In college, one of my English classes discussed the book Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. The professor, Sister Mary Dennis, asked for our initial reactions to the book, the tale of a lesbian coming of age in the 40s and 50s. One woman raised her hand and declared "this was the nastiest book I have ever read." Many in the class nodded their heads in agreement.
"Well then," Sister Mary Dennis replied, "you're obviously not very well-read."
This incident 15 years ago is the first example in a long list of reasons I think Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind in this month's Atlantic, are falling victim to the fallacy of recency.
This is actually the first of two posts about the article; I'm going to focus on their arguments about "political correctness" here and talk about their thoughts on trigger warnings in a later post.
Lukianoff and Haidt are the latest in a long line of white men to chime in on the tyranny of political correctness on college campus and they're not 100% wrong. Liberal arts colleges seem to be big nests of intellectual crazy, but I argue that this taking offense at every little thing is not new.
In my freshman poetry class, at a different college, we read a beautiful poem I wish I could remember about a woman kicked out of college for being a lesbian. A classmate objected to portraying lesbians in a positive light.
In the same class a student objected to Wilfred Owen's heartbreaking poem Dulce et Decorum Est, which contained a graphic description of a WWI gas attack. The student objected because his daddy had been a soldier and something something un-American - and this was even before 9-11.
My sophomore year, in my dorm, a group of drunken white guys shouted the n-word out a dorm room window at a black woman walking past. She went in to complain to the black hall director, and the hall director went to the dorm room of the men, who were one drinking infraction away from being kicked off campus. The guys were drunk and belligerent, things got heated, another student joined the fracas... and when the dust settled, the hall director, who was black, was fired. The white guys, who maintained that they weren't shouting the n-word AT anyone, they just happened to shout the word near the window when a black person was walking by, weren't disciplined. Not even for the drinking infraction. Other students from my dorm circulated a petition to have the other student who joined the fracas disciplined and banned from the dorm. The petition specifically mentioned that the student was Hispanic.
Okay, so far I've proved that I went to two different colleges that were full of idiots. Probably says more about my taste in colleges, right? Well...
In 1903, John Spencer Bassett offended white students and parents at Duke University by claiming that Booker T. Washington was, "save General Lee," the greatest man born in the South in the past 100 years. Local papers and politicians got in on the campaign to fire Basset, who did ultimately keep his job.
In 1963, Howard Zinn was fired from Spelman for offensive comments he made in support of the black civil rights movement.
In 1972, Howard Bruce Franklin was fired and blacklisted from Stanford for offending officials with words and actions opposing the war in Vietnam.
In her book And They Were Wonderful Teachers, Karen Graves writes of Florida's long history of trying to force gay and lesbian teachers and professors from working with children - their offensive lifestyles, their alleged recruitment efforts, and their "militancy" (i.e., assertion that it's not right to fire gay teachers and professors).
History is full of professors persecuted for offending Christian students with their blasphemous notions about evolution; professors offending students with their Marxist views; professors supporting civil rights, professors opposing military interventions.
Maybe it's because colleges are full of people who get paid to pontificate all day. Maybe it's because nobody likes being compelled to think. But it's not new, kids. It's as old as academia.