The Manufacturing of Controversy



On October 31st, the New York Times had an interesting article about how heightened sensitivities on campus are putting professors on guard and on edge.  It was called “In a Volatile Climate on Campus, Professors Teach on Tenterhooks.”  The author was Laura Pappano, a writer-in-residence at Wellesley.

She focuses on a trend that all of us have experienced and adapted to in one way or another.  Identity politics have grown more fractious and imposing.  “Inside classrooms,” Pappano writes, “professors feel newly exposed.”  The reading they choose and the topics they discuss mustn’t offend the students, who “bring a multiplicity of personal identities to campus . . .  and they want to see that reflected in course content.”

Pappano mentions cases of students hijacking a freshman class at Reed College on Greek and Mediterranean civilization, seizing the professor’s microphone and crowding the stage.  “Don’t teach us white supremacy” was the message.

Another professor taught a course on “Political Crime” that considered, among other things, Russia’s attempt to interfere with U.S. elections using social media.  Someone threatened him over the phone, mentioning his wife and family and people private addresses.

(Pappano doesn’t make clear the connection between the course content and the warnings, though.  Was the caller angry about Russia, or angry at allegations against Russia?  We don’t know.)

But Pappano’s next example doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  It’s one that conservatives, traditionalists, classical liberals, and libertarians should not carefully.

An English professor at Northern Arizona, Anne Scott, found herself the subject of a Fox News segment.  What she did was dock a student one point on a paper because it contained the word “mankind,” not “humankind.”  Scott had said at the outset that students must use “inclusive” vocabulary in their work, and “mankind” didn’t qualify.  The student proceeded to send word of her action to the website Campus Reform.  Once it was broadcast from there, Scott received 400 emails and rude voice messages.  When the student appeared on a subsequent waiting list for a course Scott was teaching, she “was terrified.”

Those are the details, but you can see that this case doesn’t jibe with the others.  They show professors taking heat from overwrought students merely for raising controversial subjects.  The “mankind” episode is different.  While Pappano speaks in the article of professors and administrators who aim to reduce tensions and enable civil disagreements, Professor Scott laid down a rule that itself created an adversarial situation.  And when a student quietly opted out–there is no evidence here that the student was disruptive or sexist–the professor marked the student down.  When it came to the original parties to the dispute, the aggression was all on her side.  She started it.

Now, of course, Professor Scott and other progressive educators would say that words such as “mankind” are an offense.  They exclude, or at least subordinate women.  It is entirely appropriate for them to demand that the be expelled.  Students must be inclusive in word and deed, they insist.  It’s no different from asking them to spell correctly and not to misplace commas.

The only way for that argument to hold up, however, is for American society to have adopted the inclusive-vocabulary norm, too.  If the population has veered toward humankind and away from mankind,  if mankind is going the way of the word supper and the rule against split infinitives, then teachers may ask for inclusive words only.  When students slip into the old lingo, teachers needn’t mark them down for it–that sounds like punishment, not education–but the general rule would be warranted.

But American society isn’t there yet–not by a long sight.  You hear mankind all the time, and most people haven’t been catechized enough by feminism to think that it doesn’t refer to women as well as men.  News outlets may say firefighter and police officers, but lots of youths talk about becoming a fireman and a policemen.  At the magazine for which I work, First Things, we use he, his, and him as pronouns for an unspecified human being.  We will never, ever accept they as a singular.

Because of the common nature of this putatively exclusionary language, Professor Scott’s inclusive regulation can only strike students–most of them, at least–as a decree.  Out in the world they can say mankind and nobody blinks.  It was good enough for the Gettysburg Address, but in this class it turns into a violation, and users of it must pay a fine.  Nothing in the story indicates that Professors Scott has reconsidered her rule.  Instead, we are left with one victim-professor and hundreds of harassers.

Pappano proceeds to a few cases of openly abusive professors, such as the philosopher who couldn’t stop comparing Trump to Hitler.  She also interviews Christian students who undergo anti-religious comments with a professor’s tacit approval.

But those cases aren’t difficult to handle.  No dean wants to hear about a “Trump=Hitler” motif in the classroom.  A note to the chairman of the department will make it stop.  College leaders don’t want their institutions on the lips of Tucker Carlson, either, so cut the anti-Christian smirks.

The inclusive-language case is a problem, though.  That’s because inclusivity has become a campus dogma.  A dean can’t tell a women’s studies professor to let kids say mankind, because the inadmissibility of mankind is embedded into the feminist disciplines and sub-fields.

If we really want to stop bias and high-handedness in higher education, we need to make less of the occasional outrages and focus more on the ordinary outlooks and activities of entire academic areas where tendentiousness and partisanship have become standard operating procedure.

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