By Hassenger, Robert
Commonweal , Vol. 119, No. 7
Higher education continues to reap the effects of the social reforms of the sixties and seventies, both encouraging and discouraging. More students, from a wider range of backgrounds, are going to college. With this wider range of students, the call for "cultural diversity" has properly meant a heightened concern for multicultural perspectives in the curriculum. But, not so properly, it has also sometimes come to mean, with the rise of "multiculturalism," a subordination of academic to political concerns. Earlier, campus protesters were primarily students, with some faculty supporters. Their demand--for civil rights or against the Vietnam War--was to extend the basic rights and responsibilities of the democratic heritage, insisting upon a reconciliation of the ideals of Western civilization with the practices of that civilization as they knew it. Now, many of the protesters are on the faculty, and the enemy is not government or business, but the "canon" of Western civilization.
How does the curriculum get involved? At least some of the appeal of the ideology of multiculturalism is that it serves a different kind of "victim's" revolution on campus. Enter those who insist that Western culture is inherently hostile to women, blacks and other minorities, and homosexuals. It is "institutionally" racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, ageist, ableist, speciesist, and looksist. And enter those who offer a new discipline," one that invalidates the knowledge and methods of those in tenured teaching positions, who are unable to deconstruct, revolutionize, or de-phallogocentrize the curriculum.
In the deconstructionists' indeterminancy of meaning lies the future for those who feel "uncomfortable": we seem to have a politics of identify for those who feel excluded, either from "representation" in a curriculum that purportedly reflects only the work of DWEMs (dead, white, European males); or from "representation" on the faculty, because only those who have "experienced" the sexism, racism, etc. of the culture can really teach about it. "True diversity" for many multiculturalists means that gender and ethnicity must match the fields in which the new orthodoxy is taught, because a scholar's race and sex must be correctly brought to bear on the subject.
These new critics aspire not only to deconstruct, but to engage in "restitutive criticism," to restore the voices of those who feel--and feeling sometimes seems a principal criterion-alienated, by drawing upon the guilt of the white liberal. (They do not seem to recognize that even the appeal to liberal guilt is a peculiarly Western phenomenon, and that the very idea of oppression is grounded in Western categories of thought, as the sociologist Andrew Hacker has noted.)
So "multiculturalism" is too often neither "multi" nor "cultural." It stands for a new ideology that discourages--even punishes critical analysis. If one opposes the view that, say, the Western "canon" must be thrown out as "an exercise in colonization," he (this is easier with males, preferably white, but see Stephen Carter's Reflections of an affirmative action Baby) is charged with being racist, sexist, homophobic. Intimidation and epithet have replaced rational argument. Those who play this game are able to immunize themselves from criticism through the revisionist position that all thought is political. To "dialogue" with them is to accept their premises.
An honest intellectual perspective, however, would certainly take into account the social and historical forces that have shaped all expressions of culture--including the au courant. Of course power has determined the received wisdom of any society or cultural tradition. Of course reality is socially constructed, and knowledge is power: what is produced and/or recorded at a given time is in part a function of who had the power, and reflects certain shared ideological biases. But this need not force us into a Foucauldian reductionism that would dismiss the contributions of the Western tradition, or of individual intellect and imagination. …