POLITICALLY CORRECT THINKING AND STATE EDUCATION
By RICHARD M. EBELING
You may recall seeing the December 24, 1990, issue of Newsweek
on the newsstands. The cover had a granite wall with raised
lettering, spelling out the words, "Thought Police." If you
read the article, you learned about something called
"politically correct thinking."
A growing number of institutions of higher learning around the
country have been establishing new and stringent linguistic
and behavioral guidelines for their students and faculties.
All words and actions that may in any way be interpreted to
contain racial, sexist or homosexual slurs carry increasingly
severe penalties. For students, it can mean anything from a
financial fine to expulsion from the school. For faculty, it
can mean grounds for dismissal, denial of tenure or lack of
From the Newsweek article, the innocent and uninformed reader
would have gained the impression that this new form of thought
police was merely the temporary, if irritating, excesses of a
few campus administrators, faculty members and students trying
to redress the racist and sexist insensitivities of the past.
Even the discussion in the article about the often dramatic
changes being introduced into core liberal arts curricula at
these institutions was made to seem as merely the movement
towards a more pluralistic view of man, society and culture.
The dominant focus in liberal arts education on Western
culture and tradition will now be modified. Other cultures,
other world philosophies, other conceptions of man and
community will be presented on an equal footing with the
European and American contributions to the human heritage.
And what about the "thought policemen"? Newsweek ended the
topic with an article by a young man who had been a thought
policeman at one of these campuses. He assured the readers
that he and others were merely trying to raise the
consciousness of their fellow students so that they would be
more aware of the "oppressiveness" of traditional language.
What if students were not interested in attending the
"reeducation" programs on campus? The author said, "Attendance
wasn't mandatory, but did we know who wouldn't show? You bet."
Contrary to the general impression that Newsweek conveyed, the
movement for "politically correct thinking" is potentially one
of the most dangerous intellectual currents in American
academia today. Some of the recent books that explain what its
proponents are all about include Destructive Generation by
David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Tenured Radicals by Roger
Kimball, and The Hollow Men by Charles Sykes.
What is the world-view of these advocates of "politically
correct thinking"? In an excellent article entitled, "The
Storm over the University," which appeared in the December 6,
1990, issue of The New York Review of Books, the well-known
philosopher John Searle gave a succinct summary:
"The history of `Western Civilization' is in large
part a history of oppression. Internally, Western
civilization oppressed women, various slave and serf
populations, and ethnic and cultural minorities
generally. In foreign affairs, the history of Western
civilization is one of imperialism and colonialism. The
so-called canon of Western civilization consists in the
official publications of this system of oppression, and
it is no accident that the authors in the `canon' are
almost exclusively Western white males, because the
civilization itself is ruled by a caste consisting almost
entirely of Western white males."
As the authors to whom I have referred demonstrate, many of
the proponents of "politically correct thinking" in American
academia are refugees and exiles from the leftist political
causes of the 1960s--for example, they who resisted American
intervention in Vietnam because they supported socialist
revolution in the Third World. They protested against "the
establishment" at home because they hated capitalism and saw
themselves as the vanguard of a coming "people's democracy"
that would replace the existing "fascist Amerika"; and because
they hated the "commercial society" and resented the
"oppression" of market relationships.
Unable to win their war in the streets or in the political
world, they retreated into the halls of ivy, which they now
increasingly dominate. Everything they dislike is the product
of "white capitalist power." Everything they cherish is found
in the non-market communalism and collectivism of the Third
They use all the standard Marxian ideological and linguistic
tricks. Language has no inherent objective meaning; words are
tools of "class," "race" and "sexual" exploitation. Truth is
not merely difficult to discover; it, in fact, does not exist.
The claim that there are universal truths about man, society
and nature--truths that are valid for all people in all
places at all times--are philosophical tricks used by the
"ruling class" to get the masses to accept their inferior
stations in life and view their oppression and exploitation as
both inevitable and necessary.
