Failing To Make the Grade


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ILLIBERAL EDUCATION by Dinesh D'Souza; Free Press; 319 pages; $19.95

Conservative polemicist Dinesh D'Souza is living every nonfiction author's fantasy: to publish at precisely the politically correct moment. Like the cavalry in an old-time western racing over the hill to save the wagon train from the murderous Indians -- oops!, misunderstood Native Americans -- Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus arrives just as public outrage is building to a peak. Liberals and conservatives alike have suddenly joined forces to ridicule the excesses of left-wing policies and posturing in academia. It is almost as if, having exorcised the legacy of Vietnam in foreign policy, Americans are now mounting a mopping-up operation against that last bastion of 1960s-style thought, colleges and universities.

The rewards of being topical carry with them the risks of overfamiliarity. That is the problem with the six case studies that make up the heart of Illiberal Education. D'Souza ably documents the prejudice against Asian Americans in the admission policies of Berkeley, the absurdities of recasting the introductory civilization course at Stanford to purge many Western white male thinkers, the affront to civil liberties in the racial-speech code at the University of Michigan, along with analogous flaps at Howard, Duke and Harvard. But he rarely transcends his material; the writing is earnest, the details repetitive and the analysis predictable. Many of the best quotes and anecdotes in Illiberal Education turn out to be secondhand prose. A pivotal paragraph that argues that affirmative action lowers the self-esteem of black students is buttressed not by firsthand interviews but merely by citations from newspaper articles.

This is not to suggest that the book is entirely a cut-and-paste job. D'Souza, 30, a native of India who as an undergraduate was an editor of the militantly conservative Dartmouth Review, slips behind enemy lines on campus. In fact, he boasts that "I can still pass for a student." Maybe so, but his interview style is that of a patronizing pedant. At Stanford, D'Souza confronts a black undergraduate woman with a scholarly account of the complicity of African middlemen in sending their compatriots to the New World in bondage. "((She)) became very quiet and did not say anything for several seconds," D'Souza notes proudly. "She now seemed aware of the implications of the term slave trade." True, there are occasional wry moments. Stanley Fish, the avant-garde chairperson of the English department at Duke, proclaims that the university's commitment to affirmative-action hiring is a way to seize "our historicist, postmodernist, poststructuralist moment."

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