Bryan Caplan  

Is P.C. Persecution Overblown?

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I just got an invitation to see Indoctrinate U, a documentary on the tyranny of political correctness in higher education. The trailer left me with a furrowed brow. Why? Because in all honesty, I've never been the target of p.c. persecution.

You might say: "Well, you're at GMU!" But before that, I was a student at UC Berkeley and Princeton. During those years, I was bored about 1000 times as frequently as I was mistreated for my contrarian political views.

You might say: "You were in economics!" Now, you're on stronger ground. But even in my non-econ classes, the serious problem was instructors' lack of enthusiasm, not instructors' enthusiastic brainwashing. And in any case, as long as economics provides asylum for refugees from p.c., how bad can things be? As I've argued before, whatever your non-natural-science interests are, economics is probably the best place to pursue them.

If I saw the documentary, I'd probably find a lot to be annoyed about. Yes, you've got intolerant leftist ideologues on a lot of campuses. Yes, it's hard to have a civil discussion with them about a lot of topics. But in school as in life, it's not that hard to avoid such people. And who wants to have a protracted discussion with them, anyway? The world is full of polite, smart, reasonable people who disagree with you. If you want debate, talk to them.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
General Specific writes:

As little as thirty years ago, Christians did their best to keep Jews of out certain neighborhoods. And we all know that within the last fifty years or so African Americans were required to use separate drinking fountains, sit in the back of the bus, and live in their own communities.

In contrast, the whining about PC is (a) overblown and (b) a small price to pay, where it does exist, in comparison to the way the world was fifty years ago.

8 writes:

The only cases are worry about are a) where professors preach instead of teach. It's a larger problem at second and third tier universities.
b) Cases such as when the conservative student newspaper has their offices trashed and all their papers stolen, and the adminstration does nothing.

As for every other case, I think having a professor with an opposing philosophy makes class far more interesting. Most people don't go out of their way to read opposing information either. So in fact, conservatives are getting more from a university education than liberals. They should shut up and enjoy it.

Caliban Darklock writes:

I agree with General Specific in principle, but just because it's not a big problem doesn't mean it's not a problem.

The thing that bothers me most about PC garbage in college is that the students are exceptionally vulnerable to manipulations that can affect the rest of their lives. I don't really see a lot of professors being damaged by it, but I see an awful lot of people who come to work straight out of college with their heads full of politically correct garbage that needs to be carefully untangled before they can be truly effective dealing with other people.

Buzzcut writes:

As little as thirty years ago, Christians did their best to keep Jews of out certain neighborhoods

Thirty years ago? That's 1977, dude. Evidence?

shecky writes:

Good post. The whole PC persecution thing always struck me as incredibly overblown. Easiest way to avoid it is staying away from the campus Socialist club. Of course, some folks can't resist responding to trolls.

Aside from a few well publicized cases such as this or this, 99.9% of anyone on campus pretty much just wants to mind their own business.

What if some of the people complaining about left-wing bias at universities are leftist shills trying to scare conservatives away?

I'll watch anything with Mike Munger in it.

General Specific writes:

"Thirty years ago? That's 1977, dude. Evidence?"

Read Flaw in the Jewel or The End of Covenent..

Anti-semitism in communities like La Jolla did not even break at all until the 1960s and, as old habits die hard, even into the 1970s real-estate agents were still trying to keep Jews out. That's why more Jews in San Diego moved to places like Del Mar. Now, interestingly enough, the houses in Del Mar (I learned this from a Jewish friend) have clauses, still on the titles, though of course no longer legitimate, that say the house shall not be sold to a black person. Period.

Those houses were probably built in 1950 or so.

And please remember: we're talking about so-called liberal California--though San Diego is on the conservative end.

There are examples of PC, but pendulums swing, and to say that the minor cases of PC that I've run across are comparable to anti-semitism or keeping blacks out of the neighborhood--well, I just don't buy it.

Much of PC is a good thing. Like ridding the workplace of misogynistic language. And sexual discrimination. In my career, I've run into several cases in which male co-workers would show up drunk at a female's house, or trying to insinuate themselves into their lives through their authority. These men had seniority. It happens quite frequently. This has been stopped, and it isn't political correctness when these issues are address: it's the morally correct thing to do.

TGGP writes:

PC persecution killed professor Stuart Nagel.

It could still be overblown though.

