Political Correctness

Is something seriously wrong with the humanities departments of our universities? In 1987 Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind set out to tell us, in the lurid wording of its subtitle, “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” Similar messages have been repeated with increasing vehemence in books like Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education [...].

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Ray Conlogue's Apocalyptic Reveries

This letter, sent to The Globe and Mail on June 12, 1991 in response to an article defaming university teachers of English, was not published: newspapers which would hesitate to print similar comments about other professions evidently feel that academics are fair game.


The Editor, 
The Globe and Mail. June 12, 1991.

One hesitates to intrude upon the apocalyptic reveries of Ray Conlogue (“Cross Current,” June 11, 1991): it would be unkind to spoil the pleasure he evidently takes in posturing as a defender of Shakespeare against a new breed of academic Philistines. But only in his imagination are English professors, whom he seems to have trouble distinguishing from Red Guards, engaged in smashing up the monuments of our culture.

As a Renaissance scholar and a teacher of Shakespeare, I honour Mr. Conlogue's love of literature—but not his more obvious fondness for academic gossip, threadbare anecdotes, and cheap gestures of contempt. Samson laid about him with the jawbone of an ass; Conlogue prefers to brandish that of Claude Rawson, whose abusive article in a recent issue of the London Review of Books appears to be his principal source of information about contemporary academic life. Mr. Conlogue also has a friend who is a graduate student in English: rejecting her view of art and culture as “a site of contestation” in favour of a more urbane comparison to “a conversation among related people,” he promptly spoils the gesture by denouncing Jacques Derrida, the philosopher and literary theorist, as “a reactionary intellectual fraud.”

That may be the way some of us talk to our relatives. But one can only regret the intrusion of such language into what ought to be a reasoned debate over the role of the universities in transmitting a heightened awareness both of our cultural traditions and of the liberating potential of contemporary cultural and interpretive practices.

English studies have been revitalized during the past fifteen years by the work of feminist, poststructuralist, new historicist, and cultural materialist scholars. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, this work has made us more responsive to the needs of our students, more sensitive to the interactions between literary texts and the social contexts within which they are produced and interpreted, and more alert to the ethical implications of our teaching. It has also given new energy—I speak again from experience—to such traditional areas of literary scholarship as textual editing and the close reading of texts.

There have been and will continue to be lively debates among the exponents of different modes of literary interpretation. Students of literature are exposed to a wide variety of approaches by teachers who, whatever their methodological differences, share a commitment to the inculcation of independent critical thinking. The notion that university classrooms and lecture-halls have been “hijacked” for political ends is thus both malicious and absurd. Equally fatuous, as a glance at the course offerings of any North American university will show, is the claim that the literary classics have been dumped from the curriculum.

Only in ill-informed or ill-disposed minds could the rich diversity of new voices that is now evident in literary studies take on the nightmare shape of a monolithic, anti-democratic wave of “political correctness.”

Michael H. Keefer
University of Guelph
Vice-President and President-Elect, Association of Canadian University Teachers of English  

Gulf War 1991: Canada's Involvement

This letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did not receive the courtesy of a response. It has not previously been published.


P.O. Box 140, Eden Mills, Ontario, N0B 1P0
February 26, 1991.

The Right Hon. Brian Mulroney, 
Prime Minister of Canada.


Dear Mr. Mulroney,

Canada's participation in the Gulf War has effectively destroyed our reputation in the third world as a nation which, however close its ties to one of the superpowers, could be relied on to exercise a moderating influence at moments of crisis. We should not have taken part in a naval blockade or in any other military activities except under a properly constituted United Nations command. Nor should we have taken part in a war which was launched under the fraudulent pretext that the economic sanctions against Iraq had been ineffective. (That these sanctions were having a crippling effect upon Iraq, and would within months have obliged the Iraqi government to order a retreat from Kuwait was evident to informed observers—not least to Mr. Bush and his advisers, whose about-face on the subject after October of last year was patently hypocritical.)

But my principal concern here is with more urgent matters. Now that the military coalition arrayed against Iraq has achieved the major objective of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, all military operations should cease at once. Mr. Bush's refusal to put an immediate end to military operations is a clear signal—there have been many other such signals during the past weeks and months—that the aims of the United States in this war go far beyond those of the United Nations Security Council resolutions directed against Iraq.

Further prosecution of the war against Iraq would be criminal. (I use this word in a precise sense—that of the system of international law to which the United States appeals when it is convenient to do so, but which it has openly flouted in its attacks upon small nations, most recently Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama.) Coalition air attacks have already violated international law in several respects. Refugee convoys on the Baghdad -Amman road have been bombed and strafed; residential areas and civilian air-raid shelters in Iraqi cities have been bombed; and supplies of food, water, and electrical power to civilian populations have been interrupted. The mounting evidence that Saddam Hussein's government is guilty of war crimes against Kuwait—as previously against its own Kurdish population and against Iran—does not excuse such acts: one war crime does not justify another.

I therefore call upon you to order the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian air and naval units from the Gulf region. I do not wish to see the Canadian armed forces stained with the shame of having participated in further attacks upon a routed army and upon the civilian population of an already shattered country.

Yours sincerely,

Michael H. Keefer


[W]hile De vanitate does not spare such disciplines as logic, dicing, prostitution, and scholastic theology, it attacks only the most obviously demonic forms of magic, and actually praises others. To Spenser's generation, the attractiveness of Agrippa's two major works [...] seems to have lain in their unstable but persuasive fusion of apparently Protestant doctrines with occult and Neoplatonic ideas. 

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