Last May, a prominent conservative activist wrote a column blaming the brutal murders at Virginia Tech on course offerings in the school's English department. It's a vicious piece of writing that ends with a cold-hearted description of Virginia Tech's memorial service for the slain students, faculty, and staff. Read closely: "At the campus-wide convocation to honor the victims, Professor Nikki Giovanni read what purported to be a poem. On behalf of the English Department, she declaimed: 'We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it.' Maybe others will render a different verdict and ask why taxpayers are paying professors at Virginia Tech to teach worthless and psychologically destructive courses." So wrote Phyllis Schlafly on May 9, 2007.
Ten days from now, Phyllis Schlafly will march with the proud graduates of Washington University in St. Louis, one of the Rustbelt's greatest universities. There she will be awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters.
I am appalled.
Don't jump to any hasty conclusions about political correctness. I strongly support academic freedom. I believe that universities should foster debate in the classroom. My job as a professor is not to foist my politics on my undergraduates. I teach about Phyllis Schlafly and present her ideas thoroughly and carefully in my lecture on feminism and its critics. I present what I dare say is a fair and balanced account of the rise of the Goldwater movement, which launched Schlafly to national prominence. Over the years, I have assigned books and articles by people on the right, left, and center whose ideas I sometimes find problematic, sometimes abhorrent.
But I do not think that any self-respecting institution of higher education should offer a doctorate in humane letters to a woman who holds views that are antithetical to the very principles of higher education. If Eagle Forum University awarded Schlafly an honorary degree, I would not complain. But Washington University?
Phyllis Schlafly has never had much good to say about higher education in the United States. Echoing the now hackneyed conservative critique of higher ed, she sees campuses as a seething pit of political correctness and leftism. "Colleges and universities," she asserted in 2003, "have hired highly-paid itinerant facilitators to train incoming freshmen to feel guilty if they are white and to think politically correct thoughts about race and diversity." Poor freshmen, she argued, are subject to "Soviet-style re-education sessions." Here is an appalling abuse of history, comparing orientation sessions at American liberal arts schools with Stalin's gulags. Statements like this alone should disqualify Schlafly from the honorary doctorate.
Schlafly believes that elite institutions, including Washington University, stock their classes with foreign students because they are "so profitable." But worse than that, admitting foreign students furthers the pernicious agenda of left-wing political correctness. She is unsparing: "Foreign students on untracked visas fit right in with the prevailing college ideologies of multiculturalism and diversity. As enforced by the campus thought police, multiculturalism means that all cultures (except our Western Judeo-Christian civilization) are equally good, and diversity means preferring immigrants from non-Western countries."
Schlafly is also a foe of science. She has long denounced the teaching of evolution. From a 2004 column: "Liberals see the political value to teaching evolution in school, as it makes teachers and children think they are no more special than animals. Childhood joy and ambition can turn into depression as children learn to reject that they were created in the image of God." I have to admit that this is the first time that I have encountered the argument that Darwin is bad for students' self esteem.
Schlafly is most famous, of course, for her vicious criticism of feminists. She opposed the opening of VMI to women as an example of radical feminism run amuck: "The radical feminists just can't stand it that any institution in America is permitted to motivate and train real men to manifest the uniquely masculine attributes. Feminists want to gender-neutralize all men so they can intimidate and control them. The feminists' longtime, self-proclaimed goal is an androgynous society. Repudiating constitutional intent, history, tradition and human nature, they seek to forbid us, in public or private life, to recognize the differences between men and women."
Not surprisingly, Schlafly weighed in on the recent controversy involving then Harvard President Larry Summers: : "When will American men learn how to stand up to the nagging by the intolerant, uncivil feminists whose sport is to humiliate men? Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be."
Phyllis Schlafly has spent her entire career engaging in calumny and slander. Much of her writing defies reason and eschews dialogue. There is little humane in her thought. She is not a woman of letters. It goes without saying that Schlafly has been one of the most influential political figures in modern American history. Historians have already recognized her contribution to the transformation of modern American politics. But that does not make her worthy of one of academia's highest honors. She does not belong in the community of scholars who will convene at Washington University on May 16.