Today, I struggle to be correct. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
People like to ask me,
"John, is your program politically correct?" Even
if they ask in jest, I need to answer seriously.
The longer I write, the more clearly I see how much
hurt a small insensitivity can inflict. On the
other hand, courtesy for political advantage is no
courtesy at all.
The mischief of political courtesy goes beyond just
inventing cludge terms like waitperson for waiter.
It does far worse damage when it replaces
understanding with formula thinking.
Our art museum just mounted an exhibit of early
Central and South American art. The art was
magnificent. But the script of the tour tape
systematically replaced every unpleasant feature of
our old native cultures with goodness and light.
One artifact was a beautifully carved Aztec stone
-- an altar for human sacrifice. The tape ignored
it. It also ignored Aztec war, aggression, and the
little phallic statue across the room. It
sandpapered off all the hard edges of our complex
The New York Times reviews a new
exhibit of Greek sculpture. The exhibit was
wonderful. But the brochure? Well, it ignores Greek
slavery and recites cliches about the cradle of
I face the problem of keeping meat in the meal of
history when I teach. I tell students that early
Islamic conquerors didn't force religious
conversions. I say that the most humane and
compassionate of all the American colonizers were
the Russians in Alaska. Students resist both ideas.
Prejudice against Islam and Russia has yet to
receive political condemnation.
The subtle point is that we'll never eliminate
prejudice by replacing courtesy with a set of
guidelines. Bias isn't a human weakness we can
locate and eliminate like a bad transistor.
This program is about creativity. It's about
learning to see what others miss. It's about being
surprised. Guidelines are the work of people who
don't want to be surprised. Formula courtesy makes
us live in a world of answers. To be creative, we
need to feed on questions, not answers.
Years ago I heard an old engineer tell a black
student, "We've got to get more nigras into
engineering." I was shocked. But the student was
interested in the man's intent. "Never mind his
language," he told me, "I know this guy's on my
Of course the time has come to rethink pronouns and
ethnic terminology. By all means, let's practice
common courtesy. But that student looked past
guidelines and saw substance. He was willing to be
surprised. And in that he was better prepared to
honor diversity than I was.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds