Last week, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov ’82 LAW ’88 rebuffed student calls for “deconstructing” the oppressive “system” of the small Ohio college. The demands are more extreme than Next Yale’s. But though Krislov chafed at the students nixing “collaborative engagement,” he did not explain why he opposed the demands’ substance. Before Next Yale urges a similar direction, Yale’s leaders should explain what Yale is for and what it is against — and why certain practices are opposed, in principle, to its goals.
The demands were intended to combat Oberlin’s “premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism and a cissexist heteropatriarchy.” Well then.
Pervading the 14-pages-worth of theses is the desire to affix race to many parts of school policy. Two of the worst ideas: a “change in the fundamental ways we assess knowledge at this institution” to make the grading system more “reflective of this institution’s student body,” and exemptions for students from courses “rooted in whiteness.”
The protesters are suggesting, in effect, that students of different races should be educated in different subjects and judged by different standards. That we are of many races does nothing to vitiate our common humanity, and therefore does not change what we all need to know to be intelligent and good people. And just because race is important in American society, and to the identities of many people, does not mean students of different races have different educational needs. Every schoolchild knows this. Many at Oberlin seem to have forgotten it.
Introducing race into education as Oberlin’s protesters wish it to be introduced would harm any school. A university assumes that some questions matter to all people, and that there exists a language common to all for engaging such questions. Diversity is valuable insofar as it permits those with different ideas to discuss matters of general interest. Race is but one thing informing identity, and identity is but one thing informing ideas. Not permitting an identity — or vogue ideas about what an identity should mean — to simply determine one’s thought is difficult. But if there is to be reasoned debate, the university has to ask everyone to make the attempt. Otherwise, we will never think to trade the provincial for the universal.
Many at Oberlin reject this possibility. They see people and thought as inescapably and completely determined by identity. And they see knowledge, and the standards needed to judge knowledge, the same way. They leave no room for an individual’s reason. But if their view were true, a university would be meaningless, because all notions of meaning would be rooted in — that is, produced by — “whiteness” or some other trait. They would be products of forces beyond our control, rather than conscious thought, and therefore of interest only in the way that hurricanes are interesting. But they would have no claim on us, morally or intellectually.
Now, perhaps we are puppets of an evil demon — identity, or something else — beyond our knowledge and influence. The most to be said against that argument is that it is self-undermining: It, too, is a product of the demon it purports to unmask. To accept it is to reject the rationality of accepting any argument.
How would Yale’s leaders respond if Oberlin-type demands were made here? In an email to Yale last semester, President Peter Salovey wrote that the “very purpose of our gathering together into a University community is to engage in teaching, learning and research.” This cannot happen if many students believe that British philosophy or German poetry are useless to them because of “premises of imperialism.” Or, worse, if they view their teachers and fellow students as captives of their demographics, rather than as free-thinking agents making their best stabs at the truth.
A liberal education requires a pluralistic university. Before the forces of anti-pluralism advance further into Yale, the school’s leaders should articulate what such a university looks like. Without some principles telling us which ideas are just wrong, Yale will soon die.
Yale’s leaders could start by rejecting the following notion: That just because someone looks or is a certain way, that he must think a certain way and that we must therefore judge him a certain way. Some version of this idea is at the core of any creed that refuses to treat people and ideas on their own merits, preferring to classify, chalk up, pathologize and then dismiss instead of engaging in the hard work of charitable debate.
To drive the point home, Yale perhaps should make W.E.B. Du Bois an honorary alumnus, and place the following quote above the entrance to the residential college that should be named after him: “I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .