Encouraging Political Incorrectness and Civility
Editor's Note: Vanderbilt University Press is this spring releasing American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, by Paul Lyons, who died in January. In the book, Lyons features writings from a teaching log he kept from a course on conservatism that he taught at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The material from the log appears below in italics, and his additional commentary is in regular text.
Most of academic life is a blessing; sometimes I’m amazed that I get paid for doing this, doing what I love. When class discussion turns to work, I always ask my students if they or people they know would stay at their jobs if they won the New Jersey lottery big time. Almost all say that they’d quit. This is a useful marker for defining alienation, doing what is alien to you. And, of course, it is paralleled by students staying in school for reasons that are alien to their desires. Similarly, all academics hate wasted time with self-important administrators, having to deal with petty and occasionally vicious colleagues (the academy is more vicious than high finance precisely because so little is at stake), paperwork and more paperwork. For most of us it is relief to walk back into the
In this particular classroom, I found myself offering a brief biog of William F. Buckley Jr. I was well prepared having reread John Judis’s definitive study. So I walked them through his family life, his early “bad boy” years at and after Yale, his most influential books, his role in the founding of National Review. Then, with maybe 10 minutes remaining, I read to them marked-out sections in Judis’s biography that pointed to Buckley’s worst moments of narrow-mindedness, comments he made in the 1950s and early 1960s about civil rights in America and independence movements in Africa. The statements, sometimes flippant in that Buckley “squire of the manor” style, were at best patronizing, at worst, deeply racist, particularly one statement in which he suggests that Africans will be ready for self-determination when they stop eating one another. I wanted my class to come to grips with the burden conservatives carried in that period, being on the wrong side of history, still holding onto a kind of British arrogance about “wogs” — Colonel Blimp if you will. But one of my most conservative students, Dick, jumped in with support for Buckley’s worst comment, responding with a smirk, with a knowing look about “those people,” those Africans.
If there is such a thing as a teaching moment, this was it. I stopped him and asked the class if it would be different if there were African American students in this class. They quickly saw my point, but one responded, “They’d beat the shit out of Dick.” I countered by suggesting that it shouldn’t be the obligation of black students to call Dick on his statement, but the obligation of whites to do so. There were a few quizzical looks as I explained the unfairness of expecting blacks — or Jews or women or gays or Catholics — to be obliged to defend themselves from inappropriate assault.
I was thinking on my feet, mostly trying to figure out how to chastise Dick without putting him too much on the spot, how to signal what’s OK and not OK in my classroom without stifling legitimate commentary, how to, in effect, be politically correct without being stuffy, hypocritical, humorless, unwilling to engage on controversial issues. I have examined some of the literature that addresses the plight of so many African nations — the kleptocracies, the genocides, the ethnic wars, the waste of resources. I have rooted for the best of African leaders, anticipated that the resource-rich nations of Nigeria, South Africa, and Congo would have to be the linchpins of development. And I have thought a great deal about the reason why East Asia and now all of Asia is moving forward to rapid economic growth — with all the caveats about inequalities, environmental dangers, corruption, dictatorship — and Africa stagnates. Sometimes I think that it must be that Asian cultures, Asian imperial history, especially in China and India, sustained an identity that now provided the cultural capital for an Asian version of the work ethic. Africa seemingly has struggled more with the very creation of nation-states. When I consider Latin America and then the Islamic Middle East, I am more confused, in my relative ignorance of their respective histories.
I am sometimes taken aback by what we do not teach our students. Aside from the above-noted gaps in what we can reduce to the “great books,” there are other appalling shortfalls, at least in many public institutions: the shortage of courses in what are probably the most salient developments of our times, the reemergence of China and India as players on the world stage, the increasing importance of Asia where almost two-thirds of the world’s population lives; the minimal attention paid to world religions — my students are not only unable to demonstrate any accurate knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam, but they are also remarkably ignorant about their own religious backgrounds. Few can tell me what a Christian is, at least if I ask for comment on Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Fewer can distinguish Presbyterians from Episcopalians, nor can they define evangelicals or fundamentalists, not to speak of Pentecostals. More heartening is that most of my students are motivated to learn about organized religions; our K–12 schools, afraid of offending almost anyone, do not teach them about the history of the very Judeo-Christian tradition they abstractly celebrate.
