempted to challenge an "Orwellian diversity initiative" proposed by the university administration. These faculty members were unable to stop the proposal and “didn't exactly win, but what we ended up with was far better than the Proposed Plan.”1 That was the best they could hope for. Similarly, University of Pennsylvania History Professor Charles Kors in an article in the New Criterion ("On the Sadness of Higher Education") criticized the state of academic freedom, concluding that,

We only can work to protect the innocent, expose what the media are willing to expose, and wait a generational shift in administrators and the professoriate. Such a shift, alas, not only is not on the horizon, but also recedes ever further from view given the bigotry against intellectual difference and pluralism[...]and the willingness of society to subsidize those who have contempt for the culture[...]The academic world that I entered is gone. I teach for my students, whom I love, and I fight for intellectual pluralism, for legal equality and for fairness simply because it is my duty to bear witness to the values I cherish, with no expectation of success2.

With few exceptions, “no expectation of success” is the norm in attempting to challenge the "social justice" and "constructionist" culture in academia now and has been for two decades. The question raised is why this epistemology is so immune to evidence and reason, and so readily defended, as for example was pointed out by Peter Wood in his recent article at the NAS web site on the diversity requirements for tenure at Virginia Tech1.

There seems to be general agreement among critics that teaching, research and residential programs at universities have been corrupted by ideologies, seen as fragmented around individual proponents and theories. The question then is how could this persist and even grow for 20 years with such pervasiveness, given the passing of so many of its advocates? For many the postmodern control at universities is even more comprehensive and committed now than 20 years ago.

Ideas have consequences, and a systematic pattern of ideas has, in addition, persistence, comprehensiveness and the ability to command behavior and emotion. I believe that is what we are seeing here. Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington in his 2003 book Who Are We? explored the weakening of America's cultural and "creedal identity," its classical liberalism, and concluded: "These efforts by a nation's leaders to deconstruct the nation they govern were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history. Substantial elements of America's elites in academia, the media, business, and the professions joined governmental elites (bureaucrats, judges, educators) in these efforts. The deconstructionist coalition, however, did not include most Americans." After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, he noted, "If external threats subside, deconstructionist movements could achieve renewed momentum."3 These events are comparable to and a corollary of his Clash of Civilizations4 concepts.

How did this come to pass? The rise of literary theory and post-structuralism in academia in the 1960s and '70s has been well-documented, for example, by David Lehman in his 1991 book Sign of the Times5 and Terry Eagletonin Literary Theory6 of 1983. The deconstructivist theory postulated that meaning is culturally constructed. Over time this developed a partisan approach, postulating hierarchies, privileging and oppression, and resulted in, among other effects, a demand for "social justice." Foucault's discursive practices extended this theory to all activities and metastasized into many different titular forms. For example, Professor Cornel West in his book Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America7 introduced his "new cultural politics of difference" which describes African American oppression using "the formulations of the post-structuralist - Derrida, deMan, Foucault and Said - on the role of 'difference,' 'otherness,' and marginality in discursive operations." Another metastasis of deconstruction developed as "Critical Social Theory" by Herbert Marcuse. Professor Eagleton in After Theory8 (2003) described Marcuse and other Marxists having turned their political homelessness into relevancy by transmuting class oppression into cultural oppression. They formulated the "repressive tolerance" concept, where cultural construction turns tolerance into privilege for the culturally favored. The playing field is leveled by "progressive tolerance" which favored the oppressed with, for example, speech codes. This codification was relied upon by Critical Legal Studies (CLS) to justify their work of culturally constructing the U.S. Constitution9a,b.

In 1988 the revelations about the noted deconstructionist Paul deMan and his Nazi past drove the theoretical movement into the background. The President of the American Association of University Professors Cary Nelson asserted in 2009 that “all human understanding is culturally constructed,”10a and claimed that this has come to be accepted “in practice if not openly"10b by academics.

However, this did not impede the movement of deconstructivist theories into professional schools, as the CLS movement at Harvard Law School attests. In the 1980s the theory of constructionism and its social injustice dictum gained traction in schools of education, journalism, law and social work, among others, and soon hardened into an ideology that commanded behavior. The California State University schools of education embraced constructionism11 as reported by the Pacific Research Institute in 2001, as did the Harvard School of Education12. The Columbia Journalism Review in 1993 cited the obligation of American journalism "to compensate for its historic mistreatment of people who are not white, male or heterosexual,"13 which they attributed to institutional hierarchies and privileging over the decades. Wayne State's School of Social Work teaches “The Social Construction of Sexuality,”14 and the Universities of Texas and of Houston Schools of Social Work require their students to promote "social justice from local to global levels."15 Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin in his 1998 book, Deconstruction's Legal Career, asserts that "structures of social meaning are always...historically situated"16 and Harvard University Professor Lawrence Tribe in his 2008 book The Invisible Constitution describes "constructing" the Bill of Rights such that "equal protection" can both forbid racial segregation and order racial preferences17. Huntington summarized that "by the 1990s commentators were awarding victory to the deconstructionists"3, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his 1992 book, The Disuniting of America, warned that this "threatens to become a counter-revolution against the original theory of America."18

