Last week at Providence College, a group of students occupied the office of the president, Father Brian Shanley, for thirteen hours, presenting him with a list of demands toward making the school a more “inclusive” place for students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. (I use the scare quotes not to criticize the students, but because Orwell has taught me to detest political slogans.) Back when Providence College was a school for local boys who had not the money or the connections or the right grandparents to attend Brown University, immigrants from Italy, Portugal, French Canada, and Ireland would have been rubbing elbows and occasionally throwing fists, and there was your diversity, ready to hand. If the college were to return to that founding vision, we would now be taking plenty of students of both sexes from the poorer neighborhoods in the state, and again we would have the ethnic diversity as a matter of course, only now the mix would include Haitians, Mexicans, African Americans, and people from the Middle East. But that would compromise our standing as a more than regional school, and a weather eye for their salaries and their prestige would suffice for most of the faculty to rebel against such a policy. Cherchez l’argent.
I have nothing against making sure that when young people come to college, they encounter a real community that fosters their personal and intellectual growth, rather than cold shoulders and shut doors. A youth from Nigeria or Morocco should be welcomed with genuine friendship and openness to what he has experienced of the world beyond our American horizons. It would be wrong to make him feel as if he were an outsider, tolerated graciously at best, and under sufferance at worst—as if he were a Jew at Harvard in 1900, or an orthodox Roman Catholic in 2016. I’m grateful for students to whom I can ask, “How do you say ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ in Tagalog?” and “What’s it like to live in Lagos?” Meanwhile, I have three millennia of poetry, art, philosophy, theology, and history to teach, and if you are willing to learn, I’m gladly at your service.
But the protesting students, encouraged by some of our professors, want more than that welcome. They want to change the curriculum, to make it more “diverse.” And here I make observations about those who use such students as stalking-horses.
Suppose I want to teach a course in a culture as far removed from ours as the Andromeda galaxy is from earth. It’s a tribal culture, each tribe loosely governed by a war chief and his council of elders. They have no cities. They have no writing. They have a few more or less permanent settlements, and some rudimentary agriculture, but mainly they get their food from livestock and hunting. They worship trees. Their religion is rather gloomy, as they believe that at the end of time the powers of good and evil will meet in an apocalyptic battle, and the evil will triumph, and the world will return to its original darkness. Their oral poetry is devoted to riddles, maxims, and war songs. The virtue they chiefly admire is loyalty, especially to one’s warlord, and courage on the battlefield, especially when the chips are down. Yet their history and their poetry are full of incidents in which brother betrays brother, or the warriors break their promises to their lord. The favorite pastime of the chief and his gang is to go raiding other tribes under some pretext of just vengeance, razing their settlements and bringing back treasure, which the chief distributes in gratitude to his men.
Would such a course fulfill the current “diversity” requirement at Providence College? The real question is, “How could it possibly not fulfill it?” If the point of a “proficiency” (please again pardon the patois) in cultural diversity is to introduce a student to a culture that diverges far from his own, the course I have suggested does that quite well. We do not live in tribes, we do not engage in bloody tribal vendettas, we do have writing, we do have cities, we do have grain, we do not memorize thousands of lines of war poetry, we do have refrigerators and computers and television and cars and processed foods, we do not value loyalty to the warlord above all, and so on.
And yet it would not be enough. If this culture were located on the shores of the Great Lakes, three hundred years ago, that would qualify. But if it were located on the shores of the Baltic Sea, fifteen hundred years ago, that would not qualify. Never mind the three hundred years. The Sioux at Wounded Knee qualify; the still-pagan Swedes sailing across the Gulf of Boothia to ravage the Geats after the death of Beowulf, as the elegiac Christian poet looks back upon the pagan past of his own ancestors, that does not qualify.