But I do know that leftists and well-meaning liberals too often respond to questions of African horror with the same old saw — its colonial and neocolonial factors. True but not enough to explain why Taiwan and South Korea and China have moved forward. And it just plays into conservative stereotypes that the Left always blames the West and the United States and never holds people of color, here or elsewhere, accountable. It is the macro version of what I will simplify as the attacks on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study of the African American family. So I tried to make sure that in chastising Dick and indicating acceptable boundaries of discourse, I was simultaneously, and as strongly, modeling that raising questions about African nations is legitimate. How could I not, given my own point of view? Whether I was successful remains to be seen. Time will tell. But it was, I think, a useful beginning of a discussion I assumed we would engage when we got to George Wallace and the white backlash of the 1960s. I am debating whether to post a question on this issue on Web Board this week or to wait until we have more meat and potatoes on the plate such that we can do more than discuss without context or information. But I must admit that I left class pumped with the anticipation of that set of discussions and, hopefully I’m right, with some confidence that we started it well.
I don’t think we as academics and teachers do a very good job teaching about race and racism. Some seems to be liberal guilt. Mostly it rests on the lack of confidence that one can present complicated situations, nuanced realities without risking being misinterpreted by colleagues and students.
Several years ago at a panel on racism I suggested that we begin by seeing if we could agree on four axioms, the first being that there is more racism in America than most white people were willing to admit. No controversies there. The second was that there has been considerable progress over the past 40 years based on the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. More curious looks but no hostility. Then the third axiom, that there were some African Americans who see racism when it doesn’t exist. At that point, the room became more agitated with some furrowed brows and raised eyebrows. The fourth axiom brought down the house: that given the above three axioms, it was presently more difficult to assess allegations of racism. Indeed, I added, there were now so many divergent voices within the African American community — a partial measure of the successes above noted — that no one could any more claim to represent “the black voice.”
The panelist following me denounced my position, arguing that racism was as bad or worse than 40 years ago, merely more hidden. Then the panel opened for questions from the audience. A black female undergraduate asked me how I would respond if she believed that I had said something racist in class and she came to complain to me. I told her that I would take her allegation very seriously, consider whether I thought it was valid, and give her my most honest response. She was dissatisfied, indeed offended by my response, as were many on the panel and in the audience. The student asked me why I wouldn’t accept the validity of her allegation. I told her that I thought it would be harmful to her or any other student to allow an automatic acceptance of any allegation, that it risked corrupting her or anyone else in that it would allow for false charges to go unchallenged. I ended by suggesting that true respect included disagreement. I added that if not satisfied, a student always had the remedy of taking the allegation to my superiors.
The room erupted with anger at me, with one white colleague screaming at me that I was patronizing the student. I was disappointed and depressed by this display of what seemed to me to be wrong-headed, racially retrograde, and demagogic. I need to add that I was not angry at the student who raised the issue; she seemed honest and forthcoming, even in disagreement.
Most interesting is that over the next weeks several of my African American students asked me what had happened — there obviously had been a buzz in the hallways. This led to some fruitful conversation about how one determines the existence of racism. I also received several notes from white colleagues expressing admiration for what I had said but confessing that they were too cowardly to do the same. This depressed me even more than the hostile responses. Had we come to this — faculty, even tenured ones, afraid to speak their minds in fear of being charged with racism? Indeed, we had. One junior faculty member told me that he never goes near certain hot-button issues like affirmative action or underclass behavior because of his fear that it might put his job at risk.
As teachers we struggle with students who hold back from authentically discussing issues of prejudice, who go silent or simply echo agreement. It is hard work to achieve honest discussions; all students enter with bruises. One must establish a trusting environment for such discussions to be fruitful. Trust does not exist at the beginning of a class. I tell students that the handshake is an apt metaphor for our relations — I hold your hand, you hold mine — we trust one another but I also prevent you from hitting me in case that is your hidden desire. We trust and mistrust simultaneously. And then we can begin to have an honest dialogue.
