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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 92 > Article

P.C., P. R., and Research in the '90s
by Dr. Margaret Dickie

Dr. Margaret M. Dickie delivered the keynote address, which has been excerpted by the editor, at the Thirteenth Annual Research Awards Banquet sponsored by the University of Georgia Research Foundation, Inc. Dr. Dickie is the Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Georgia.

Some of you know that PC stands for political correctness; most of you know that PR stands for public relations; and all of you will want to know what they have to do with research in the '90s. My answer is: everything.

PC, a movement with many ramifications and many constituencies, is entirely in the eye and mind of the beholder. One of its highly publicized results in literature departments has been research scholars' insistence that students receive instruction not just in the tradition of western civilization but in the multiple cultures that make up America. Recent research into American literary history has led to the discovery of the literature of native Americans and immigrants to this country -- Jewish American, Chinese American and Latin American. What we have been teaching as American literature has been predominantly the works of white Anglo-Saxon male authors.

A Broader View

Expanding the canon -- as the literary works most commonly taught in university courses are termed -- might not seem significant except for the national attention recently focused on battles being waged at the University of California at Berkeley and at Stanford University over whether multicultural courses will be part of a university-wide, required curriculum. The decision of California to adopt this requirement will have a significant impact on American education for years to come.

In the wake of such a move, many other educational institutions will also develop a reasoned, balanced multicultural curriculum. In addition to well-known writers such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, students will study the Native American writers Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, the Chinese writer Amy Tan, the African-American Toni Morrison, the Jewish writer Saul Bellow, the Latin-American writer Isabel Allende, to name just a few.

This movement has been attacked by conservatives William Buckley and William Bennett, who want to uphold what they call the "great tradition of western civilization." What Buckley and Bennett fail to mention is the "great tradition" was only established in the late 19th century when academic institutions were largely the preserve of white male faculties and students.

The composition of the student body has changed; white males are soon to be outnumbered by women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other so-called minorities. Scholars are reconsidering what can and should be taught to these students. Teaching is changing in response to research initiatives in various fields.

Science and PC

But the PC movement is not restricted to the humanities. In the sciences political correctness has always been more or less de rigueur. Governmental and industrial funding fuels scientific research at universities, which have always been responsive to politically correct needs. High energy physics was once the demand of the day and young physicists developed research projects in the field. That done, research in star wars began to get government support, and again scientists in research institutions rushed to the task.

Given this history, scientists would appear to be immune from attacks on their political correctness; yet, they too have come up against political barriers. With the collapse of the Communist bloc as a military threat, our government is less interested in funding defense research. Moreover, burdened by budget deficits, the government is turning a cold eye on research budgets.

Recent scandals at Stanford and widely publicized frauds in research projects may have discredited scientific research in the popular mind. NSF funding committees, strained for money, are more conservative in the research proposals they fund. The imaginative project is being turned down in favor of the tried and true. Thus, P.C. has had a conservative effect on scientific research.

It also has brought the research activities of major universities to the attention of a public poorly equipped to assess them. How can the average citizen, beleaguered as he is by a moribund economy, understand that research scientists have to travel, attend national conferences, be equipped with the best laboratories?

PC Versus Intellectual Freedom

And so we come to the real problem with political correctness: PC is hazardous to free inquiry. The intellectual curiosity that drives the research scientist and the literary critic comes from a constitutional inability to accept the idea that any answer is always correct.

Nonetheless, the PC movement has had its usefulness. By opening up literary scholarship to new fields, by insisting on a multicultural approach to our society, humanists have been forced to broaden their range of vision. Among scientists, PC has encouraged certain kinds of research. But, insofar as it lends credibility to the idea that there is a correct view of things, PC threatens to become the most tyrannical of forces and the greatest threat to research institutions.

We should have learned some valuable lessons from the PC movement. Its power to attract the national press when major breakthroughs in research go unnoticed indicates something about the anti-intellectual strain in American culture. Americans are a practical people. We pride ourselves in finding solutions. Our economic theories are market-driven. Our land-grant universities were founded in large part to answer the practical needs of the state. We are a nation of workers rather than thinkers. So it is not surprising that the mission of a research institution even in a highly technologized society is poorly understood, and not just by the public but by our own faculty.

It is no mystery why the average citizen has a difficult time figuring out and valuing what we do. Universities have become so specialized that we cannot understand, much less fully value, each other's work.

