John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey gave us She Who Must Be Obeyed (i.e., Rumpole’s wife as he privately referred to her). J.K. Rowling gave us He Who Must Not Be Named (i.e., the villain Voldemort). Now higher education gives us daily lessons on That Which Must Not Be Said or, ideally, Thought. Thinking the guilty thoughts puts you at risk of saying them and they must not be said.
Take the case of Professors Amy Wax and Larry Alexander. Both Wax and Alexander are tenured teachers of law holding endowed chairs — Wax at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Alexander at the University of San Diego Law School. They jointly wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer column “Paying the price for the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”
In the column Wax and Alexander articulated the social practices at the heart of middle class America from the late 1940’s through the 1960’s: “Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
Wax and Alexander propose that we return to these norms to mitigate widely recognized social pathologies and improve the lives of Americans of all stripes. Drawing on the lingo of the academic left, they propose that we “restore the hegemony of the bourgeois culture.” To do so, they noted: “[R]estoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture will require the arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood — to relinquish multicultural grievance polemics and the preening pretense of defending the downtrodden. Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.”
Well, of course, this could not stand. In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Heather Mac Donald recounted the institutional backlash Wax and Alexander have suffered at Penn and USD respectively (behind the Journal’s paywall, the column can be accessed via the RealClearPolitics Tuesday lineup). Heather summarized the state of play this way:
Two aspects of the op-ed have generated the most outrage. Ms. Wax and Mr. Alexander observed that cultures are not all “equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy.” Their critics pounced on this statement as a bigoted, hate-filled violation of the multicultural ethic. In his response, Penn’s Dean Ruger proclaimed that “as a scholar and educator I reject emphatically any claim that a single cultural tradition is better than all others.” But that wasn’t the claim the authors were making. Rather, they argued that bourgeois culture is better than underclass culture—specifically, “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks.” The authors’ criticism of white underclass behavior has been universally suppressed in the stampede to accuse them of “white supremacy.”
The op-ed’s other offense was extolling the 1950s for that decade’s embrace of bourgeois virtues. “Nostalgia for the 1950s breezes over the truth of inequality and exclusion,” five Penn faculty assert in yet another op-ed for the student newspaper. In fact, Mr. Alexander and Ms. Wax expressly acknowledged that era’s “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism.”
Mac Donald points out that the critics of Wax and Alexander draw on an arsenal more suited to the Cultural Revolution than to intellectual debate:
None of the professors’ high-placed critics have engaged with any of their arguments. [USD Law President Stephen] Ferruolo’s schoolwide letter was one of the worst examples. The dean simply announced that Mr. Alexander’s “views” were not “representative of the views of our law school community” and suggested that they were insensitive to “many students” who feel “vulnerable, marginalized or fearful that they are not welcomed.” He did not raise any specific objections to Mr. Alexander’s arguments, or even reveal what the arguments were.
Instead, he promised more classes, speakers and workshops on racism; more training on racial sensitivity; and a new committee to devise further diversity measures. Stronger racial preferences will most certainly follow. The implication of this bureaucratic outpouring is that the law-school faculty is full of bigots. In reality, Mr. Alexander and his colleagues are among the most tolerant people in human history, and every University of San Diego law student is among the most privileged—simply by virtue of being at an institution with such unfettered intellectual resources. The failure of administrators like Mr. Ferruolo to answer delusional student narcissism with obvious truth is an abdication of their responsibility to lead students toward an adult understanding of reality.
I think the Wax and Alexander column recapitulates points that the eminent social scientist Charles Murray has been making one way or another for a long time. Stay in school. Get married. Don’t have kids before you get married. Stay married if you can.
Murray put it this way in his 2012 Wall Street Journal column “The new American divide,” summarizing the conclusion he had reached in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray urged what he calls “the new upper class” to drop its condescending nonjudgmentalism: “Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy theses norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”
The secret rules of success can even be deduced from Jason DeParle’s New York Times article “Two classes, divided by ‘I do.'” Murray’s career, however, illustrates the limits of what can be said and thought on campus today. He cannot speak on most campuses. Where he can speak, he requires substantial police protection. See, for example, Murray’s own account of his recent talk at Harvard in “Harvard shows how it should be done.” The Two Minutes Hate to which Professors Wax and Alexander are now subject represents the most recent example of the Murray phenomenon.