by Mark Bauerlein
People old enough to remember the academic culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s have a special insight into this year’s controversy over critical race theory. I don’t mean insight into the identity politics of the old days and into the identity politics of 2021, though the basic features are the same whether we are talking about the English syllabus in college in 1989 or the equity lesson in elementary school this fall. I mean, instead, the particular way in which liberals have handled the backlash once the trends in the higher education seminar of yore and in the 6th grade classroom of today have been made public.
Here’s what happened back then. In the 1970s and ’80s, a new political awareness crept into humanities teaching and research at elite universities, casting the old humanist ideals of beauty and genius and greatness as spurious myths, as socially constructed notions having a political purpose. We were told that they are not natural, neutral, or objective. No, they are Eurocentric, patriarchal, even theological (in that they presumed a transhistorical, universal character for select masterpieces). Shakespeare, Milton, Bernini, et al., were not on the syllabus because they were talents superior to all others. No, they were only there because the people in control were institutionalizing their biases. This whole canon thing, the revisionists insisted, was a fake. As Edward Said put it in “Secular Criticism,” “The realities of power and authority . . . are realities that make texts possible,” and any criticism that skirts the power and authority that put Shakespeare on the syllabus and not someone else is a dodge.
They could diversify, then. That’s what the skepticism enabled them to do. They could drop requirements in Western civilization. They needn’t force every student through a “great books” sequence. The “classics” are just one possibility among many others. That was the policy outcome at one tier-one campus after another.
When Bill Bennett, Roger Kimball, Allan Bloom, and a few other conservative critics pointed out what was going on, however, liberals in the academy didn’t stand up and proudly avow, “Darn right we’ve opened up the canon—and it’s a very good thing that this worship of Dead White Males is over!” Instead, they went for the Chicken Little defense, for instance, calling political correctness in academia an outright fabrication.
If the humanities were now giving women and minorities a little more attention, they argued, that hardly called for fret and indignation. “These silly conservatives with their sky-is-falling lament,” they said, “either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re simply lying. We still teach Shakespeare and all the other major figures. All we’ve done is open the syllabus to other voices. Stop whining.”
I recall hearing those putdowns all the time. My colleagues regarded the conservatives as know-nothings and envious wannabes, and they took a smug satisfaction in their insider status. After all, they were the ones in charge, and Lynne Cheney would never join them. Why should professors grant Dinesh D’Souza a hearing, though his 1991 book Illiberal Education ran up big sales numbers? The man doesn’t even have a Ph.D.! And a guy like Bennett is obviously a political hack, a fellow unsuited to the disinterested deliberations of the conference event.
The condescension was thick. It made the professors feel better. A few conservatives wrote famous books, yes—but they had tenure! The director of a well-known press that had published a lot of the transgressive theory dismantling the tradition during those years told me much later that he and others would get together and read pages from Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and other conservative critiques and laugh at how the authors misconstrued the theories they disliked. He remembered those sessions fondly.
At the time, though I was a solid liberal Democrat, the treatment struck me as outright double-dealing. On one hand, the anti-tradition canon-busters were admired everywhere as radical voices, challenging and contestatory, pounding the old foundations with the fervor of Marat. They were outspoken about it—radical was an honorific term. Adding a little Toni Morison and Aphra Behn here and there wasn’t enough for them, not nearly. They were out to undermine the very notion of canonicity itself, the whole shebang.
And yet, when their disintegrating actions became public knowledge, when The Closing of the American Mind became a phenomenal best-seller, the profs had a different thing to say. They came back with reassuring tones, telling the public that conservative charges were way exaggerated, that not much had changed, Dickens was still Dickens, so relax. This conservative alarm is a bunch of twaddle.
Sound familiar? That’s how the CRT crowd have defended their poisonous instruction. They say, first, that critical race theory doesn’t have nearly the reach that Christopher Rufo and others say it has. It is “a bogeyman cooked up by the GOP,” a “cartoonish” smear. Terry McAuliffe claimed that it doesn’t even exist in Virginia’s schools, that it’s just a “dog whistle.” Along with that, the defenders present critical race theory as something that isn’t radical at all, a rather benign effort to teach children about race relations in America. Vox casts it as a form of objective analysis that finds embedded racism in laws and institutions. An NPR story defines it as “an academic pursuit examining how race intersects with history.” What’s wrong with that?
Critical race theory, in other words, is an historiographical reform, a more accurate rendition of the past. Nothing radical, nothing tribal, only a fuller, more factual history of our country. And, also, a quite common adjustment in curriculum. Such things happen all the time. There is nothing unusual or sweeping about this one.
Call it damage control, a PR scheme. When public outcry reaches the decibels we’ve seen in Virginia and elsewhere, the activists and educators realize they have to work on their messaging. They must screen their machinations, cloak their radicalism, lower their volume. We know that leftist “progress” is generally unpopular in our country, which forces progressives to manufacture propaganda for public consumption. Party lines are ginned up for congenial politicians, business leaders, and journalists. We end up with two battle fronts: one, the intellectual and pedagogical debate over CRT itself, its concepts and practices; and two, the competition to shape its image to outsiders and laymen. The first is a disciplinary contest, the second a public one.
Conservatives, then, face a double burden. They must explode the conceptual underpinnings of CRT, its internal structure and the methods of its use in schools. Also, they must counter fabrications about it, to prevent activists and their media allies from giving a false picture of it to the American people.
The memories of the Canon Wars of the ’80s and early ’90s show that this war with two theatres has plagued conservatives for a long time. In this case, given Glenn Youngkin’s victory, we see that the apologies and denials and euphemisms didn’t work. We may even have cause to hope that many people outside the conservative core now realize the dishonest apologetics that kick in when public opinion turns against a progressive assault on a longstanding institution. Because of its thorough takeover of the educational and cultural realms over the last 60 years, progressivism has backers and votaries throughout the media who are ever ready to peddle the distortions of the Left and to soften its radicalism until public acceptance is achieved. Is this two-step now exposed?
Do not trust the advocates and do not believe their reportage. They are partisans, and they have proven themselves such. Rufo was able to overcome them because he had obtained actual CRT materials that could not be explained away. Parents couldn’t be dissuaded from their outrage because they heard things directly from their kids. The contrast between the facts on the ground and the denials of Nicolle Wallace and others was ludicrous.
The lesson for conservatives is this: when you enter a public debate, carry with you evidence that cannot be misused. Get your facts and statistics, records, and documents in order, and show the leftist activists and journalists that you have the goods, you’ve scouted the field, and you will let none of their prevarications pass any longer.
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Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.