Academic Freedom and “Political Correctness”
James S. Coleman, a highly distinguished scholar and past president of the American Sociological Association, published an intensely controversial article arguing that what conservatives derisively call the “political correctness” movement poses a real threat to academic freedom.
Traditionally, professors have viewed university administrators as the principal enemies of academic freedom. But Coleman sees a new and more serious threat resulting from collegial pressure. He writes, “The greatest enemy of academic freedom is the norms that exist about what kinds of questions may be raised in research (and in teaching as well) and what kinds of questions may not be raised…. The taboos that a sociologist is most likely to encounter are those concerning questions of differences between genders or differences among races which might be genetic in origin” (p. 28).
Such taboos are primarily designed to prevent attacks on what Coleman terms “the policies of conspicuous benevolence.” “There are certain policies, certain public activities, that have the property that they stem from benevolent intentions toward others less fortunate or in some way oppressed — policies intended to aid the poor, or to aid blacks or Hispanics or women. Any research that would hinder these policies is subject to much disapproval and attack” (p. 34).
For example, Coleman’s widely reported research into educational opportunity among the races discovered, among other things, that “….teachers’ scores on vocabulary tests were related to the verbal achievements of students….” (p. 30). It is widely known that African-American teachers, “….themselves products of segregated school systems… (are) on the whole less well prepared, less qualified, with lower verbal skills, than their white counterparts” (pp. 30-31).
These observations lead to the disturbing conclusion that African-American students “….would do less well, on average, under black teachers than under white teachers. But the role-modeling or cultural-difference hypotheses implicit in much current theorizing would lead to the opposite conjecture, that they would be doing better, on average, under black teachers. If the first conjecture were right, it would have some disturbing implications. One would be that a major source of inequality of educational opportunity for black students was the fact that they were being taught by black teachers. Another, directly relevant to the policy issue, would be that both black and white students would have greater educational opportunity if they were not taught by these teachers. This potential implication was the cause of our not asking the question that followed naturally from our research” (p. 31). And this, according to Coleman, is the real problem: pressure for “political correctness” muzzles the impulse to ask the crucial questions. Researchers who are afraid to challenge the policies of conspicuous benevolence for fear of censure by their colleagues will be unable to investigate possible negative latent consequences of these policies, with the end result being failure to achieve the very goals promoted by their supporters.
There are several ways out of this dilemma. Coleman suggests an alteration in the hierarchy of values held within the academic community: “If, in the hierarchy of values held by the academic community of which one is a part, the value of freedom of inquiry is higher than the value of equality (the value that gives rise to conspicuous benevolence), then such constraints, such self-suppression of research into inconvenient questions, will no longer be effective” (p. 34).
Coleman, James S. “A Quiet Threat to Academic Freedom.” National Review XLII, 2 (March 18, 1991): 28-34.
1. Do you feel pressure to ask certain questions in research, and not to ask other questions? What are some other examples of research topics that might prompt disapproval from colleagues?
2. How would sociologists who disagreed with Coleman defend their position?