Notes & Comments February 2002
Harvard’s black comedy
On Cornel West and the Black Studies Department.
Of the many things to be observed about the controversy that has lately erupted at Harvard University over the so-called stars of its Black Studies department, the first is that it has been a welcome and indeed belated development in every respect but one: President Lawrence H. Summers’s hasty, unpersuasive recourse to the fiction of a “terrible misunderstanding.” We see no evidence of a misunderstanding on either side of the events that triggered this controversy, neither in President Summers’s perfectly legitimate attempt to persuade Professor Cornel West to begin meeting a standard of scholarship that is worthy of the high academic appointment he enjoys on the Harvard faculty, nor in Professor West’s prompt response to this suggestion, which was not to cite any recent scholarly achievements—apparently there aren’t any—but to hire an attorney, an act clearly implying a threat of litigation. This was accompanied by a more explicit threat: that several high-profile Black Studies professors at Harvard—including their chairman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—would decamp to Princeton if President Summers persisted in his quest for some improvement in academic standards. Princeton, for its part, hastened to announce its eagerness to welcome not only the academically challenged Professor West, who had formerly taught at Princeton, but also his Harvard cohorts in its Black Studies department. What was there to misunderstand in this clear-cut scenario of challenge and response? The “stars” issued their ultimatum, and the president of Harvard surrendered.
It is not to be doubted, however, that President Summers’s criticism came as a great shock to Professor West. After all, under the previous president, the inexhaustibly complaisant Neil Rudinstine, the entire Black Studies boondoggle at Harvard had been given what might be called carte noire to redefine the very concept of academic achievement along strictly racialist lines, and not only in the realm of scholarly research but in classroom teaching as well. Hence the runaway grade inflation that was another of the issues raised by President Summers in his meeting with Professor West.
It was inevitable, moreover, that once a policy of “affirmative action” was established to govern the admission of students and the hiring of faculty at Harvard the same racially determined criteria would have to be applied to the content of the courses to be studied. For what is “affirmative action” if not the liberal euphemism for the legitimatizing of racial discrimination in favor of “minorities”? The result has been a selective ghettoization of the curriculum, with Black Studies accorded not just a separatist program of study but also a separatist standard of achievement for both faculty and students. In other words, academic apartheid.
All parties to the dispute are, of course, in categorical denial of this disagreeable reality, yet this is what the controversy at Harvard has really been about from the outset, and it is the sheerest moral hypocrisy for either President Summers or Professor West or for any of their respective supporters in the academy and in the press to pretend otherwise. What is now crucial for the rest of us to understand, however, is the shameful historical process—a process of political blackmail—that has led to the current debacle, not only at Harvard and Princeton but also throughout the liberal academic world in this country.
When The New Criterion addressed this issue back in September 1993, it was in an essay by Terry Teachout occasioned by the publication of Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy by Houston A. Baker, Jr., the director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of English and the Albert M. Greenfield Professor of Human Relations. Mr. Teachout’s entire essay is eminently worth rereading in the light of the current controversy, but we shall cite here only two short quotations that strike us as especially relevant. The first is about the role of rap in Black Studies programs.
The argument of Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy can be summed up briefly: (1) Black Studies is an indispensable part of American higher education. (2) Rap is a creative and authentic expression of the urban black experience and should be taken seriously by academics, particularly those in the field of black studies. (3) Anyone who disagrees with (1) or (2) is a racist.
It is important to recall, in this connection, that in lieu of any recent scholarship, Professor West has himself produced a rap CD.
The second quotation is in a passage cited by Mr. Teachout from an article by James Traub in The New Yorker.
Black students at campuses all over the country began by demanding separate programs and living facilities; above all, they demanded the establishment of programs of black studies—in effect, a department of their own. For many scholars, black and white, such ultimatums represented an assault on the intellectual integrity of the university. But college officials found that a black-studies department was a relatively cheap way to buy campus peace. The Marxist historian Eugene Genovese accused these administrators of practicing “a benevolent paternalism that is neither more or less than racist.” The subsequent neglect of conventional academic standards in many black-studies departments suggests that Genovese was right.
That “relatively cheap way to buy campus peace” has proved very costly, as Harvard University has now belatedly discovered.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 6, on page 1
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