The Need for PR

But universities have not always had to explain their mission to the public. Americans have always realized that if the country were to grow and develop, it would need the services of men and women trained to lead it intellectually as well as politically. Benjamin Franklin, the most practical of America's early citizens, recorded in his autobiography that as soon as peace settled in the colonies, he set about on foot to raise subscriptions to open what would become the University of Pennsylvania. He did it with great skill in public relations, identifying the project as the idea of a public-spirited gentleman and leaving his own name out of it. By appealing to the vanity and the public spirit of his compatriots, he succeeded.

Certainly America today is no more impoverished, no more consumed with important practical issues than was colonial Pennsylvania. So how did Benjamin Franklin succeed when many research universities today are failing to make a claim for their importance? He succeeded because he was a great publicist, America's first pre-eminent PR man. He knew how to promote public education.

And that is a lesson we must learn. To do research in the '90s, we need public support. But first we must convince ourselves of the value of our own varied research projects.

In practice we are really only knowledgeable about and interested in our own specialties. Even in the broadly defined fields like ecology, individuals work in isolation without much agreement with colleagues. In comparative literature the specialist in Japanese language has little to add to the work of the Italian medievalist. We need to think of ourselves as a community of scholars -- not just a group of isolated specialists -- and to consider what our mission can be.

As government demands for scientific research dwindle and funds evaporate, the research base is going to shake and perhaps crumble. And it is going to have to be reconceived. It is not just a matter of finding new sources of funding. Ultimately we have to face the fact that funds are no longer available for the kind of expansion universities have enjoyed in the past.

What we need now is an internal expansion, a creative use of our present resources. That may sound like the conventional wisdom of every university administrator in a budget crisis. But I want to focus on an unconventional idea -- a more creative use of our research resources yielding not cheaper but better research.

Two years ago members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science cited the development and articulation of ethical principles as its highest priority for the science profession. That will require knowledge outside its own fields of specialty. It will not be easy because scientists are cut off from their fellow researchers among the humanists. One effect of heavy governmental funding of scientific research in universities has been a deep division between the richly supported sciences and the other parts of the university. In this division, both sides have suffered. The humanities, cut off from public issues, operate often as a kind of counter-cultural center of intellectual activity, deeply estranged from such public spokesmen as William Buckley and William Bennett. By contrast, the sciences, which have been all too responsive to the needs of the federal government, have produced deadly weapons more quickly than they have explored environmental hazards or worked on cures for AIDS.

The Specialization Gap

Research scholars -- humanists and scientists alike -- must address the problems created by the specialization of knowledge. Scientists need to understand intellectual issues that engage the attention of scholars outside the sciences. For example, the feminist movement has rocked the country and redirected research in the humanities but has barely touched the sciences. As more and more women enter scientific fields, do research and study the kinds of research being conducted, they are reporting the gender bias of that research. To turn the argument in another direction, few humanists have given more than a passing glance to discoveries in science about which they might be concerned -- gene splicing, for example. If the humanists have become estranged from the public and even from the power structure in this country, the scientists appear to have drifted far away from the intellectual currents in the academy. So, long before we attempt a PR operation on the public, we must work one on ourselves.

We need to see how creative thinking in ethics that goes on in philosophy departments might address the same issues that concern the research scientist worried about environmental pollution or defense contracts. What does the philosopher have to say to the bio-technician? Are there moral and ethical questions at stake in genetics research?

It is time to take a good look at what research universities are equipped to do. Unlike government or industry research laboratories or think tanks set up to solve certain practical problems, a university research laboratory is surrounded by other kinds of research. A scientist doing very specialized work in genetics, for example, is housed alongside philosophers, legal scholars and political scientists. The university of the future must take advantage of this multicultural environment. We must not forget that the great scientific advances of our day have come not from industrial laboratories but from university settings. That is where really creative research is done because only the university can protect and promote a free and independent research program.

It is right and proper, not to say politically correct, for the government to demand practical results from the research it funds. They should get what they pay for. After all, if I pay someone to mow my lawn, I want my lawn mowed; I do not want a disquisition on how to grow better grass or a treatise on the theory of greenness. On the other hand, I shall be glad if at some university someone is developing research that will lead to better grass seed and a better lawn.

That is the duty of the great research university. It is there that a democratic government realizes its most valuable political dream, the open and free exchange of ideas.

Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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