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May 13, 2003

public work and multiculturalism

Here is a somewhat different way of analyzing the campus battles over "great books" versus "multiculturalism" or "diversity." Participants can be sorted into groups depending on what kind of works they think should be available or required in schools, colleges, and other venues. "Canonical classicists" want everyone to read great works from Plato to NATO. "Diversity proponents" want everyone to be exposed to works written (or composed, or painted) by people of multiple ethnic, cultural, religious, sexual, and racial identities—in order to promote empathy, respect, tolerance, etc. And true "multiculturalists" want people of different cultural backgrounds to be able to study intensively works created by people like them, so that a campus will be home to multiple cultural communities.

This is one dimension that we can use to categorize the antagonists in the campus culture wars. But there is also another dimension. At one end of this second spectrum are those who emphasize that students should experience, appreciate, understand, or at least be exposed to works created in the past or in other places. Somewhat contentiously, I'll call this the "consumerist" approach. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who stress that we should create new cultural products, including stories and paintings, performances, critical interpretations, and historical narratives.

Putting the two dimensions together, we see that there are at least six possible positions in the debate:

canonical classicism

The standard conservative view is (a)—there is a fixed supply of great works from the past that students should experience and appreciate. The standard diversity view is (b)—everyone should experience works by authors of color. And the standard multiculturalism view is (c)—people should be encouraged to study works by members of their own groups, using their own cultures' criteria of excellence. These positions are "zero-sum": adding a text to the curriculum may require taking another text out. In contrast, options (d)-(f) are potentially "win-win," and I think they are underdeveloped. There is a fair amount of (e)—i.e., people of all colors and creeds should collaborate because this will create the most interesting new works of art. But I think conservatives should work on developing (d), if indeed it is a viable position. And multiculturalists should develop (f), which would amount to the view that people of various cultures should be assisted in producing new works, thereby contributing to the global commons.

Posted by peterlevine at May 13, 2003 11:17 AM