Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Professor Stephan Thernstrom Revisited; a study in Political Correctness

Professor Thernstrom was one of the early focal points for the political correctness debate. Let's look at his case from a couple of different angles. The first comes from John Taylor, and appeared in New York Magazine.

"The man is a racist!"
"A racist!"

Such denunciations, hissed in tones of self-righteousness and contempt, vicious and vengeful, furious, smoking with hatred?—such denunciations haunted Stephan Thernstrom for weeks. Whenever he walked through the campus that spring, down Harvard's brick paths, under the arched gates, past the fluttering elms, he found it hard not to imagine the pointing fingers, the whispers. Racist. There goes the racist. It was hellish, this persecution. Thernstrom couldn't sleep. His nerves were frayed, his temper raw. He was making his family miserable. And the worst thing was that he didn't know who was calling him a racist, or why.

Thernstrom, fifty-six, a professor at Harvard University for twenty- five years, is considered one of the preeminent scholars of the history of race relations in America. He has tenure. He has won prizes and published numerous articles and four books and edited the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. For several years, Thernstrom and another professor, Bernard Bailyn, taught an undergraduate lecture course on the history of race relations in the United States called "Peopling of America." Bailyn covered the colonial era. Thernstrom took the class up to the present.

Both professors are regarded as very much in the academic mainstream, their views grounded in extensive research on their subject, and both have solid liberal democratic credentials. But all of a sudden, in the fall of 1987, articles began to appear in the Harvard Crimson accusing Thernstrom and Bailyn of "racial insensitivity" in "Peopling of America." The sources for the articles were anonymous, the charges vague, but they continued to be repeated, these ringing indictments.

Finally, through the intervention of another professor, two students from the lecture course came forward and identified themselves as the sources for the articles. When asked to explain their grievances, they presented the professors with a six-page letter. Bailyn's crime had been to read from the diary of a southern planter without giving equal time to the recollections of a slave. This, to the students, amounted to a covert defense of slavery. Bailyn, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, had pointed out during the lecture that no journals, diaries, or letters written by slaves had ever been found. He had explained to the class that all they could do was read the planter's diary and use it to speculate about the experience of slaves. But that failed to satisfy the complaining students. Since it was impossible to give equal representation to the slaves, Bailyn ought to have dispensed with the planter's diary altogether. . . .

Even worse, they continued, Thernstrom had assigned a book to the class that mentioned that some people regarded affirmative action as preferential treatment. That was a racist opinion. But most egregiously, Thernstrom had endorsed, in class, Patrick Moynihan's emphasis on the breakup of the black family as a cause of persistent black poverty. That was a racist idea. . . .

The semester was pretty much over by then. But during the spring, when Thernstrom sat down to plan the course for the following year, he had to think about how he would combat charges of racism should they crop up again. And they assuredly would. All it took was one militant student, one word like Oriental taken out of context, one objection that a professor's account of slavery was insufficiently critical or that, in discussing black poverty, he had raised the "racist" issue of welfare dependency. And a charge of racism, however unsubstantiated, leaves a lasting impression. "It's like being called a Commie in the fifties," Thernstrom says. "Whatever explanation you offer, once accused, you're always suspect."

He decided that to protect himself in case he was misquoted or had comments taken out of context, he would need to tape all his lectures. Then he decided he would have to tape his talks with students in his office. He would, in fact, have to tape everything he said on the subject of race. It would require a tape-recording system worthy of the Nixon White House. Microphones everywhere, the reels turning constantly. That was plainly ridiculous. Thernstrom instead decided it would be easier just to drop the course altogether. "Peopling of America" is no longer offered at Harvard.

To contrast that point of view, here's an section from an article by Rosa Ehrenreich, which originally appeared in Harpers Magazine, December 1991. Ms. Ehrenreich was a student at Harvard during the controversy.

"The operative word here is "imagine." Taylor seriously distorted what actually happened. In February of 1988, several black female students told classmates that they had been disturbed by some "racially insensitive" comments made by Professor Thernstrom. Thernstrom, they said, had spoken approvingly of Jim Crow laws, and had said that black men, harboring feelings of inadequacy, beat their female partners. The students, fearing for their grades should they anger Professor Thernstrom by confronting him with their criticisms?—this is not an unusual way for college students to think things through, as anyone who's been an undergraduate well knows?—never discussed the matter with him. They told friends, who told friends, and the Crimson soon picked up word of the incident and ran an article.

Professor Thernstrom, understandably disturbed to learn of the matter in the Crimson, wrote a letter protesting that no students had ever approached him directly with such criticisms. He also complained that the students' vague criticisms about "racial insensitivity" had "launched a witch- hunt" that would have "chilling effect upon freedom of expression." Suddenly, Professor Thernstrom was to be understood as a victim, falsely smeared with the charge of racism. But no one had ever accused him of any such thing. "I do not charge that [Thernstrom] is a racist," Wendi Grantham, one of the students who criticized Thernstrom, wrote in the Crimson in response to his letter. Grantham believed the professor gave "an incomplete and over-simplistic presentation of the information.... I am simply asking questions about his presentation of the material...." As for the professor's comment that the criticisms were like a "witch-hunt," Grantham protested that Thernstrom had "turned the whole situation full circle, proclaimed himself victim, and resorted to childish name-calling and irrational comparisons ... 'witch-hunt'[is] more than a little extreme...." But vehement, even hysterical language is more and more used to demonize students who question and comment. Terms like "authoritarian" and "Hitler youth" have been hurled at students who, like Grantham, dare to express any sort of criticism of the classroom status quo.

John K. Wilson, mentioned above also deals with this particular case.

"But except for a vague statement condemning "prejudice, harassment and discrimination" (issued weeks before the controversy began) and praise for the "judicious and fair" students who had "avoided public comment," Harvard officials never took the side of the students, and a month later the dean of the faculty announced that no disciplinary action would be taken against Thernstrom. While Thernstrom may have objected to the administration's neutrality, even Eugene Genovese-- a critic of political correctness-admitted that "the Harvard administration more or less upheld Thernstrom's academic freedom.""

I'm sorry I can't link to these articles--I am getting them from Questia, which is an online library.

This is a tricky one; because nothing actually happened to Mr. Thernstrom. I mean if he had been disciplined, that would be one thing, there'd be a record of it. But instead what we have are supposed attacks on his good name. One account paints those attacks vitrioliclic; the second paints a much more indirect picture.

So there's two stories, and you can take your pick as to which one you believe.

1. Vicious PC students spread rumors about a blameless professor in an effort to get him terminated and to ruin his good name. The professor chose not to offer the class again.

2. Students questioned publically some statements made by their professor, which criticisms found their way into the media to the embarassement of all involved. The professor, unused to facing criticism, decided not to teach the class ever again.

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