Travels Among the Politically Correct: Three Vignettes from “Illiberal Education”

Victim Status

Since the platform for the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley’s famous Sproul Plaza is now a veritable ethnic smorgasbord, with many students speaking to each other in Spanish, Vietnamese, Swahili, and Tagalog. It is apparent to visitors that the 1960s have not really left Berkeley. There is a thriving street trade in tie-dyed shirts. On the plaza, a man with flashing eyes was reading poetry he said he wrote in San Quentin; admiring students applauded every time he managed a rhyme or obscenity. A group of middle-aged veterans was selling buttons and T-shirts protesting the Vietnam War almost two decades after it ended. In a health food restaurant, a man was jerking ketchup onto his cottage cheese and discoursing on Aphra Behn. Genius, eccentricity, and clinical insanity seem to merge at Berkeley, giving the place a wistful charm.

Berkeley’s Asian-American students contribute to this visual diversity. Yet in another sense they stand in sharp contrast to the mood of languorous abandon. Most of them are impeccably groomed, conservative in dress, moderate in manner. They were not to be seen among the group cheering the man from San Quentin. In a subtle yet unmistakable way, the Asian-American demeanor is a challenge to the ethos of the 1960s. Asians do not satisfy an understanding of diversity that requires unconventional attire, involvement in assorted causes, and a general identification with the counterculture. In this sense, they remain outsiders at Berkeley.

It is not easy to find an Asian student willing to talk at Berkeley. I passed up two or three who would talk only on condition of anonymity. I approached one student waiting for the library to open, but he was too eager not to miss a minute of reading time. Eventually I found Thuy Nguyen, a cheerful woman who turned out to be a student at the University of California-Davis. She knew all about Berkeley, though; she was visiting her friend Cynthia Dong, an undergraduate there. They had gone to the same high school in California. Nguyen wishes she had been admitted to Berkeley. She doesn’t know why they kept her out because “other people with a lot lower grades in my class got in.” Nguyen expressed an evidently common opinion that Berkeley “doesn’t want any more Asians” because “they are trying to keep the quotas even.”

Nguyen revealed that her high school GPA was 3.8 (out of a possible 4.0) and her SAT score was 1,000 (out of a possible 1,600). She had a decent list of extracurriculars. Although her grades were excellent, her relatively mediocre SAT put Nguyen below the mean at Berkeley; she was not assured of automatic acceptance. Berkeley’s average SAT score is around 1,200.

Nguyen, however, has not had the same advantages of life as most other applicants to Berkeley. She came to this country in 1980 as a Vietnamese boat person. Previously she lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. When her family came here they had nothing, Nguyen said, so they had to live with an American host family for a month; even now they hold menial jobs. Nguyen knew only scraps of English which she picked up at the refugee camp ten years ago, though, as we spoke, her vocabulary gave little hint to this background; she seemed just as articulate as any of her peers.

Despite her own difficulties, Nguyen didn’t consider herself a victim. “What do I have to complain about?” she said. She is sympathetic to complaints she hears on campus from black groups: “I know they have suffered a lot more than I have.” This seems hard to believe: how does she know this? She doesn’t, she said, but she infers it from the way campus activists give moving and elaborate accounts of their persecution. “They seem so hurt all the time.”

“I have faced some discrimination,” Nguyen said, “but I don’t worry about it.” Her philosophy is simple. “You just have to be persistent in what you are doing. Don’t worry about how much racism there is in society. The main thing is to focus on what you can do yourself. The future is more important than the past, and you can change the future.” Nguyen has plans for herself: she is going to be an architect, “and maybe design recreation parks.”

Contrast Nguyen’s case with that of Melanie Lewis, a vivacious black woman wearing a blue polo shirt and denim shorts, whom I interviewed outside the university library. Lewis revealed that she had the same SAT score in high school as Nguyen: 1,000 out of 1,600. Her GPA was slightly lower: 3.6, but still impressive. Lewis said, “I knew Berkeley was very selective, so I was very surprised when I got in here.”

Lewis is a strong supporter of preferential treatment for blacks. Racism thrives in America, she said, noting “racial outbursts” at Berkeley in recent years. Nevertheless, Lewis could not remember a single incident in which she was a victim of prejudice. She said, however, “You still have that family history. I may be the richest black person in the world, I may be the son or daughter of Michael Jackson, but Michael Jackson’s ancestors were still stripped of their name and their person.”

At this point Lewis became passionate. “I am oppressed, I will always be oppressed. Yes, I came from a good family and an economically stable background. But my race was still deprived, and that will always live with me. I have the Ku Klux Klan to remind me. Every time they burn down a house, that reminds me that I live in a country of racism.”

