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The Diversity Myth
Multiculturalism and Political Intolerance on Campus
By David O. Sacks, Peter A. Thiel
The Independent Institute Copyright © 1998 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
The West Rejected
First, Stanford capitulated to separatist know-nothings and abandoned its "Western Civilization" course because of its bias toward white males (you know: narrow–minded ethnics like Socrates, Jesus, and Jefferson).
— Columnist Charles Krauthammer
In the beginning, before the creation of the multicultural world, Stanford was divided by demonstrations and protests. The most important of these rallies took place on January 15, 1987, when a throng of 500 indignant students and faculty gathered near the University's centrally located White Plaza to hear the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
This assembly was not concerned about founding a new "multicultural" state. In fact, the term "multiculturalism" had not yet entered common usage in early 1987, and most of the demonstrators probably had never heard of the word. Rather, the purpose of the rally was to show support for the "rainbow agenda," for minority set-asides in admissions and teaching, and for other causes popular with university activists. In short, it began as the sort of protest commonplace on today's college campuses. But on that day, events would be set in motion that would push Stanford towards becoming the nation's first multicultural academy.
As the crowd stomped across the manicured lawns to present a list of demands to a meeting of the Faculty Senate, it translated its grievances into a chant: "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture's got to go! Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture's got to go!" This collective outpouring of anger, both spontaneous and intense, was reminiscent of protests in Teheran or Tripoli; however, the implausible source of these sentiments was not a mob of Islamic fundamentalists, but some of America's best and brightest students at a bucolic college campus, near sunny Palo Alto, California, an affluent suburban community.
Even at the time, campus observers were struck by the strange spectacle of some of America's elite students and faculty engaged in an unqualified denunciation of the West — the very civilization, after all, that had established universities like Stanford in the first place. Even Jesse Jackson, the leader of the march, was taken aback by the fury he had unleashed. Reverend Jackson actually tried to quiet the mob, but his admonitions were ignored. The angry chant could not be stopped — and would go on to become the unofficial motto of a revolution with implications far beyond Stanford — because it succinctly articulated exactly what important people in higher education had been saying for some time. Similar demonstrations followed in the tempestuous months ahead, and the slogan became synonymous with the university's growing identity crisis, as many of Stanford's leaders came to insist that the academy's mission needed a thorough overhaul.
The nominal target of these demonstrations and protests was Stanford's core curriculum, a required course called "Western Culture" in which freshmen surveyed the history and classics of the West. This course gave many students — especially engineering and science majors — their primary exposure to the humanities. But the real target was much broader. The "Hey hey, ho ho" chant resonated powerfully because the "Western culture" that "had to go" was a double entendre: It referred not just to a single class at Stanford, but to the West itself — to its history and achievements, to its institutions of free-market capitalism and constitutional democracy, to Christianity and Judaism, to the complex of values and judgments that help shape who we are.
These complaints about the West — present and past — would be repeated over the next several years in many different contexts at Stanford. Increasingly, they would also be heard beyond: at the universities for which Stanford is a model; in watered–down form in elementary and high school classes; and in the popular media and arts where graduates of schools like Stanford have influence. Quite arbitrarily, it seemed at the time, the university's required reading list, or canon, had symbolically come to represent deep grievances about an assortment of broader cultural issues. Somehow, the "Farm," as undergraduates affectionately call Leland Stanford's old plot, had been chosen as the pastoral site of an intellectual and cultural rebellion. Although nobody knew it then, this landmark skirmish — the Bull Run, so to speak, of America's ongoing "culture war" — would prove to be the labor pains of a nationwide multicultural movement.
As was well-reported at the time, this inchoate movement centered its complaints around the fact that most of the books studied in the Western Culture program had been written by "dead white males." This charge was new and extraordinary because it attacked not the quality or historical significance of the great books, but rather the authors themselves — for being of the wrong race, gender, or class. To the protestors, the reading list was perceived as a cross-cultural celebration, and their groups had not been invited to the party. Their exclusion had to end, and so Bill King, president of the Black Student Union (BSU), told Time Magazine, "We want the idea of a canon eliminated."
The protestors succeeded in exacting this demand, and in January 1988 Stanford's administration replaced the Western Culture program with a new requirement called "Cultures, Ideas, and Values" (CIV). As its name hinted, the new course was based on relativist notions of cultural parity, with a mandated emphasis on race, gender, and class. To ensure this emphasis, the CIV Committee, which was charged with overseeing the transition from Western Culture to CIV, immediately began recruiting minority faculty for the new course. One committee member, comparative literature professor Marjorie Perloff, resigned after finding that "the main role of the committee was to discuss issues of personnel rather than course content. It seemed to be taken as a given that literature dealing with minority issues must be taught by minority professors. This is a very problematic ghettoizing of knowledge."