Even to think or speak in terms of individuals and individual
rights is considered suspect; any person who does so is either
the victim of or the apologist for the male, capitalist
exploiting class. The rulers wish to deceive us into thinking
about ourselves as "mere individuals" so they can hide from
view the race, sex and class relationships that are the actual
foundations of the existing social order.
The perversity of this view, of course, is that Western
civilization has, in fact, been the most liberating cultural
force in human history. It was ancient Judaism that told
earthly rulers that there is a Higher Law and a Higher
Morality than any man can create; and every man, as a creation
of God, has recourse to that Higher Law and Morality against
the tyranny of worldly rulers. It was Christianity that taught
that every man is unique and precious in the eyes of God; that
no worldly ruler may set himself between the individual and
his relationship to God. Thus, Judaism and Christianity laid
the foundation for our modern principles of individual freedom
of thought and action.
From the ancient Greeks, Western man gained his appreciation
of and confidence in the power of his reason to understand and
master the forces of nature. And from the Romans have come our
tradition of natural law and the rule of law.
It is modern capitalism that has created the moral order of
voluntary and peaceful relationships among men. It is the
market economy that has generated the prosperity and
opportunities that are liberating both the body and spirit of
increasingly larger numbers of human beings of all races and
religions around the globe.
In terms of freedom, prosperity and the promotion of human
dignity, Western civilization wins hands down against every
other civilization in human history. This is precisely why the
proponents of "politically correct thinking" wish to banish
open discourse and cross-cultural ethical and philosophical
comparison. Only by denying that such comparisons are
possible, and only by impugning the motives of those who
oppose them can they win--in other words, a victory through
intellectual sleight of hand.
What about the opponents of "politically correct thinking"?
Their arguments are usually sound and their defense of Western
culture meritorious. But their strategy, in my opinion, is
wrong. They hope to defeat the "cultural leftists" of academia
through appeals to the constitutional right of "freedom of
speech" or through political counterattacks in the university
structure designed to recapture the halls of ivy.
While the ideologues of "politically correct thinking" are not
limited to state-run universities, as Charles Sykes' expose of
Dartmouth College revealingly demonstrates, it is there that
the battle needs to be fought and won.
But the answer is not to capture the state universities for
"the Right." Rather the answer is to defeat the cultural
leftists by denying them the source of their power: the
socialist educational system. State universities dominate
higher education in the United States. And what government
does not control directly, it indirectly controls and
manipulates through the regulations that come with government
grants and scholarships to nominally private schools. (My
employer, Hillsdale College, is practically the only
institution of higher learning in America that takes no
government money in any form and, as a result, is totally
independent of government control.)
Eliminate government-provided and subsidized education, and
these economically privileged and politically protected
islands of philosophical collectivism will be forced to fight
for their financial support in a marketplace of ideas. It
would be a marketplace in which they would have to persuade
the consumers of education that what they have for sale is
actually worth the price of admission. The cultural leftists
would no longer have their ideas subsidized by the general
taxpaying public. They would no longer have a protected corner
of the intellectual market through their special-interest
influence on the socialized educational process.
Parents and students who desired an education inspired and
policed by "politically correct thinking" would be asked to
pay for the opportunity. Those who preferred a traditional
liberal arts education emphasizing the Western heritage would
be asked to do the same. The entire controversy would be
diffused because it would be depoliticized through the
privatization of education. And in a real marketplace of
ideas, I personally have little doubt about which of the
intellectual alternatives would tend to capture the largest
Professor Ebeling is the Ludwig von Mises Professor of
Economics at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, and also
serves as vice-president of academic affairs for The Future of
Freedom Foundation, P.O. Box 9752, Denver, CO 80209.
From the April 1991 issue of FREEDOM DAILY,
Copyright (c) 1991, The Future of Freedom Foundation,
PO Box 9752, Denver, Colorado 80209, 303-777-3588.
Permission granted to reprint; please give appropriate credit
and send one copy of reprinted material to the Foundation.