Scholar decries critics' 'poorly informed' attacks on U.S. universities

By Andrea Lynn

In a new book about higher education and the humanities, a UI
English professor launches a fusillade "back on the attackers,"
aiming at commentators on all sides - conservatives and liberals,
academics and the mainstream news media - for the "shoddy work"
they have done in covering contemporary American scholarship.

"When the best teachers and scholars in the humanities are
represented in the public press as 'politically correct Thought
Police,' then American educators - and important intellectual
debates - are done a serious injustice," says Michael Berube, the
author of "Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural
Politics," published recently by Verso.

According to Berube, most media attacks on U.S. universities have
been "irresponsible and poorly informed." The eruption of
"political correctness" stories in 1991, he said, "showed major
American publications - The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News &
World Report - taking their information almost entirely from one
side and perpetuating the worst kind of garbled, misquoted
'explanations' of deconstruction, curricular reform, and current
theories of race and culture."

Berube's book acknowledges "the difficulty of sustaining
intellectual exchange in a culture more accustomed to waging mass-
media smear campaigns than to fostering substantial debates on
historicism or the Voting Rights Act," but Berube points out that
this problem is not confined to campus politics. Discussing
conservatives' misquotations of the writings of Lani Guinier,
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Al Gore, for example, Berube says that
"the point of these attacks is to make political moderates look
like radicals and thereby narrow the bounds of permissible
political debate."

Publishers Weekly recently described Berube's research as
"breathtaking and persuasive," and dubbed him an "academic whiz-
kid" with a "gift for translating the tides of theory." Berube
sees himself more as an academic "generalist" who brings the
works of contemporary critical theorists - and their claims about
culture and society - to various nonacademic readers.
Accordingly, "Public Access" features discussions on
postmodernism, cultural studies, "new historicism,"
multiculturalism and the "politicization" of the humanities.
Berube also has written about rap music, avant-garde fiction,
science fiction films and Down syndrome. He was featured in a New
York Times article about the new breed of "public intellectual"
who tries to "speak to broader audiences on broader issues."

With regard to the ubiquitous term political correctness, Berube
believes that its continued use "gives American conservatives a
virtual monopoly over the discussion of cultural values - by
casting liberalism as doubly void of values, at once relativist
and totalitarian. In other words, liberals don't have values;
they have PC." And because contemporary critical theory has
everything to do with cultural values, Berube argues, "any
academic who's truly interested in democracy will simply have to
engage the arguments of our attackers if we're going to foster
democratic values in the culture at large."

UIUC -- Inside Illinois -- 1994/11-17-94