According to the new thinking, upper-class white males may have been born with silver spoons in their mouths, but the minorities they oppressed were born with teaching credentials. This thinking would have profound implications for the entire university. As the late philosopher Sidney Hook aptly observed, if only minority professors were qualified to teach books authored by minorities, similar reasoning would dictate that only women could teach gynecology, only fat people obesity, only hungry people the physiology of starvation — or, for that matter, only Nazis could teach about the Third Reich. Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism — the belief that the insights contained within the West's great works were potentially available to everybody — the n ew curriculum embraced particularism: What one may know is determined by the circumstances of one's birth.
This was the crux of the whole debate. The Western Culture protestors were attacking not just "dead white males," but the idea of universalism itself. The idea they rejected was this: There exist truths that transcend the accidents of one's birth, and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone — whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black; individuals (and humanity as a whole) are not trapped within a closed cultural space that predetermines what they may know.
Within this framework, the university served as a refuge, somewhat outside the confines of a given culture, where individuals could disregard parochial blinkers of ethnicity, age, gender, class, or race and search for these transcendent truths. In rejecting the West, the protestors repudiated this entire framework. In doing so, their fateful protest of January 1987 would pave the way for a very different kind of academy.
The New Classics
Founded upon the twin plinths of cultural relativism and cultural determinism, CIV sought to refit the reading list to a world devoid of universal truths. Having embraced race, gender, and class as proxies for some kind of special knowledge, or gnosis, the educators who taught CIV divided the reading list among cultural and racial constituencies, much the same way a city council might gerrymander districts. The "Common Elements" among the CIV tracks, according to the 1992–93 program syllabus, were not perennial questions like "What is justice?" or "What constitutes a good life?" but:
Works by women, minorities and persons of color
Works introducing issues of race, gender and class
Works of non-European provenance
As Provost James Rosse wrote in a revealing letter, the new freshman requirement would "include the study of great works as well as works reflecting the role and contributions of minorities and women." Provost Rosse unwittingly admitted the truth: The latter group of works often could be distinguished from the former. Included works did not necessarily have to be "great" if they fulfilled the function of "reflecting the role and contributions of minorities and women." As we shall see, many CIV books would meet one criterion or the other, but few would meet both.
During 1988–89, a compromise transition year, all the CIV tracks read the Bible, Plato, Augustine, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Marx. Thereafter, quite a bit more was left to the discretion of professors, as the "Common Readings" (a term preferred to "canon") consisted of:
Hebrew Bible and Christian Bible
A Classical Greek philosopher
An Early Christian thinker
A Renaissance dramatist
An Enlightenment thinker
In short, Plato was replaced with the more general category of "classical Greek philosophers," Augustine with "early Christian thinkers," Machiavelli with "Renaissance dramatists," and Rousseau with "Enlightenment thinkers." With the important exception of Marx (who is never deconstructed), the altered list implied that individual writers are the delegates of certain constituencies — ancient Greeks, early Christians, etc. — from which they derived their right to serve on the reading list. In a reverse of direction from the old course, authors were chosen precisely because they typified some cultural group, rather than because their writings are immortal and have transcended such particulars.
Few questioned how studying cultural differences could possibly be of value if ethnic experiences were incomprehensibly foreign to others. On the contrary, history professor Paul Robinson remarked, "We are eager to replace a canonized and seemingly unalterable 'core list' with a process aimed to create 'a common intellectual experience."' Professor Robinson was referring to CIV's founding legislation, which mandates that the class "provide students with the common intellectual experience of broadening their understanding of ideas and values." The goal of the freshman requirement had shifted subtly from providing students with a common background, defined objectively in the form of a great works reading list, to providing a common experience, subjectively defined by those doing the reading. What each author actually wrote (and whether any of it is true) was much less important than the effect on students. Hence, in 1992 the Philosophy track added Chief Seattle to the Course Reader. Because American Indian culture is as alien to most freshmen as ancient Greek culture, Chief Seattle presumably had instructional, or "broadening," value roughly equivalent to that of Plato or Aristotle. In this way, although the different tracks shared few authors in common, they were still able to provide 1,500 freshmen with a "common intellectual experience" — not by transmitting common knowledge, but by transmitting a common sensation of "broadening understanding." The course instructors, however, never explained in what direction students' minds should be broadened, or why any particular direction was preferable to another.
