Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged

Robert. Carlson
Notre Dane, Indiana: Crisis Books, 1995
201 pp., $22.00 hc/$15.95 pb

Scott W. Dorsey
Mount Union College (Alliance, Ohio)

Robert K. Carlson's Truth on Trial: Liberal Education Be Hanged is about as close as one can ever hope to get to a meld of scholarly writing and the horror yarns so well-spun by Stephen King and John Carpenter. This is not to say that Carlson's work is fluff--quite the contrary he provides significant research, insight and documentation in the book's diminutive 201 pages. No...what Carlson's unsettling book does is to identify--via an extraordinarily readable writing style--the birth of the creature known as political correctness.

Truth on Trial chronicles in gruesome detail the virtual disembowelment of an exceedingly successful and popular program in the humanities at the University of Kansas during the late 1970s. Carlson carefully follows the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program (IMP) from its hopeful inception in 1970 as a place where students could "be born in wonder" (145) to its "death by administration" (123) in 1979. Along the way we meet jealous faculty members, grossly mis-informed church leaders (pawns, really, of the former), and a University administration so lacking in common sense as to appear lobotomized.

What makes this account so sickening is the continual knowledge that the horrible events portrayed were not some adolescent nightmare, but were actual FACTS--to wit: that three academic colleagues were in fact, slowly and messily devoured by the gorgon of political correctness. Despite the repulsion I felt, I was simply unable to put this riveting book down.

Appropriately, Carlson frames the development of the Integrated Humanities Program with the social upheaval of the day, specifically the Vietnam War, campus unrest, the riots in Watts, and the general disintegration of society (a dissolution that, sadly, continues unabated). He also identifies the fragmentation of academia and the onset of an à la carte approach to higher education, an approach that is still with us today. In doing so, he cuts to one of the roots of higher education's problems--then and now.

If students cannot expect to find unity of knowledge and discipline ordered to a general end in higher education, what will they find? In one word, specialization--specialization ordered to jobs. The over-emphasis of specialization and the de-emphasis of liberal or general education creates the type of person perfectly suited, modem society believes, to function like a piece of modem bureaucratized industrialism. (14-15)

It was exactly this sort of sanitized homogenized education the Integrated Humanities Program was designed to offset. The program was conceived, administered and taught by three distinguished senior professors at KU, Drs. Dennis Quinn, John Senior, and Frank Nelick. Each possessing different skills, backgrounds and strengths, the three worked as if one, or in the words of IHP student Scott Bloch,

Senior, Nelick and Quinn were, individually, superior educators. They had very different styles, personalities and characteristics. Together they formed a unit however, without which the lectures were not the same. They played off of each other, much as athletes play off of each other, to create a kind of poetry. (136)

Students entering the 24-credit program were introduced to "The Classics," reading such monumental works as Plato's Republic, Virgil's Aeneid, Lucretius' The Nature of the Universe, St Augustine's Confessions, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Scott's Ivanhoe, Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution, et al. In addition to reading and discussing at length such literary masterpieces, students in the program memorized poetry and engaged in Socratic conversation. The IHP students also had the opportunity to "live" Platonic ideals through regular star-gazing sessions, the study of Latin, and annual events such as the fair and the waltz. Students in this remarkable program were receiving an education in the very best sense of the word, and not mindless vocational training.

If Carlson cannot point to a single event that caused the demise of the IHP, it is because there was no singular cause, save its existence in the first place. The IMP's opponents wasted no opportunity to criticize the program and tried every conceivable angle from which to attack. Initially they claimed the program lacked the appropriate diversity and initiated an unwarranted investigation. Later detractors upped the ante by frivolously charging Senior, Nelick and Quinn with racial and sexual impropriety. In the final years, opponents claimed the professors were using their position to proselytize their Roman Catholic faith--the term "brainwashing" was shrilly bandied about in the anti-IHP media blitzkrieg (112)--and there was even an implied charge of anti-semitism.

Interspersed with gut-wrenching accounts of the attacks on the program are delightful comments from former IHP students. The awakening they received in the program is palpable in their glowing comments. A typical commentary reads:

The lecture conversation was the best therapy.... It brought things together, human things.... [W]e stopped to listen for the first time in our lives. we did not listen in other classes, we took notes. we did not leave other classes struck with the beauty of life, we ten worrying about how this all nt into our life, our schedule, our major, how we would get joins, how we could turn our knowledge into profit. In IHP lectures, we learned how to love this life, to live for its wonder and transcendence, and to be better human beings. (129)

In Truth on Trial, Carlson proves that the supportive nature of the students in the IHP was not just anecdotal, but statistical as well. During the final days of the IHP, the KU administration attempted to garner support for the abolition of the program. They polled 1,000 people about the program but, to their dismay, a full 80% of respondents came out in support of the program. Not surprisingly, the University of Kansas administration chose to ignore that and other such supportive bits of evidence in its decision to eliminate the program.

Author Robert Carlson is himself a product of the Integrated Humanities Program, having taught as an assistant in Latin during his doctoral studies at KU (1). As such it would have been understandable for him to present a rather one-sided view of the controversy. To his credit, he does not do this, but gives the opponents of the IHP a reasonable airing, complete with generous primary source material. He also fairly exposes the growing intransigence of the IHP professors, who, after years of being forced to defend their program from a plethora of assaults, had developed a siege mentality. What Carlson's evenhanded treatment of the issues involved cannot hide, however, is the jealous zealotry of the KU faculty, the anarchistic mind-set of the community members who had been inflamed by that faculty and the bias of the University of Kansas administration. These three elements taken together make a rancid combination indeed.

This writer has never read an account that better exposes the dogma of political correctness and multiculturalism for what it is: a despicable incarnation of the worst sort of academic barbarism. For that alone, Carlson it to be lauded. But moreover Carlson's book lets the PC. forces hang themselves with the noose of their own deeds. He seldom opinionates, but gives us "just the facts." Those who so fervently loathe Western Civilization, and all that it has so abundantly provided, will doubtless read this book and cheer the demise of the Integrated Humanities Program. But if they read with an honest intellect and a respect for due process, they will also squirm most uncomfortably at the misuse of position, and abuse of power that substituted for equity and resulted in a true miscarriage of anything resembling justice at the University of Kansas in 1979).


  1. Carpenter, Tim. "Book Recalls Demise of Controversial Humanities Program at KU." Lawrence Journal-World 20 January 1995: 6B.

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