General Specific writes:

I can find nothing on Stuart Nagel other than what Robert Weisberg has written, an essay which seems largel to be a rant (maybe he should start a blog if he doesn't have one). He seems angry with the world--maybe he pines for the good old days. I'm betting he's got a few years behind him on this planet.

It sounds like Stuart Nagel killed himself. It could have been a misjustice, but I didn't see all the Jews who couldn't live in La Jolla or the blacks who couldn't live in Del Mar committing suicide because of an injustice.

Without adequate information on Mr Nagel (the internet seems to have none), I'm not sure there's any argument there.

Dennis Mangan writes:

I thought this was a libertarian blog, but some of the commenters obviously think that it's perfectly OK for the government to tell property owners whom they must allow on their property and what they can and can't do with it. Talk about PC.

Buzzcut writes:

I didn't see anything that said that the discrimination was in 1977. There's a big difference between 1957 and 1977.

John Thacker writes:

I think that the Duke lacrosse students suffered a type of PC persecution. Granted, that kind of persecution can happen for non PC reasons, but in that incident, it's pretty clear that a large number of people, especially college professors, were ready to judge them collectively for PC reasons.

liberty writes:

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about professors getting or not getting tenure based on ideology. I am not sure how true it is or how to prove it. I do know two things: the evidence shows the disproportionate representation of left-wing professors (causality not being shown, just correlation) and also, there was a concerted effort by the left (descendants of socialist ideology) to actively take control of universities (a good history of the socialist movement in America will document this effort).

Anecdotally, I can tell you that "liberal arts" colleges very heavily indoctrinate left wing politics and will not hire right of center - or even "centrist" professors (their few economics courses tend from Keynesian to Marxist); state universities slant left and I have been indoctrinated against Bush and the corporate war machine during biochemistry courses. From my few weeks at George Mason, I can tell you for the first time I think I have found a school that actually slants rather free market.

MT57 writes:

I have a couple perspectives to offer.

First, as a econ student and then in law school back in the 70's - 80's. I really disliked taking courses from highly politicized teachers. The class always felt like you were not getting the full picture - could it really be that obvious and if so, why were so many ostensibly intelligent people not seeing such obvious logic? Over politicization inevitably produces a counterreaction I believe.

Now as a parent, I take my kids around to visit colleges and look at the course buletins. I was at one last week with 13 lecture courses in gender and queer stuides and one in neuroscience. Clearly an imbalance.

My econ bkgd leads me to expect that over time such an imbalance will right itself as I cannot imagine multiple generations paying full tuition to produce that a steady stream of gender and queer studies majors and cannot imagine such majors making very much money compared to those who pursue more productive majors. However I feel bad for this generation having to pay tuition that will cover the salaries wasted on such unproductive areas.

Janet writes:

Teaching is a subversive activity ... it is meant to challenge a learners comfort zones, to get them to think beyond what they already think they know. Cognitive dissonance is frequently created in a creative class environment ... it is teaching not training and there is a difference. If all one were expected to do in this world was to be able to regurgitate memorized passages or not seek new knowledge then rote memorization of untested presumptions or loosely defined 'facts' would be all that would be necessary. However, each new analysis challenges previous assumptions and sometimes paradigms shift... thus the reason behind the accumulation of thought and advances we frequently refer to as advances in society. So, we can insist on comfort zones for our perspectives or figure out how to accommodate the presentation varied views (even those that might be unpopular in the current atmosphere), listen, research and analyze to arrive at new, different or concept confirmation … or we can indoctrinate by neglecting the debate and critical thinking higher education should seek to foster.

Beyond the paycheck there is a life and some of it requires a life of the mind.

Douglass Holmes writes:

PC persecution is a problem for two reasons. One was discussed in the article TGGP referenced above. That problem is that the quality of education is lowered when important issues like the three fifths rule are ignored or misrepresented. The other is that stifling open discussion does not really build a case for the progressive position. Students who come to the university with biases or prejudices see that all sides of a debate are not fairly presented so they learn to ignore the arguments of the progressives. Frequently, they leave college with the same or worse prejudices. They do learn to keep their mouths shut. Perhaps that’s all the progressives really want.

In many cases the students who disagree with their progressive instructors do not face persecution. Many of the progressive instructors are happy just to have a student who is engaged in the discussion. That has been the experience of my son and grand-daughters who are in college right now. The persecution that does occur is against the instructors who say the wrong thing. Of course, as the Erwin Chemerinsky case shows, that can cut from the right as well as the left.

bob writes:

[Comment deleted for supplying false email address. A valid email address is a requirement for posting comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

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