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Cathy Young

The academic left’s intolerance

The politics of higher education have been hotly debated for years: Conservatives charge that academia is choked by left-wing orthodoxies; liberals dismiss “political correctness” as a right-wing smear. This week, the conservative critique got a boost — from the academic left, whose response to a blog post lambasting black studies was not to challenge the blogger but to shut her up.

On Brainstorm, the blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the heretic, Naomi Schaefer Riley, made a post titled, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.” (Full disclosure: I have met Riley at a few social events.) The blog was inspired by a Chronicle cover story about the new generation of black studies PhDs and its sidebar profiling the first five students in Northwestern University’s black studies doctoral program. Riley sarcastically summed up three of their dissertation topics, which she described as “left-wing victimization claptrap.”

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The response was fast and furious. Posts on other blogs and on Twitter excoriated Riley. A petition demanding her removal from the Chronicle’s blog roster gathered over 6,500 signatures.

Chronicle editor Liz Miller at first defended Riley’s post as an invitation to debate; on May 7 she reversed herself, stating that the piece “did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards” and that Riley had been asked to leave Brainstorm. She also apologized for “the distress these incidents have caused.”

While many have denounced the Chronicle for cravenness and censorship, other commentators, such as Atlantic editor and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, defend its decision — not because of Riley’s views but because of her alleged intellectual sloppiness. Her crime, evidently, was conceding in response to critics that she had not read the dissertations she ridiculed. Of course, the initial post made it clear that her judgment was based on the topic summaries in the sidebar.

Is this unfair or intellectually shoddy? First, Riley wrote a blog post, not an academic essay. Second, let’s turn the tables. Suppose a blogger had slammed a doctoral program at a conservative Christian university, lampooning summaries of PhD theses which sought to show that birth control leads to society’s moral breakdown or that America’s Founders did not support church-state separation. Would Riley’s current bashers insist on perusal of the actual dissertations? Doubtful.

Whether Riley’s indictment was too sweeping is another question. One project she mentioned focuses on black women’s childbirth experiences, a subject she believes is too narrow. In an e-mail exchange, Riley noted that she has also criticized esoteric research topics in other fields. Others would argue that such research can yield valuable knowledge.

This is the problem with fields like black studies and women’s studies.

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Riley’s other two targets, however, have all the hallmarks of political advocacy posing as scholarship. Take “Strange Bedfellows: The Rise of the New (Black) Right in Post Civil Rights America” by La TaSha Levy. According to the Chronicle, Levy “argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’ ” Levy’s interest in the subject apparently stems from her concern, as director of a campus black cultural center, about students reading black conservative authors.

This is more than enough to suggest a hatchet job — particularly when Levy lumps John McWhorter, who is sharply critical of left-wing pieties on race but considers himself a liberal Democrat and a Barack Obama supporter, together with conservatives. (Talk about intellectual sloppiness!)

The problem with fields like black studies and women’s studies is not that their subjects are unworthy of inquiry; it is that they tend to promote predetermined conclusions and agendas, which is anathema to true scholarship. Would a student whose research led her to agree with McWhorter’s critique of race-based preferences in college admissions be welcome in a black studies program?

All this could have been debated in response to Riley’s post. Instead, she has been accused of everything from racism — even though her husband is black — to a viciously damaging assault on vulnerable graduate students, as if their stardom in the Chronicle did not outweigh any mythical damage from a blog post.

The petitioners who succeeded in their demand for Riley’s dismissal are now celebrating a victory. But the only real winners here are those on the right who depict the academy as a bastion of “liberal intolerance” rather than intellectual freedom.

Cathy Young is a columnist at Newsday and RealClearPolitics.com.
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