I begin with a modest sense of how much influence I have with my students, especially regarding changes in their essential behavior regarding issues of social justice. Teachers are fortunate if we increase at the margin those who are willing to stand up for others. But human behavior being what it is, we remain burdened with the knowledge of how difficult it is to educate individuals to identify with all of the “others,” to construct a global identity focused on human rights. Sigmund Freud, given the trauma of World War I, asserted not only that reason and enlightenment were fragile, but also that there was something in the existence of human intelligence which never allowed the darkness to be all-engulfing, and that this indistinguishable light of humane thought had a surprising persistence. Our goal as educators is to widen that ray of light, to assist a few more ordinary men and women to resist the extraordinarily evil and to stretch toward the extraordinarily good.
My own view is that the optimal way to help students respond to moral challenges is to help them understand the contradictory strands of heroism and knavery, the victimized and the victimizing, of many of our peoples. And we as educators need to understand and communicate the contextual nature of human behavior, its range and subtleties, and the contradictory ways that humans respond to moral challenges. As such, we teach humility before the wonder — the heroism, the cowardice, the insensitivities, the villainies — of our own natures, our own histories.
This might be called the double helix of all peoples, the intertwining of their burdens and their inspirations, their hidden shames and forgotten accomplishments, the recognition of which makes it more likely that they will be able to recognize the same complexity in others.
All of this has to begin with the obvious: that I am a white guy teaching about race and racism. No matter how you slice it, it makes a difference. It does help that I was born and bred in Newark and have some “cred” with my city kids (keep in mind that many of my African American students are middle class and suburban). I work very hard to break down the obvious stereotypes, including those blacks have of non-blacks. I want all of my students to recognize that each of us is simultaneously a member of an ethnic/racial/religious group, a human being, and a very distinct and unique individual. When we address social class and poverty, I want my students to understand the need to disaggregate poverty, to note three kinds of the poor: the temporary poor, the working poor, and the underclass poor. The first two groups share all of the values and behaviors of Americans, for example, the work ethic. They suffer from short-term crises, such as a husband and father splitting and not providing sufficient support, a worker facing a health problem without insurance, or people suffering from poor educations that limit their income potential to close to minimum wage, holding jobs with no benefits.
It’s only the latter category, sometimes linked to a “culture of poverty,” certainly no more than one-fourth of those poor, who exhibit the self-destructive behaviors — substance abuse, bad work habits, impulsive control problems, criminal activities, abuse of women and children — that fall outside of societal norms. Most of my students of color have no difficulty in affirming that such behaviors exist; indeed, they often go farther than I am willing to go in ascribing such behaviors to the black poor. I rely a great deal on the work of William Julius Wilson, the extraordinary black sociologist, in teaching about the links between class and race, between behavior and opportunity and, especially, the need to address the most painful and least flattering aspects of black street life
honestly and directly.
I tell all of my students to go beyond the snapshot to the motion picture. That guy drinking from a bottle in a paper bag in front of a
bar — how did he get that way? I bring in the start of the motion picture, the differential chances of success already there in birthing rooms. How is it that I can stand in front of that room full of newborns and, based on race and social class, tell with a high degree of accuracy which babies will graduate from college, who will have a decent middle-class life, and who will end up in prison or dead before age 30. That is criminal to me. No baby determines the well-being of its parents. But the odds are set very early. Now odds are not determinants; people beat the odds. But I remain angry and want my students to share that rage at the inherent injustices that await so many of our poor children.
Many of my African American — and increasingly, Latino — students are quite inspirational. Many, not most or all, come from difficult environments. Many have surmounted extraordinary barriers — broken families, crime-infested neighborhoods, drug experiences, lousy schools, early pregnancies and child-rearing, physical and sexual abuse — to make it to college. I hope that my pride in them, which includes pushing them to excel, prodding them to resist racial and often gender stereotypes, comes through in the classroom. I want that young woman who was offended by my comments at the panel discussion to hang in there, continue challenging me, but I also want more time to try to persuade her that there is respect in disagreement, that she will be best served by being taken seriously.
The late Paul Lyons taught American history and social policy at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. This essay is an excerpt from American Conservatism: Thinking It, Teaching It, and appears here with permission of the publisher, Vanderbilt University Press.
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