We can expose the incoherence even more clearly. Suppose that the students in my course were given the greatest window into another culture—a foreign language to learn and read. Now we have them struggling their way through Germanic inflections and strange grammar, and every other word startles them with its cultural strangeness: wergild, man-gold, the payment a killer makes to try to buy off the kin of the man you have slain; wyrd, “weird,” an ominous force that makes things come out as they are meant to, usually for the worse; meodosetlu, mead-seat, the bench upon which the warriors sit together at a drunken feast. So there are my students, chewing the ends of their pencils, drawing up grammatical paradigms, scrawling cheat-glosses over their texts, and sweating—but that does not count as an engagement with the utterly diverse. But if they go next door and comfortably read a few short stories written in their mother tongue by a (fill in appropriate ethnic or racial or sexual adjective) novelist living and breathing and watching television and reading pasteurized and homogenized newspapers right now, they are given credit for the courage of encountering what is diverse.
What comes from Tucson, written in English by an Hispanic author for a current audience, counts as Hispanic. What comes from Spain, written in Spanish for a Spanish audience four hundred years ago, does not count as Hispanic. Learning the Semitic language known as modern Arabic counts. Learning the Semitic language known as ancient Hebrew does not. A course in Rudyard Kipling, a multi-cultural man if there ever was one, does not count; a course in Alice Walker does. Renaissance polyphony, which not one student or professor in a hundred has heard or can easily understand, does not count, but rap music, which everyone has heard, does count.
We can only make sense of the matter if we see that specifically cultural diversity is not what the students and the pawn-pushing professors want. If I say, “We are going to spend four weeks on Renaissance Italy!” they shrug. If I say, “We are going to take our time reading four dramas from ancient Greece!” they roll their eyes. Same old, same old—that same old array of wildly diverse cultures. What they want instead is a variety of views regarding current events, or rather an institutional sanction for their own views regarding current events, insofar as those views have to do with race, sex, ethnicity, creed, and so forth.
The Sioux is better than the Swede, because the Sioux can be enlisted in a political discussion of current events, but the Swedes in the days of Augustine of Canterbury cannot. They have to be understood on their terms, not our terms. The Chicana author making the lecture tour is better than Cervantes, because she speaks about what we know, our politics, but Cervantes speaks about the human condition generally, and to understand him we have to set our current preoccupations aside, or subject them to his clear-eyed irony. Snoop Dogg is better than Palestrina, because the Dogg can be gussied up in the guise of a current social critic, while Palestrina soars beyond the specifics of his own society or ours.
Father Shanley has, it appears, kicked the can down the street, leaving curricular matters to our Faculty Senate. With plenty of exceptions, a Faculty Senate is usually made up of the more politically ambitious professors. Ours will be sympathetic to the students. It remains to be seen how far they will go towards dismantling the most culturally diverse program at Providence College, our program in the Development of Western Civilization.
Outside of the professors who teach in that program and who love doing so, most (not all) of the faculty are like the students in several ways. They don’t care about reading Homer either. They don’t know anything about Dante, nor do they care to know. They may think it’s tolerable to study early medieval England, and even to try to learn its outlandish language, the distant Germanic ancestor of our own; but if you are a really serious student, you will be in science, or finance, or politics—you will be in the business of money or power.
Everything is about ourselves. We don’t want to study other cultures. We want to make other people study about us, and from our preferred point of view. I say to students, “Here, let me teach you about Milton,” the author of the greatest poem in the English language. The students reply, “No, let us teach you about us.” Dear Narcissus, there is a great and beautiful world beyond that pool.
I have no problem with professors who teach about any human matters, including present-day politics and our struggles to ensure that every person is treated with justice. I do have a problem when present-day politics usurp the bulk of the curriculum in the humanities. In either case, don’t talk to me about culture and diversity, unless you’re willing to see them for what they are and where they are. As, for instance, in the early Welsh Bible (1605) I have just opened, expressing a communion to which I welcome them most dearly:
“Nid oes nac Iuddew na Groegwyr, nid oes na chaeth na rhydd, nid oes na gwrryw na benyw: canys chwi oll un ydych yng Nghrist Iesu.”
“For there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female: but ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Echo and Narcissus” painted by John William Waterhouse.