by Mary Jane Guy
Dr. Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, ventured where few dare to tread in the hallowed groves of academe: he questioned social justice teaching in the liberal arts curriculum. This event on May 1 at Winona State, sponsored by WSU’s Department of Education Leadership, The Winona County Historical Society, and the Minnesota Association of Scholars, had an excellent turnout and raised many questions.
In his lecture, Dr. Wood challenged the widespread acceptance of diversity training in our schools and colleges and asked the audience: “If social justice teaching is a challenge to the constitutional order in the United States, why does it seem so controversial to so many?” Dr. Wood’s talk was certainly controversial and his books “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept,” and “The Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now,” illuminate a profound shift in the American psyche.
I believe that ideas have consequences, and that the answer to Dr. Wood’s question lies in exposing the tyranny of “isms” that underlie the assumptions of the diversity movement.
An astute observer in this game of vital interests could easily detect a pall of orthodoxy once the tyranny of “isms” comes into play. The audience was challenged to reflect whether social order is established primarily through legal doctrines of governance, or by a set of interrelated cultural assumptions that dictate what we think about ourselves as a people and as a society. Many unspoken “isms” were the omnipresent, unseen guests in the room.
Our discussion echoed the national dialogue where ideology replaces logic, and rationality and communication break down. Even the presentation of historical truths or legal evidence can’t loosen the stranglehold the “isms” of our age have over the American conscience. The notion of common good flies out the window, especially when terms are not clearly defined in the context in which they are used.
The term “diversity” originated with Justice Powell’s decision in the Bakke affirmative action opinion, lifting “diversity” out of obscurity and giving it the respectability of “seeming” law. No one on the Bench supported Powell’s belief that ethnic and racial diversity was educationally constructive at the time. Eventually, progressives linked the pursuit of ethnic and racial quotas in classrooms with notions of cultural relativity and education as a quest for personal identity.
Dr. Wood, in his address, merely seeks parity of subject matter and curriculum balance. Historical truth, legal and ethical norms, and prosperity are at least as important themes as “social justice” in any teaching or discussion about human flourishing.
Invariably, in a dialogue of this nature, a victim mentality arises and begins a search and destroy mission for public enemies: “imperialism,” “sexism,” “racism,” or “elitism.” A starting bell rings and almost immediately a scapegoat is identified. If someone is demonized, you may go past “Go.” A flip of the dice advances your competitor five spaces to the Victim Ideology square. The game of “Death by Isms” has begun.
“Subjectivism” is the first trap that champions of the under-served fall into when trying to defend social justice with a “progressive” world view. Take the issue of testing, for example. The real obstruction to equality of opportunity is that truly objective tests should never be judged subjectively. Most students today expect that standards exist for their benefit and strive to meet them so that “equality of opportunity” really means something.
“Racism,” is a related culprit in testing. For example, if we can’t trust white males to write the tests, who should write them? White females? Black females? If we subscribe to “interest group liberalism,” we pick our own poison to be dispensed by whichever victim group is subjectively bent on launching the next politically correct crusade.
“Revisionism,” another undercover “ism,” is rooted in the Marxist thesis of economic “determinism.“ It challenges objective historical truth in order to advance a classless society. The Charles Beard thesis profoundly changed the way textbooks in America are written to teach that the Founding Fathers were a privileged class of white men who did not have the common good at heart. This particular social justice teaching has done much to undermine the credibility of the United States Constitution and has helped produce culture and class warfare in the United States.
The “isms” of “classism,” “Marxism,” “determinism,” and “revisionism” have also gone viral and created a new purpose for American education: to produce a “fair” and relatively classless society. “Exceptionalism” and “theism” have given way to “subjectivism,” “elitism,” determinism,” “social Darwinism,” “humanism,” “naturalism,” “existentialism,” “moral relativism,” “postmodernism,” “cultural relativism,” and “scientism” — a veritable hydra-headed host of largely unexamined shibboleths.
“Elitism” is the most common target of “multiculturalism.” Wood argues, however, that leadership by elites produces civilizing affects. Slavery, for example, was not abolished only because “interest group liberalism” raised a ruckus. It was legally eradicated by the stroke of a pen of morally intelligent “elites” exercising rights of conscience in a dimly lit parliament. White privilege in this instance emboldened Dr. Martin Luther King to also uphold natural law foundations as the moral basis for the civil rights movement.
“Imperialism,” is the “ism” most frequently associated with “cultural relativism,“ and is the bugaboo of foreign policy. After all, who are we to impose our values on others? Professor Wood noted that most civilizations the world over have recognized murder and cruelty as wrong. Civilized nations should therefore not tolerate, for the sake of “cultural relativism,” murdering widows by throwing them on funeral pyres in India, even if wacky cultural norms condone such practices.
None of these “isms” however, matches “progressivism’s” political cache through identity politics. Identity politics inevitably backfires because it is based more on “subjectivism” and feelings of personal entitlement than objective reasoning for the common good of society. Dr. Wood believes that it is impossible for a common good mentality to gain a foothold in a victimizing culture that promotes irrationality and class warfare. “Racism” is, of course, by far, now the most incendiary “ism” within the arsenal of “progressivism.” To avoid either quotas or identity politics, both Justice Roberts and Dr. King on opposite sides of the political spectrum offered a simple solution to the problem of racism: never consider race in a color-blind society. We could also simply adopt the British model of an open university: admit everyone without merit and charge and let the chips fall where they may. Would that satisfy restorative justice?
Our government has tried unsuccessfully to counteract the evils of “racism,” “ethnocentrism‚“ “genderism” or “sexism,” by imposing artificial solutions like quotas and/or entitlements. Affirmative action has failed precisely because it is “artificial.” It is government tinkering around the edges of an educational system that still cannot produce equality of outcomes naturally. Students must surely feel demeaned when they are accepted only because they are a member of certain “group” or geography.
Thankfully, the days of De Jure segregation provided a heavy dose of reality. Title IX especially has leveled the playing field in sports for both men and women. But today, de facto justice depends more upon individual conscience and a national civility rooted in cultural norms, than on subjectivism, moral or cultural relativism, or the strong arm of the law.
“Redistributism” is another controversial “ism” that continues to undermine economic justice. Reapportionment policies based solely upon the division of finite resources does not motivate young entrepreneurs to expand the pie. Nor can philanthropy thrive under the withering, all-seeing eye of a manipulative state whose social justice policies nip individual initiative and charity in the bud.
Dr. King described social justice as “the garment of human destiny” impacting motivation. But Dr. Wood contends that true social justice is more than a political movement or a demand for social privileges. It is a revolutionary and counter-constitutional principle that promises to free people from the pseudo-liberty of individualism by insisting that traditional notions of equality are a sham. America‚ a natural diversity, is a pluralistic immigrant society seeking common goals. Has this been replaced by a phony, impostor diversity — made up of spurious claims to group identities — bolstered by unseen “isms” of our day?
We can agree that “equality of opportunity” is the goal of our democratic society, but we cannot agree which policies will get us to the promised land. Unless we re-examine our ontological roots and how and why we teach, it is entirely possible that the unspoken “tyranny of isms” will be the death of us yet, if not by stifling ideas, then by sabotaging our hopes and dreams.