Letter: Correct view of Columbia's courses

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Sir: In his recent article about my colleague Simon Schama ("Coming to terms with magic", 5 April), Bryan Appleyard describes Columbia University as "one of the American institutions most spectacularly crippled" by "political correctness", where "all that is white and European" is held in contempt. This is as inaccurate a description of Columbia as can be imagined. At the core of our undergraduate curriculum is a series of courses, required of all students, that traces the history of Western political thought, literature, music and art. Columbia pioneered these courses in the Twenties and retained them after most American universities dropped such requirements.

Among the prominent members of the history department, in which Schama and I teach, are David Cannadine, a specialist on the British aristocracy (composed, at last report, of white Europeans); the German historian Fritz Stern, and the French historian Robert Paxton. No one, to my knowledge, has accused them of a loathing for European civilisation. True, we also offer courses in African, Latin American, African-American and women's history. Perhaps this is what offends Mr Appleyard. These courses, however, are taught as serious investigations of the past, not attempts to undermine respect for the West.

Behind Mr Appleyard's wildly exaggerated comments lie a perception that our campuses are overrun by radical ideologues. In fact, the current danger to academic freedom arises from a different kind of "pc" - the demand for patriotic correctness in the presentation of history. The successful campaign by veterans' organisations to scuttle a proposed museum exhibition on the use of the atom bomb against Japan and right-wing attacks on new teaching standards for being insufficiently celebratory of American history exemplify this trend. While Mr Appleyard worries that scholars devote too much attention to "racist and sexist" elements of the Western tradition, conservatives, emboldened by the 1994 elections, are trying to turn back the clock to a feel-good history that takes no account at all of the experience of blacks, women and others until recently excluded from most accounts of the American past.



DeWitt Clinton Professor of


Columbia University

New York

10 April