There’s an anecdote Montclair State University professor George Zilbergeld likes to tell when you ask him about political correctness on campus. Several years back, a colleague he knew only by reputation approached him in the elevator and whispered gingerly on a subject he (the colleague) considered controversial. “I heard you are a veteran,” he asked Zilbergeld. “Is that true?”
Like him, Zilbergeld learned, the colleague had served in Vietnam. He, too, had been teaching at Montclair for many years. And although the school employs hundreds of instructors and is New Jersey’s second-largest university, only six faculty members are veterans, by Zilbergeld’s count. With over 13,000 students—only Rutgers is larger—such small veteran representation makes Zilbergeld and his colleague a rarity on campus.
Talking about his military service, Zilbergeld noticed, the colleague seemed a little cowed. It turned out he had good reasons to be. Earlier in his career, something strange and troubling had happened to him while searching for his first academic position. He had seemingly been passed over for jobs based on his military background.
Like many fledgling academics beginning careers in the post-G.I. Bill era, the colleague had found a difficult job market. Back then, in the early 1970s, the market was not as bad as today’s, but it wasn’t the 1950s either. The colleague was repeatedly and frustratingly passed over for positions he felt were within his reach. Things got so bad that he began to tinker with his CV. He dropped the most contentious item on it in the hopes of getting hired. It worked.
The item? Fluency in Vietnamese. In the 1960s and 70s, everyone knew that American citizens who could get along in Vietnamese—much less master the language—were rare. So rare, in fact, that any such American serving in the war would almost certainly have been involved in intelligence work, or would have worked closely with the South Vietnamese, or would have been involved in precisely the wartime activities that campus activists found so objectionable.
So the colleague dropped Vietnamese fluency from his vita. A few months later, he was hired at Montclair.
A coincidence? Possibly. But for Zilbergeld, sheer numbers cast doubt on the idea. For him, it’s just another instance of how the politically correct American campus—or, rather, a tiny minority on it—disserves students by cowing people whose views would seem to conflict with its own.
“I have been a college professor for twenty-five years at three different colleges in three different parts of the United States,” including the South. “I do not remember a single campus-wide celebration or memorial service for the military.”
“There is one place where you will hardly ever hear a word of appreciation or respect for the military—college campuses,” Zilbergeld writes.
The facts would seem to bear him out, and not just the paucity of veterans among college faculty. Elite campuses still maintain a ban on the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), for one thing. The most vitriolic critics of the military seem to collect there, too. And only universities seem to countenance the words of people like Richard Berthold, the obtuse University of New Mexico professor who told his students on the morning of 9/11 that “anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote.”
Zilbergeld’s ire is not limited to attitudes about the military, either. He sees political correctness as the root of illiberal thinking in education generally. “Students are not getting the good stuff anymore,” he says.
Ultimately, Zilbergeld seems conflicted as to the future of political correctness in the university. On the one hand, he is optimistic about students’ abilities to see nonsense for what it is.
“The students don’t agree with the politically correct stuff,” he says. For the most part they go about the business of learning and building careers as they always have.
But Zilbergeld is less optimistic when it comes to the professors. Like the Vietnam vet colleague of his anecdote, they seem to be cowed by a tiny minority of PC activists on campus who dominate public debate over important issues of the day.
“Most professors are old-fashioned liberal democrats,” he explains. “They’re not gladiator types. They are easily intimidated, especially by accusations of racism.”
Brendan Conway is managing editor of The Public Interest.