When deconstruction and discursive practices metastasized into the professional schools, the ideology soon became incorporated in the policies of legally constituted accrediting organizations. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education forced (subscription required) "social justice" criteria on its schools19. The Council on Social Work Education required students for both bachelor and masters degrees to "understand the mechanisms of oppression” and “engage in practices that advance social and economic justice."20 At two conventions of all the U.S. media corporations in 1992 and 1999, entitled "Diversity Summit Meeting," codes were adopted to ensure social justice for minorities. "Style guidelines," photo policies, "mainstreaming guidelines," "content audit," and diversity management are some of the techniques employed to achieve this result21. The American Bar Association, as the accrediting agency for all law schools in the country, threatens to withhold accreditation for law schools that do not adequately include racial diversity in admissions, even if this might violate state law such as in California19, 22.

This ideological phase was described by Ernst Gellner in his 1992 book, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion23 and by Professor Terry Eagleton in his 2003 book After Theory8; they termed the ideology postmodernism. The clash of postmodernism with classical liberalism is comparable to that described in Huntington's 1996 classic, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order4, where after the fall of Communism civilizations replaced nations as global forces in conflict. Not recognizing this singular postmodern ideology means reacting defensively to local outbreaks and, at best, achieving a less onerous outcome, as the above-cited University of Oregon case demonstrates. More importantly, the opportunity is lost to contrast the postmodern ideology with classical liberalism and its Enlightenment roots. What Professor Kors described at the beginning of this article is tyranny; the great majority could be convinced and inspired once again by the opposing classical liberal arguments, even as they were in 1776 when John Adams declared, "You and I, my dear friend, have been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live.”24

George Seaver is a former Teaching Fellow and postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

 

References                                                     

1. Kellman, M., 2009: Free to agree. National Association of Scholars Blog, March 17, 2009. www.nas.org.

2. Kors, C., 2008: On the sadness of higher education. Wall Street Journal (reprinted from The New Criterion), May 27, 2008. <online.wsj.com/articles_print>.

3. Huntington, S., 2004: Who are we. Simon and Schuster. New York. pp 427.

4. Huntington, S., 1996: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York.

5.Lehman, D., 1991: Sign of the Times. Poseidon Press. Pg. 28.

6. Eagleton, T., 1983: Literary Theory. University of Minnesota Press.

7. West, C., 1993: Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. Routledge, New York.

8. Eagleton, T., 2003: After Theory. Basic Books. New York.

9a. Silvergate, H. and C. Kors, 1998: The Shadow University. The Free Press. New York.

9b. Marcuse, H., 1965: Repressive Tolerance. In A Critique of Tolerance. Beacon Press. Boston.

10a. Nelson, C., 2009: Debate on Academic Freedom.. National Association of Scholars Conference. January 9, 2009.

10b. Nelson, C., 1997: Manifesto of a Tenured Radical.

11. Izumi, L. and G. Coburn, 2001: Facing the Classroom Challenge. Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. San Francisco. California.

12.Trower, C. and R. Chait, 2002: Faculty Diversity: Too Little for Too Long. Harvard Magazine, March-April 2002. Pg. 37.

13. McGowan, W., 2001: Coloring the News. Encounter Books. San Francisco, CA. pg. 14.

14. Wayne State University, 20067: Diversity/Oppression and Social Justice. Master's syllabus, sw 3110. Wayne State School of Social Work.

< http://socialwork.wayne.edu/syllabi/sw_3110.pdf >.

15. Balch, S. and P. Wood, 2007: The Scandal of Social Work Education. September 14, 2007. National Association of Scholars, <www.nas.org>.

16. Balkin, J., 1998: Deconstruction's Legal Career. www.yale.edu.

17. Tribe, L., 2008: The Invisible Constitution.

18. Schlesinger, A. Jr., 1992: The Disuniting of America. Norton, NY. P. 43.

19. Neal, A., 2008: Dis-Accreditation. Academic Questions, 21(4), Fall 2008. Pg. 431, 435.

20. Council on Social Work education, 2001: Education Policy and accreditation standards. Corrected November 2002, pg. 6. www.cswe.org

21. McGowan, W., 2001: Coloring the News. Encounter Books. San Francisco, CA. pg. 12-13.

22. Heriot, G., 2008: The ABA's Diversity Diktat. The WSJ, April 28, 2008.

23. Gellner, E., 1992: Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Routledge, London and New York. pp. 106. 0

24. Bailyn, Bernard, 1992: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Harvard University Press. Cambridge Massachusetts. pp. 396.

 

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