Lewis said that her father is a retired engineer who spent most of his life in the military; her mother works as a government supervisor. In view of the fact that she is middle-class and has not suffered socioeconomic disadvantage, why does Lewis think she should benefit from preferential treatment? “You know, at places where you have such a majority of white people, you start getting prejudices everywhere. That’s no good. How can you study with that going on? Systems flow more easily if you have a better racial mix.”

But this seems to result in groups such as Asians being denied admissions despite their academic eligibility; does Lewis favor quotas—or perhaps goals—to decrease the percentage of Asians? Lewis didn’t answer directly. She mentioned the case of an Asian student with a straight-A average who was rejected at Berkeley but threatened to sue the university, so he was admitted. “If I were him, I wouldn’t want to come here,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t fight so hard to go somewhere that didn’t want me.”

I raised the example of James Meredith, the first black to enroll at the University of Mississippi, who wasn’t wanted there either; on his first day of class, President Kennedy had to send federal marshals to ensure his safety. Didn’t Lewis think it was right for Meredith to fight for his academic right to be there? The Meredith example inspired her. “Blacks,” she said, “have fought, fought, fought to get a chance. I don’t see why we shouldn’t get that chance.” Preferential treatment, for this reason, must continue.

At Lewis’s high school, she said, 15 percent of the students are black and 15 percent are Asian. Of her senior class, four black and two white students were accepted to Berkeley, and no Asians. “Everyone said that I got into Berkeley just because I was black,” Lewis said bitterly.

Just as it was easy to admire Thuy Nguyen’s modesty and courage, it was easy to sympathize with Melanie Lewis, an intelligent young woman placed in a position where she did not get credit for her accomplishments; even if Lewis received no benefit from affirmative action, she would still remain under suspicion of being unfairly advanced by Berkeley. Anyone can be excused for being jittery under those circumstances.

The examples of these two women, one of them Asian, the other black, reveal how affirmative action has largely abandoned its original objective of giving a break to disadvantaged students to enable them to enjoy the same opportunities as their more fortunate peers. If the objective of affirmative action is to favor a promising young person who did not start out on the same line as everyone else, then it is hard to find a better candidate than Thuy Nguyen. Melanie Lewis’s argument that despite her socioeconomic advantages she will always be oppressed because she is black seems to be an unwitting argument against affirmative action, because it raises the question of how preferential treatment can possibly help such a person. It can raise her standard of living by giving her a Berkeley credential, perhaps, but by her own assertion, even if she gets the best of jobs, and becomes a millionaire, she will still be oppressed. Thus, Lewis’s victim status seems secure, and affirmative action only rectifies the situation if it can make her no longer black.

Women’s Studies

The distinctive perspective of the women’s studies field is typified by Harvard professor Alice Jardine’s class on “French Literary Criticism,” whose November 22, 1989, session is fairly representative of numerous women’s studies classes I attended, at Harvard and elsewhere.

The atmosphere in Jardine’s course resembled a political rally. The seminar group was almost entirely female: 25 women versus three men. Headbands and turquoise jewelry, loose long shirts, and pins advertising various causes filled the room. There were no blacks in the class; a couple of the women were Asian. The mood in Jardine’s class, while not exactly festive, was bustling, energetic. A student went to the board and put up a poster of a “Fifty Foot Woman”; everybody smiled at this emblem of female power.

Jardine, a vivacious woman who likes to sit on the front of her desk when she lectures, began with what she called “the usual announcements.” First, she advertised a lecture by a Marxist feminist on “Killing Patriarchy” which “should be quite fun to go to.” Next, English professor Joseph Boone was giving a paper. “He’s one of our few male feminists,” Jardine explained. “He was recently denied tenure here on account of his feminism.” Jardine said students should “show support” for Boone by attending his lecture. She also announced a rally to protest sexual harassment.

It was time for students to describe their term papers. A male student volunteered to provide “a feminist reading of Ernest Hemingway.” Loud chuckles. Jardine offered a friendly jibe at “Ernest.” The students weighed in, everybody commenting on “Ernest” and his famous misogyny.

A female student gave a précis of her paper on Bessie Head’s novel Maru, which is about tribal conflict in South Africa. This brought gasps of admiration. Mara was about how different African tribes learned to get along, the student said, symbolized in the end by the marriage between a man and woman from different tribes. But Jardine’s student thought she spotted something interesting between the tribal woman and a female friend. She didn’t say it was lesbianism, but she did say it was “important.” Her only regret was that “heterosexual union comes at the price of female relationships in Maru.”

