The Dangers of Political Correctness in American Education

Hal Gordon




Ever hear of Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825)? He was an English physician and philanthropist who once published The Family Shakespeare, an expurgated edition of the Bard’s works edited by his sister, Henrietta Maria Bowdler. The Bowdlers’ object was to produce an edition of Shakespeare that could be read “without incurring the danger of falling unawares among words and expressions which are of such a nature as to raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.” Thus, Lady Macbeth’s cry of “Out, damned spot!” was refined to “Out, crimson spot!” and “God!” as an exclamation was replaced by “Heavens!”


Today, we laugh at such exaggerated delicacy. At least we ought to. But we can’t. Because Bowdlerizing, or at least something very close to it, is making a startling comeback on many of our nation’s college campuses.


The New York Times recently reported that colleges across the country are currently having to cope with student requests for “trigger warnings.” That is, students want explicit warnings that materials to which they will be exposed in the classroom might prove upsetting to some or all of them.


As examples of classroom reading that should be red flagged, the article cited such classic works of literature as Huckleberry Finn (racism), the Merchant of Venice (anti-Semitism) and The Great Gatsby (“a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”) A draft guide circulated at Oberlin College in Ohio further suggests flagging anything that smacks of “classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [bias against the transgendered], ableism [bias against the handicapped], and other issues of privilege and oppression.” Anything else?


Where will these “trigger warnings” end? Are handicapped students to be put off from reading Moby Dick because Captain Ahab has a peg leg? Are students born out of wedlock to be cautioned against King Lear because Edmund the Bastard is, well, a bastard? Are female students with strong feminist predilections to be deterred from reading even the opening line of Pride and Prejudice? (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”) For that matter, should African-American students avoid so much as glancing at the cover of a famous novel by Joseph Conrad called, The[N-word] of the Narcissus?

At one time a college education was supposed to open the minds of young people. Now it appears that institutions of higher learning are supposed to enforce the students’ notions of political correctness. This is hazardous to say the least. If students pass their college years cosseted, coddled, cocooned and otherwise sheltered from anything likely to startle, challenge and yes, offend them, how are they going to be able to cope with real life when they graduate? Do these young innocents really believe that the world outside will spare their delicate feelings?



Yes, there are anti-Semitic elements in the Merchant of Venice. But that same play also contains the noblest reply to anti-Semitism ever penned. It occurs in Act III, Scene 1 where Shylock says: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”


In a world in which anti-Semitism is by no means dead, that speech should be required reading in every college in the country. But it can be fully appreciated only in its context. In other words, you have to grapple with the anti-Semitic elements of the play to truly grasp the power of that speech.


Much the same could be said of most other great works of literature. Students can uncover their riches only if they risk exposure to elements that are liable to make them feel uncomfortable.


The alternative is ignorance; and that is a prospect that should unsettle us all.


Author Bio:

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site:



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