Skip Navigation

2013 Spring Issue 1 (April 12, 2013)

On Playing Well with Others

April 15, 2013
By Pedro Fernandez

Enough jeremiads have been written, or are perhaps being written, in any number of small college newspapers lamenting the state of the liberal arts experiment, if you will—the lack of inclusiveness and diversity of opinion and so on. In just four years here, roughly 29,000 articles and counter-articles have been written by well-meaning and sincere enough people about how there is such a lack of ‘opposing views’ at Carleton, as if so-called ‘opposing views’ were simply a commodity to be gotten at aisle seven, right next to the breakfast cereals.

I think there is a link between talk of that sort of diversity, the ideological variety, and of that other thing we mean when we say diversity, namely the racial or, as we prefer to call it, ‘socioeconomic’ variety. In fact, not only do I think there is a link, I also think that the desire for either of them, at least as it has been expressed, springs from the same source. What do we want diversity for, anyway? And do we really want it?

I say, or rather suspect, that in neither case do we actually want diversity, preferring to it the beautiful giddiness that comes with thinking we are diverse, or inclusive, or what you will. I say so not because of some deep-seated ‘disgusting cynicism’ of mine, as one student has described it to me, or because I derive any pleasure from being ‘problematic,’ as another student has suggested. I say it because this has been my experience.

A professor whom I took one of my first classes and one of my last at Carleton with told me recently I had become more ‘patient’ with my fellow students. The source of this patience, I fear, is not some sort of judicious restraint I’m at pains to exercise, or some mechanism I’ve developed for sudden bouts of internalized mortification of the flesh so soon as I have the slightest ‘problematic’ thought. Really it is a kind of resignation. Because no, I don’t believe that we want potentially ‘problematic’ or, what’s worse, ‘disgusting’ voices crowding up our orbit—precisely because they do not serve to confirm to us the fictions we tell ourselves about ourselves, our desires and the world we like to think we inhabit.

The liberal arts education, at least as I understand it, is nowhere more clearly on display than in the figure of Socrates, indeed in the undertaking of Socratic inquiry itself. Everything, our dearest pieties in the bargain, is to be called into question, and only those things that survive this crucible are worth sticking to. Perpetual inquiry along with a perpetual unease with the ossification of the known—this is what I signed up for and in many ways what those glossy viewbooks sent en masse the way of our mailboxes told us we were signing up for.

This is not what we do at Carleton, and loathe as I am to speak too generally about it, it is not what is done at most other small liberal arts colleges. For proof, I would only ask you to think about how many students will graduate from Carleton without reading, say, the Republic, or Homer, or Dante, or—and I know it’s difficult to believe—even Shakespeare. Sadly the distribution requirements are such that they compel us to read nothing we do not want to read, and at least one student has told me he became a math major as a way to get out of having any assigned reading. When another student availed herself of Nietzschean perspectivism to critique the assumptions of feminism in a paper, the professor gave her a choice: either write what I want you to write or drop my class.

It was an argument of just this stripe, along with an appeal to the classics, that drew the ire of the student who proceeded to tell me I was ‘part of the problem,’ and from that to insinuate that I was a ‘white supremacist.’ I responded that I was not white and he rejoined that one ‘[does] not have to be white to be a white supremacist.’ This student worked as a chaplain’s associate and was supposed to be a model of religious pluralism. But I guess one can work in the chapel in a liberal arts college and still be unwelcoming of ‘opposing views,’ that most elusive of commodities. Small wonder there aren’t any.

Now perhaps you’ll respond to this that all of my ‘proof’ is anecdotal, that I haven’t made any graphs or done any kind of ‘intensive’ or ‘rigorous’ scientific analysis. And I haven’t. Because just as a Ptolemaic model of the cosmos was replaced by a Copernican one; just as Newton’s laws were qualified by Einstein’s general theory, our scientific discoveries are transient, and their relevance to us is of an entirely instrumental nature. We use them to do things with them, and as soon as they are inadequate to that task, we find other means. The one constant here is the ghostly ‘we,’ the subject that’s always taken for granted, the individual consciousness going from way to way, and it is my belief that this ought to be the point of departure of all inquiry—who we are, what we are, what we really want and why we want it.

It does not do to pretend we are diverse and insist all the while on what amounts to a catechism of NPR-listening pseudo-humanism which does not even believe in itself. Nor need we pretend we are diverse at all, if there are obviously values we want to uphold and instill in people. What we really want, I suspect, is a kind of stage-managed diversity without ever asking ourselves why we think diversity is a worthwhile pursuit, without ever asking what the word ‘diversity’ even means to us. Such is surely not the kind of ‘critical thinking’ we suppose ourselves to be encouraging or partaking of; it is merely the substitution of one ideology for another.

And that, of course, is the point. We cannot look at the world impartially and un-ideologically; we see things with a certain slant, and depending on where we stand certain things are obscured from our view. The point is to be aware that this is so, that seeing something in particular implies not seeing many other things in general. Perhaps being aware of it is all we can do, and perhaps we can only ever fail in our attempts at self-awareness, or can only ever delude ourselves that we are self-aware. This is not a progressive enterprise, nor is there any light at the end of the tunnel to speak of; what it is, maybe, is a lifelong relationship with others, indeed with otherness itself, through the infinitely intricate prism of oneself.

As a certain insurance executive would have it, it is there that we find ourselves—and everything else—‘more truly and more strange.’

Add a comment

Please login to comment.