Throughout these descriptions one female student offered ribald one-liners about a man who lost his penis, penises that were cut off, accidents in which every part of the victim was recovered—except the penis. These brought loud and unembarrassed laughter from the professor and other students.

Eventually Jardine got around to the day’s text, Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein. “I am reading not for the story,” she said. “I am reading for the signifiers.” She proceeded to employ post-structuralist analysis, making acronyms from the first letters of sentences, adding up lines, and producing ingenious if implausible mathematical diagrams. “There are a lot of tropes in the novel: vegetable, animal, mineral, and so on,” Jardine went on. “The v of vegetable,” she said, “is perhaps the V which is Lol Stein’s middle name.” One student asked if Duras intended any of this; it seemed so remote from the language of the novel. “Duras must have been a mathematical genius,” the student blurted out. “I’ve met Duras,” Jardine said. “I think all of this was massively unconscious. Massively.”

Jardine peppered the students with the names of the usual post-structuralist authorities: Foucault, Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Lacan. Her language alternated between French and English; the especially titillating and radical quips were all in French. I was struck by the frequency of her appeals to authority, “Most feminist theorists think . . ,” “It is widely agreed by feminists that . . . ,” and so on.

Talking with students after class, I found that they took all of this with extreme seriousness; there was not a hint of irony in anything they said. Comfortable, well-fed, and obviously intelligent, their conspicuous embitterment with and alienation from American society were hard to comprehend. Besides, whatever the malady, it was hard to imagine it being remedied by this sort of intellectual fare, so esoteric and yet so vulgar, so free-wheeling and yet so dogmatic, so full of political energy and yet ultimately so futile.

Tyranny of the Minority

Perhaps the impact of the new race and gender pedagogy is best examined by asking students who take these courses what they learn from them. Tiya Miles is a bespectacled, soft-spoken student from Cincinnati, Ohio. Eva Nelson and Michelle Duncan are both from Detroit. While Duncan speaks with a slight drawl, however, Nelson speaks in short staccato outbursts, filled with passionate intensity. All three are majoring or double-majoring in Afro-American Studies at Harvard.

“I see white culture as deviant and I expect Afro-American Studies to take up that perspective,” remarked Nelson. “In order to get into Harvard we have to show a white perspective. If someone had a truly Afro-American perspective they would not have gotten into Harvard and they would not have wanted to.” Duncan agreed. “We’re black on the outside, but a lot of us don’t have the fortitude to be black on the inside.” She said she was glad she left a private school she attended, because “if I stayed in private school, I would end up a brain-dead white person.” She paused. “That’s okay—if you’re white.”

Nelson argued, “If we lose our black cultural perspective, we have nothing left—only our murder rate, infant mortality, the bad stuff. Without our culture, all we are is a bunch of pathologies.” What, then, was this distinctive black perspective? “My relatives down South are offended by the way I talk,” Nelson suggested. “But now I refuse to talk nice. I say what I think. White people are more genteel and fake than black people.” Blacks have traditionally had a different sense of humor than whites, Nelson said. For example, a white person may walk in from the cold and say: boy, it sure is hot out there. “Now a white person will think that’s funny. Ha, ha, ha. A black person will think that’s stupid. We’re not into the little white sarcasms. I find that smart-alecky stuff sickening myself.”

Nelson and Duncan admitted that there was a price to be paid for abandoning white etiquette. “My roommates last year were put off because I would talk in black cultural language,” Nelson said. Duncan added, “My roommates can’t stand me. In fact, I am always getting into fights. All my friends now are black women from the sorority. You know, Alpha Kappa Alpha, the black sorority.”

Both Nelson and Duncan complained about discrimination, not only at Harvard, but within Afro-American Studies. “My instructor once used the term ‘subculture,’ ” Duncan said. “Can you believe it? That offended me.” Nelson added, “There is a juxtaposition of blacks and other ethnic groups. This is very offensive. When we see that other groups have done better, the conclusion is that we haven’t done anything, so we’re inferior. By the way, I just hate it when the Jews start comparing themselves to us. The other day I heard a very offensive remark about how Jews have done more for themselves than blacks.”

Since they spoke frequently of Harvard as “institutionally racist,” it seemed reasonable to inquire: what was the worst instance of bigotry the women had experienced at Harvard? “I once heard a white man say he could never go out with a black girl,” Tiya Miles said. There was a long pause. “Look,” Nelson chipped in. “Whites hide their racism very well. This is the problem with being genteel.”

