A distinguished University of Pennsylvania law professor has been denounced by her colleagues in an open letter. Nearly half of the faculty members of the University of Pennsylvania law school objected to an article penned by Prof. Amy Laura Wax and Prof. Larry Alexander of San Diego University that argues in favor of traditional values while citing current societal issues. Wax and Alexander wrote:
“Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries. The causes of these phenomena are multiple and complex, but implicated in these and other maladies is the breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture.”
The dissenting professors at the University of Pennsylvania affirmed their adherence to Constitutional guarantees to free speech. However, citing segments of the article, the open letter read:
“We write to condemn recent statements our colleague Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn Law School, has made in popular media pieces.
“In an op-ed published recently at Philly.com, Wax and a coauthor wrote that ‘All cultures are not equal,’ going on to claim that various social problems would be “significantly reduce[d]” if ‘the academics, media, and Hollywood’ would stop the ‘preening pretense of defending the downtrodden,’ because that would lead to ‘restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture.’ In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian about the op-ed, Wax was quoted as saying that ‘Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans,’ because, in the phrasing of the DP article’s author, ‘Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.’”
While the letter’s co-signers affirmed that Wax has a First Amendment right to express her opinions, they added:
“But Wax’s right to express her opinions does not make her statements right, nor insulate her from criticism. We categorically reject Wax’s claims.”
The letter also affirmed:
“We believe the ideal of equal opportunity to succeed in education is best achieved by a combination of academic freedom, open debate and a commitment by all participants to respect one another without bias or stereotype. To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.”
The letter published by the dissenting law faculty did not offer any arguments to refute Wax and Alexander.
Wax and Alexander wrote that the following “basic cultural precepts” were common in what they described as “bourgeois culture” from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s:
“That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
These precepts, they wrote, could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, “especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.”
“Did everyone abide by those precepts?” they asked. “Of course not. There are always rebels — and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Even the deviants rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.” Admitting that the culture was not perfect, they pointed out that there was “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism.”
They added that improvements for women and ethnic minorities were already underway when "bourgeois values" were common:
“Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.”
These assertions are underscored by a 1965 report prepared by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a distinguished academic who then served in the Johnson administration as Assistant Secretary of Labor. The report noted a negative trend in the nation’s black community: despite desegregation and equal opportunity, welfare dependence was increasing. Moynihan and other researchers traced the trend to the disintegration of the family. Here follows a segment of the Moynihan report:
“Indices of dollars of income, standards of living, and years of education deceive.… The fundamental problem…is that of family structure. The evidence…is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle-class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated, city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated.… So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”
Wax and Alexander go further in their analysis:
“This cultural script began to break down in the late 1960s. A combination of factors — prosperity, the Pill, the expansion of higher education, and the doubts surrounding the Vietnam War — encouraged an antiauthoritarian, adolescent, wish-fulfillment ideal — sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll — that was unworthy of, and unworkable for, a mature, prosperous adult society.”
The gains of the Civil Rights movement were followed by “the beginnings of an identity politics,” they wrote, “that inverted the color-blind aspirations of civil rights leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into an obsession with race, ethnicity, gender, and now sexual preference.”
Addressing the current climate of multi-culturalism, Wax and Alexander asserted:
“All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-’acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.”
The authors go on to assert that by returning to “bourgeois norms” would “significantly reduce society’s pathologies…” Those who follow the time-honored precepts, they say, “regardless of their level of education or affluence, the homicide rate is tiny, opioid addiction is rare, and poverty rates are low.” They added that schools and neighborhoods would be safer and more pleasant, and “More students from all walks of life would be educated for constructive employment and democratic participation.”
Wax and Alexander called on the “arbiters of culture — the academics, media, and Hollywood” must relinquish their “multicultural grievance polemics” and “pretense of defending the downtrodden.” In summation, the two academics wrote: “Instead of bashing the bourgeois culture, they should return to the 1950s posture of celebrating it.”
Both Wax and Alexander have considerable academic pedigrees.
Wax graduated summa cum laude from Yale with degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. After studying at Oxford, Wax earned a medical degree from Harvard, specializing in neurology. Then, after editing the Harvard Law Review, she received a law degree from Harvard and then clerked at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She then worked in the office of the Solicitor General and argued 15 cases before the United States Supreme Court. Wax was a member of the Legal Affairs Committee, American Academy of Neurology from 1986-1992. She went on to teach at the University of Virginia, and joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 2001.
Alexander is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego Law School, joining the faculty in 1970. A magna cum laude graduate of Williams College, he graduated the Yale University school of law. Alexander has written dozens of books, articles, and monographs.
Here follows the open letter concerning Prof. Wax:
To the University of Pennsylvania Community:
We write to condemn recent statements our colleague Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn Law School, has made in popular media pieces.
In an op-ed published recently at Philly.com, Wax and a coauthor wrote that “All cultures are not equal,” going on to claim that various social problems would be “significantly reduce[d]” if “the academics, media, and Hollywood” would stop the “preening pretense of defending the downtrodden,” because that would lead to “restoring the hegemony of the bourgeois culture.” In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian about the op-ed, Wax was quoted as saying that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans,” because, in the phrasing of the DP article’s author, “Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior.”
Wax has every right to express her opinions publicly free from fear of legal sanction thanks to the First Amendment, and she may do so without fear for her job due to her position as a tenured faculty member at Penn.
We do not question those rights, or the important role that principles of academic freedom play at our University. But Wax’s right to express her opinions does not make her statements right, nor insulate her from criticism.
We categorically reject Wax’s claims.
We believe the ideal of equal opportunity to succeed in education is best achieved by a combination of academic freedom, open debate and a commitment by all participants to respect one another without bias or stereotype. To our students, we say the following: If your experience at Penn Law falls substantially short of this ideal, something has gone wrong, and we want to know about it.
Penn Law faculty listed on following page (titles for identification purposes; names listed in alphabetical order):
Regina Austin, William A. Schnader Professor of Law
Tom Baker, William Maul Measey Professor of Law and Health Sciences
Shyamkrishna Balganesh, Professor of Law
William Wilson Bratton, Nicholas F. Gallicchio Professor of Law
Stephen B. Burbank, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice
William W. Burke-White, Richard Perry Professor and Professor of Law
Howard F. Chang, Earle Hepburn Professor of Law
Cynthia Laury Dahl, Practice Professor of Law
Jacques deLisle, Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law & Professor of Political Science
Eric A. Feldman, Professor of Law
Kara R. Finck, Practice Professor of Law
Douglas Frenkel, Morris Shuster Practice Professor of Law
Jean Galbraith, Assistant Professor of Law
Jonah B. Gelbach, Professor of Law
Sarah Barringer Gordon, Arlin M. Adams Professor of Constitutional Law and Professor of History
Susanna R. Greenberg, Clinical Supervisor and Lecturer
Allison Hoffman, Professor of Law
David Hoffman, Professor of Law
Jonathan Klick, Professor of Law
Praveen Kosuri, Practice Professor of Law
Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law
Sophia Z. Lee, Professor of Law and History
Serena Mayeri, Professor of Law and History
Maggie McKinley (Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe), Assistant Professor of Law
Charles W. Mooney, Jr., Charles A. Heimbold, Jr. Professor of Law
Sarah Paoletti, Practice Professor of Law
Gideon Parchomovsky, Robert G. Fuller, Jr. Professor of Law
Dorothy E. Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights
Kermit Roosevelt, Professor of Law [great-great-grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt]
David Rudovsky, Senior Fellow
Louis S. Rulli, Practice Professor of Law and Clinical Director
Tobias Barrington Wolff, Professor of Law
Christopher S. Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science