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Lyons: College in the crosshairs

Part two

For some time now, America has enjoyed the world's finest system of higher education. Its scientific accomplishments, humanistic research, policy studies and the arts have long been the envy of nations. The Radical Right wants to change all that.

Since the late 1980s we have seen a concerted attack on higher education, originally targeting democratic initiatives - respect for women and minorities, multiculturalism, affirmative action and diversity - but now setting its sights on science: stem cell research, evolution and global warming studies. It cannot be argued that the Radical Right's war on higher education will improve our colleges and universities. The opposite is true. How did it come to this?

It began with an intellectual backlash to the '60s, starting with Allan Bloom's 1987 book, ''The Closing of the American Mind,'' blaming ''relativism'' for the spiritual rootlessness of Americans, decline of family life and decay of classical (read: European) traditions. Bloom was an elitist apparently oblivious to the amoral consumer culture he lived in, and his nostalgia for a world inhabited by genteel young men discussing Plato after a hearty game of polo seemed quaint at best. But he provided the Radical Right with two useful arguments to wield against higher education: 1) relativism is bad, and 2) multiculturalism is relativism.

Relativism is the idea that there is no universal truth, only many different truths; and multiculturalism makes the same claim about cultures. Bloom blamed higher education for professing these scandalous ideas and argued that only Western classics would save us. The Right doesn't talk much about Bloom anymore, not only because he was a closeted gay man who died of an AIDS-related illness, but probably because doing so would logically suggest the need for more arts and humanities funding - definitely not on their agenda. It was his attack on relativism they needed, and the idea that colleges were responsible for American woes.

These ideas were refined three years later in Roger Kimball's ''Tenured Radicals'' (1990), which not only blamed higher education for cultural decay but claimed to locate the source of the problem: ''Yesterday's student radical is today's tenured professor or academic dean.'' Making today's English departments seem like yesterday's AIM Indian Patrols, Kimball accused academics of ''indoctrinating'' students and particularly harangued scholars studying the ''special interests'' of race, class and gender. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche took their lumps too; but in Kimball's hands, Bloom's diagnosis of moral decay was most directly linked to diversity and critical thinking. It officially became a left-wing conspiracy.

Thus Bloom's critique of relativism was transformed into a bankable assault on diversity. It became all the more bankable in 1991 when a former Republican White House senior policy analyst, Dinesh D'Souza, published the best-selling ''Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus.'' Attacking multiculturalism, affirmative action and what is now called ''political correctness,'' this book was notable not only for the way it framed the debate we're still having today - universities as ostensible bastions of atrocious identity politics - but also for positing white males as victims. Thanks to D'Souza's brown skin, the Radical Right could echo these claims while insisting they weren't racist.

In similar fashion, it took a woman to bash feminism. In 1994, Christina Hoff Sommers' ''Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women'' portrayed academic ''gender feminists'' as a conspiratorial, man-hating cabal more interested in grant funding than social equity. ''A surprising number of clever and powerful feminists share the conviction,'' she wrote, ''that American women still live in a patriarchy where men collectively keep women down.'' This idea was obviously passe, so Sommers was shocked, SHOCKED, those feminists would ''betray'' women by keeping it around. It was around the same time that Rush Limbaugh introduced the word ''feminazi'' to the public lexicon, thus creating a term embodying the basic thrust of Sommers' argument.

That same year, another book made it safe once again to discuss race in essentialist ways. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's ''The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life'' (1994) argued that differences in IQ were attributable not to social forces like systematic poverty and bad schools, as indicated by the vast majority of modern social research, but rather to genes. In other words, the ''underclass'' (read: blacks, American Indians and other non-''model minorities'') had no one to blame but themselves for their lack of privilege. ''The Bell Curve'' scandalized mainstream researchers and failed to bring ''scientific racism'' back into vogue. But it did garner plenty of media attention and may have reinforced the public's idea that social mobility programs are pointless because, after all, some groups just aren't ''genetically'' destined for success.

And sure enough, two years later, in 1996, President Clinton ended ''welfare as we know it.'' That same year, California passed Proposition 209 outlawing affirmative action. A decade after that, in 2006, Michigan passed Proposal 2 prohibiting affirmative action, and nine more states have similar ballot initiatives on deck for 2008. If these developments aren't connected to the conservative propaganda of the '90s, I'd sure like to hear why.

Where does this leave us? Higher education is probably going to get whiter, so divisions between peoples will grow wider. The ''underclass'' will expand. Women are already losing reproductive rights and likely have more losses to look forward to. Multiculturalism will continue to be transformed into ''intercultural communication'' (so businessmen won't offend their Japanese clients) and diversity will thrive mainly in the military. The arts and humanities will suffer from their usual budget cutbacks, leading to spiritual and moral decay.

Meanwhile, the Radical Right will continue to blame ''political correctness'' and ''feminazis'' for problems caused by the market and the Radical Right. It's worked so far, so why stop now? Unlike those old-fashioned '80s and '90s, however, such arguments will no longer have to be made in books. Cable news, talk radio, think tanks and Web sites are working just fine.

However, there is one formerly heretical idea making a surprising comeback: relativism. Yes, the concept that started it all. The Radical Right needs relativism now to argue for creationism to be taught in universities and for social mobility programs benefiting conservatives, Christians and white males - all oppressed groups, according to David Horowitz.

The '60s had it right: universalism really is dead.

(Continued in part three)

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, directs the Center for Indigenous Studies at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y., and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.