The students talked about why they were choosing to concentrate in Afro-American Studies. “At first, my parents were livid,” Tiya Miles said. “They said I would never find a job. They said it would make me viewed as a militant.” As for her friends at Harvard, “My white friends say: do it. But my black friends aren’t so sure.” Miles is going ahead because, as a young black from a middle-class background in the Midwest, she feels it is important to “get in touch with myself, who I really am.” Down deep, she is convinced, she is not just a well-spoken, well-adjusted, middle-class woman from Cincinnati.

For Duncan and Nelson, who are both from poorer families in inner-city Detroit, the major means something quite different. “For me, it’s been very liberating,” said Duncan. “I have learned how racist and sexist I can be against my own people.” For example, while crossing the street late one night, Duncan reported that she saw three large black men “and my first reaction was, oh shit.”

Nelson pounced on that. “If they were white men, you would not have had that reaction.”

“Exactly,” Duncan said.

Nelson added that Afro-American Studies helped her realize how myths of black inferiority have sapped black self-confidence. Reflecting an element of hostility to Jews, she said, “Now I realize why I was insecure about some Steinberg.” Duncan said Afro-American Studies majors learned to think critically. “In school you hear: I pledge allegiance to the flag. In Afro-Am you learn: it ain’t my flag.” Nelson said that she had learned that, even though he freed the slaves, Abraham Lincoln was a racist. “He was a joke,” she said. “He himself said that if he could save the union without freeing the slaves, he would do it.”

Tiya Miles hesitated. “Well, I’m not sure.”

But the other two broke in. “Come on,” Duncan said. “Lincoln was a mess.” Nelson looked at Miles as if she wondered what had gotten into her.

Miles backed down. “Well, I haven’t studied it that well.”

On Jefferson the three were agreed: he was, in various descriptions, a “hypocrite,” a “rapist” (an apparent reference to Jefferson’s alleged relationship with a dark-skinned woman), and a “total racist.”

None of the three students appeared to distinguish comments and personal practices of Jefferson and Lincoln from their principles and public acts. Miles occasionally edged in that direction, but inevitably retreated when disciplined by her more radical friends.

Nelson finally gave some credence to the argument that the American founders advanced principles of equality that were ahead of their time. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass had argued that slavery was only the “scaffolding” of the founders’ work, “to be removed as soon as the building was completed. . . . These masters knew that they were writing the texts in which the slaves would learn their rights.” Lincoln had maintained that the Declaration of Independence announced the right to equality whose enforcement would follow as soon as circumstances permitted. Without the principles of equality enshrined in the founding documents, I suggested, Lincoln would have had no ground to stand on against the South, and Martin Luther King, Jr., would have had to look elsewhere for a moral basis for the civil rights struggle. Thus by articulating progressive principles, even though failing to live up to them in practice, an argument can be made that Jefferson and Madison were champions of human liberty and equality.

The matter is more serious than the reputations of the American founders: during the infamous Dred Scott case, Justice Taney argued that the American founding was pro-slavery, that pro-slavery principles were inherent in the document. Against these arguments the abolitionist movement put up stern resistance. Ironically, a century later, young black students were defending a view of history put forward by Taney to justify a constitutional right to own slaves.

The more Nelson thought about it, the more she saw something there. She said, however, that she had never heard this argument made before. “Did you think of it yourself?” she asked. “You know, I too believe in those principles. I really do. I guess that’s what makes us Americans.” She laughed. “Really, we’re pitifully American, if you think about it.”

Although I left the three young women thinking that Harvard was not helping them find what they desperately sought—a principled ground on which to pattern their lives as self-conscious blacks—nevertheless there was a refreshing sharpness and candor in their views.

Nelson, for instance, freely denounced her “bearded, dashiki-wearing, flip flop-wearing liberal jerk of an instructor. He thinks that by dressing like this, and using South African pronunciations, he gets to be thought of as black.” Duncan said, “I resent white feminists jumping on our back, taking the benefits, and then taking off.” Nelson said, “I resent black people being compared to gays. Don’t lump us all together, please, in your book.”

I could not help liking, and even admiring, these students, whose very intensity of indignation, if somewhat overblown, commanded respect. It seemed hard to see how the well-meaning appeasement of their demands, by Harvard students and administrators, would diminish their outrage, which resembled a typhoon in search of targets to destroy. Somewhere after college, one hoped, these young women would, through experience and continued reflection, find a better understanding of themselves, their heritage, and their country than they were receiving at Harvard.


  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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