National Catholic Register


The Big Theory On Campus, 1990s-Style

BY James V. Schall

September 19-25, 1999 Issue | Posted 9/19/99 at 2:00 PM


A professor-friend of mine explained to me that, at his university, the administration mandated that every department provide instruction in “multiculturalism” or “diversity.” As far as I know, no particular push was made to simultaneously examine the intellectual validity behind the theory driving the mandate — and it's not hard to see why.

“Diversity” has, in a sense, replaced philosophy on many campuses — and it's a concept whose presuppositions make philosophy impossible or irrelevant. Philosophy wants to know about the whole, about how things are related to each other. If diversity theory is true, all philosophy can be is a description of differing ways, no matter what they are.

Diversity implies that there are no universal ways or norms; it does not matter what is taught, so long as it is “different” from other ways and someone adheres to it in some way. There are no such things as disagreements, since no one is ever right if being right makes someone else wrong; there are just “differences.” We have arrived at a form of what used to be called nominalism. The only enemy is the claim to truth and right order.

Presumably, as they say, water boils in all cultures at the same temperature at the same level above the sea. The reason the Chinese are busy stealing, or buying, or being given our military technology is because the stuff also works in China even though it was not invented there. If all that mattered were diversity of culture, the Chinese would be content with the weapons of the old warlords.

These days, diversity studies are being pursued with zeal. And the primary lesson is that no one can, in principle, object to the ways other folks live and think.

The problem is as old as Herodotus, who, in his travels, noticed the differing mating and burial rites around the Mediterranean. And Tacitus, in a famous passage cited by St. Thomas, was struck by the Germans who thought thievery was all right. For a long time, piracy was considered a form of free enterprise.

Today, of course, “diversity studies” are not a matter of the quaint customs of, say, the Easter Islanders — unless, of course, these customs can be used against some moral institution in traditional Western society. The case of Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, was notorious for this. She seems to have discovered South Sea Islanders doing what she would have preferred to do at home. Her investigation seems to have been directed by her theories and practices and not by evidence.

Diversity studies are touted to be “nonjudgmental.” If people do things — anything — that's all we need to know, that they do them. Classical theory had no problem with the fact that all sorts of ways of doing things were found throughout the world. But it wanted to ask whether a given set of actions met some standard. Or was there no natural norm so that we should be content with native and civilized customs, no matter what they are, just because someone does them?

There are no such things as disagreements, since no one is ever right if being right makes someone else wrong.

I present my students with the following hypothetical case:

Suppose you are, all at once, a moral relativist, a multiculturalist and a member of the reigning British society in India in the 19th century. The local custom is for Hindu women, on the death of their husbands, to throw themselves to their own death on the flaming funeral pyres. You want to be consistent with your stance and not “impose” your values on the Indians. A widow is just about to jump on a pyre before your eyes. You have a contingent of troops and could stop her. What do you do? Usually some bright student pipes up, “Let her jump!” “Right!” I respond.

The only reason the British officer could give for stopping the suicide would be that there are certain universal norms, held either by him or his laws, that judge all cultures in their rites, customs and theories. These norms rose in the Greek culture but are not simply Greek. They rose in Jerusalem and Rome, but are not simply Hebrew, Christian or Roman. Diversity studies, insofar as they are intellectually grounded, profess to reject this universal culture.

Universities ruled by advanced diversity curricula will downplay or eliminate any serious examination of the universal tradition. And this is not merely a question of different languages or ways of doing things, which may be perfectly normal, but of ways of life and lifestyles that must be judged, academically or politically, to be indifferent, above criticism or examination, by any standards not found in a given culture.

In practice, diversity education is not merely a curiosity about how different cultures do things differently. It is a proclamation of how we will live. Logically, if all the cultures become incorporated into one country, that country will end up unable to do anything but protect the cultures from which people came.

Diversity theory's first adversary is any claim that there are objectively right and wrong ways of living. The logical conclusion of the theory is that it does not really make any difference how we live. Is this what we want our universities teaching our young people?

Father James V. Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.