Rigid certainty, political correctness evidence educational failure
Sacramento Bee (Published in the Pasadena Star-News)
June 27, 2005
By Peter Schrag

ONCE again academic freedom gets a beating from the self- righteous. The latest instance was the threat of a commencement boycott issued earlier this month by a small group of professors and students at Hayward State, or as it's now known, California State University, East Bay.

 The threat was prompted by the scheduled appearance of Richard Rodriguez, one of the country's finest living essayists, at the Hayward State commencement. Rodriguez was to have received an honorary degree and make some remarks at the ceremony.

 Rodriguez, according to the declarations of the protesters, opposes bilingual education and affirmative action (as do most California voters), which makes him unfit for such an occasion.

 The charge is a caricature of the elegant, nuanced and altogether fresh writing he has produced on the complex relations among race, ethnicity, class and culture in the United States. The threatened boycott was not just a confession of educational failure but another cheer for segregation.

 Even more sadly, Rodriguez, far more gracious than the protesters, let them succeed. He withdrew "because I didn't want to make myself the point of the day. The real point of the day is the graduating class, (which) deserved a sunny and happy event, without the Chicanistas turning the day into a witch- burning.'

 There isn't space here to begin to describe Rodriguez's writings, which, among other things, include the observation (in his 2002 book "Brown') that "Spanish is now becoming unofficially but truly the second language of the United States.'

 There is no corner of the state where Spanish isn't spoken and where Latino culture isn't making its mark. America now communicates, as he says, "in at least two 'voices.' '

 What are the protesters fretting about?

 But even those quotes are oversimplifications. "Nativists who want to declare English the official language . . . who would build a fence around American English to forestall the Trojan burrito,' Rodriguez says, "would turn American into a frightened tongue, a shrinking little oyster tongue, as French has lately become. . . .'

 Rodriguez celebrates his brownness, sees it as the vehicle that may at last carry America beyond its anachronistic duality of race. Had the Hayward protestors ever read this? Most of the protesters seem to have been either teachers or graduate students in bilingual education, and their views should hardly be surprising. But their passion for self-segregation is.

 Before Rodriguez withdrew, they planned to have their own ceremony in which participants were encouraged to wear serapes and other ethnic garb, as if the whole purpose of their education had been the preservation of various indigenous cultures, not unfettered learning in an 800-year-old Western academic tradition.

 The essence of that tradition is tolerance and openness the willingness to listen to and consider new ideas and to honor their expression, even in disagreement. By whatever name, Hayward State owes that heritage to Paris, Oxford and Bologna, not to the closed systems from which heretics are banished or, worse, burned.

 If a handful of protesters can drive off a speaker, what happens when some group of Sacramento politicians (who vote the funds) disapproves of some left-wing speaker, or worse, a professor? Ironically, the alternative commencement was to have been in the university's Meiklejohn Hall, named for the late Alexander Meiklejohn (the protesters consistently misspelled the name), a philosopher who, until his death in Berkeley, in 1964, was a prolific defender of academic freedom and free speech.

 Meiklejohn, a sweet and gentle man, who was the president of Amherst College from 1913 to 1923, was run off from his  presidency in part because his academic ideas leaned too far toward what in those days was regarded as excessively left- wing and experimental.

 Of course the protesters had a right to boycott and hold their own commencement. But their claims that Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants to Sacramento who made his way through Stanford and graduate work at Columbia and in England, didn't know anything about bilingual education were, more than anything, confessions that they didn't want to listen to different ideas and had learned little about learning.

 In that, they tend to be children of our times, too many of which (like many of our politicians) define all thought and writing by one or two simple political categories and reduce all literature to those categories.

 They might be partly right about bilingual education: The research on it, much of it tendentious and bad, is all over the place. For some children from certain backgrounds it may be advisable, perhaps even essential; for others it's a wasteful diversion.

 No single formula will fit the case. Something similar might be true for affirmative action. Maybe it's that insecurity that makes the protesters so vitriolic.

 If the rigid certainty about any such things, the neglect of the enormous complexities of language and culture in this mixed society, the quickness to write off an original mind after its expressions are reduced into simple categories yes, the smug political correctness of it isn't evidence of educational failure, what is?