Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Political Correction

I come from a gathering of numerous and sundry Georgetown faculty, namely a workshop organized by the Provost to discuss undergradutate teaching and learning. While there was much of interest that might be discussed, I was particularly struck by a moment at the end of the keynote lecture by Harvard professor of Public Policy, Richard Light. Light was disclosing the results of a new "assessment" that seeks to track values of both entering undergraduates and graduating seniors at Harvard. The question devised to measure these values (as best I recall) was: "In your judgment, who are the three most important individuals to have lived in the last 100 years." Before disclosing the results, Light predicted that there would be two groans (this, based on his experience reporting these results at other Universities), and he was right - there were groans when he mentioned result numbers 3 and 7. His study showed that the top eight responses by students were:
1. Gandhi 2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt 3. Ronald Reagan 4. Martin Luther King 5. Winston Churchill 6. Nelson Mandela 7. Margaret Thatcher 8. Anwar Sadat

He then discussed another "values" measure, namely the following question: "In your judgment, what is the greatest speech in American history?" For incoming freshman, the overwhelming response was Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" Speech. However, graduating seniors named Abraham Lincoln's "Second Inaugural Address," followed in second by Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address." When Light disclosed this latter result, there was THE SAME GROAN in the room as had gone up when he named Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the previous question. The first set of groans one can ALMOST understand, if not excuse, as evidence of predictable contemporary academic partisanship (what does it say about faculty views of the numerous students who presumably named those two figures?). The second groan, frankly, nearly - but not wholly - baffles me. Has academia arrived at the point at which Abraham Lincoln's greatest speech is regarded as politically incorrect? Did anyone in that room actually know what Lincoln said? Doesn't Lincoln's relevance to King's own views bear any reflection (indeed, consider the location of King's speech). The mind reels at the kneejerk ignorance of America's "best and brightest"...

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