In practice, of course, a number of faculty members found it far from easy to create a new canon ex nihilo. Some professors chose to keep most of the old books, but changed the course focus. The Philosophy track, for instance, continued to require both Plato and Aristotle, but wedged readings about Australian aborigines between the two. Among aboriginal "philosophical" insights are the concept of "dream-time" — a circular and antirational way of viewing cause and effect — and the belief that women become pregnant by crossing spiritually enchanted patches of ground. The class paid little attention to whether the aboriginal claims are actually true. Rather, discussions contrasted the readings with the "logocentric" approach of Western philosophers like Aristotle or Descartes. The upshot was that logic and illogic were put on the same plane and that truth and consistency were considered just two values among many. The course instructors ignored the fact that the raison d'etre of philosophy is the discovery of transcultural truth, and that ipso facto the discipline is predominantly a Western pursuit. The anti-Western focus required glossing over another embarrassing detail: The aboriginal readings were actually written by Western anthropologists because the aborigines lacked a written language — not to mention anthropology itself.
For instructors in other tracks, the CIV program provided the desired vehicle for a comprehensive revolution. Perhaps most extreme is "Europe and the Americas," a CIV track developed by anthropology professor Renato Rosaldo, one of the foremost advocates of curricular change. The new track focuses on issues of race, class, and gender — to the exclusion of almost everything else. Marx's historic treatise on class warfare, the Communist Manifesto, is still required, and from there the 17- and 18-year-old freshmen's educational experience deteriorates rather rapidly. They study Guatemalan revolutionary Rigoberta Menchu, whose book I ... Rigoberta Menchu relates "the effects on her of feminist and socialist ideologies." The story tracks Menchu's journey from poverty and despair to the center of the Central American revolutionary movement. Next, Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God presents a semiautobiographical critique of male domination in American society. The hero of With His Pistol in His Hand, by America Parades, is a Mexican who shoots a local sheriff in Texas and runs away from the law, as he realizes that "there is one law for Anglo-Texans, another for Texas-Mexicans." "Impotence and despair reign" in Juan Rulfo's The Burning Plain, as Mexican Indians struggle to eke out a living in the howling desert. Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street emphasizes the stultification and drudgery of the life of a little girl in a downtown slum. The last week of Fall quarter, lectures are devoted to the topic of "Forging Revolutionary Selves."
In the Spring quarter, students are required to complete a project or lengthy paper as a significant portion (one-third) of the final grade. The Spring 1992 course syllabus explained that "projects in the past have included:"
A skit on the debates around culture curricula
A photoessay on San Francisco, organized around a theme
A report on a field work project on a migrant workers camp
A violin duet designed to create an intercultural esthetic
An Aztec newspaper from the year 1524
A board game called "First Contact"
A video on the course
A dance articulating themes of identity
A history of women's athletics in the US
According to one student in the class, that year's projects even included a documentary on a Grateful Dead rock concert. Of course, what migrant workers, violin and dance performances, women's athletics, or Jerry Garcia have to do with great literature, Europe, the Americas, or any serious study of non-Western culture is a complete mystery.
CIV's amorphous mission — to "broaden" the experience of students — should not, however, be confused with "anything goes." Rather, the new canon is vague precisely so that teachers can canonize their personal beliefs. Professor Rosaldo's fundamental assumptions regarding the unique evils of the West, which formed the basis of his complaints against the Western Culture program, have become enshrined in the "Europe and the Americas" reading list, as even the handful of more traditional Western works are "deconstructed" to show hidden "Eurocentric" biases. Augustine's Confessions, rather than a discourse on religious faith, becomes a study in "the body and the deep interior self," followed by a discussion of "multicultural selves in Navajo country" (a topic no Navajo likely discussed outside contemporary American universities). The Book of Genesis accompanies a lecture on "labor, gender, and self in the Philippine uplands," and Plato's Republic helps illustrate "anti-assimilationist movements." In the Winter quarter, the course compares the U.S. Bill of Rights with Lee Iacocca's "Car Buyer Bill of Rights." In pairing the sublime with the trivial, the exercise intends to prove the assumption upon which it is based-that a founding document of our country is not incommensurably superior to any other document written by Western males.
Excerpted from The Diversity Myth by David O. Sacks, Peter A. Thiel. Copyright © 1998 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of The Independent Institute.
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