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Opinion | Universities Are Failing at Inclusion

by Staff

Over the past five weeks, Jewish students on America’s campuses have found themselves confronted with those who celebrate a terrorist operation that featured the mass murder and reportedly the rape of fellow Jews. They see images of people tearing down posters of kidnapped Jewish children. At M.I.T., Jewish students report that they were told by some faculty members to avoid the university’s main lobby — which had been the site of a pro-Palestinian protest — for their own safety. At Cooper Union, Jewish students were barricaded in the library by a protest that started out as a pro-Palestinian demonstration and quickly became, one student reported, “pure anti-Jew.”

Rabbi Nomi Manon, who has directed the Hillel at the University at Albany since 2011, told The Albany Times-Union, “Every Jewish student that I talk to feels a sense of impending doom, anxiety, fear or anger about the really marked rise in antisemitism.” Shabbos Kestenbaum, who is a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School, told The Forward, “The past few weeks have been the most isolating, saddening, maddening experience I’ve ever had.”

Universities are supposed to be centers of inquiry and curiosity — places where people are tolerant of difference and learn about other points of view. Instead, too many have become brutalizing ideological war zones, so today the most hostile place to be an American Jew is not at some formerly restricted country club but on a college campus.

How on earth did this happen? I’ve been teaching on college campuses off and on for 25 years. It’s become increasingly evident to me that American adolescence and young adulthood — especially for those who wind up at elite schools — now happen within a specific kind of ideological atmosphere.

It centers on a hard-edged ideological framework that has been spreading in high school and college, on social media, in diversity training seminars and in popular culture. The framework doesn’t have a good name yet. It draws on the thinking of intellectuals ranging from the French philosopher Michel Foucault to the critical race theorist Derrick Bell. (For a good intellectual history, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s recent book, “The Identity Trap.”)

The common ideas associated with this ideology are by now pretty familiar:

  • We shouldn’t emphasize what unites all human beings; we should emphasize what divides us.

  • Human relations are power struggles between oppressors and oppressed groups.

  • Human communication is limited. A person in one group can never really understand the experience of someone in another group.

  • The goal of rising above bigotry is naïve. Bigotry and racism are permanent and indestructible components of American society.

  • Seemingly neutral tenets of society — like free speech, academic freedom, academic integrity and the meritocracy — are tools the powerful use to preserve their power.

There are many teachers and administrators who believe that they best serve society not by being open and curious and searching for the truth but by propagating this ideological framework.

One passage from a D.E.I. curriculum guide symbolizes for me the way ideological activism is replacing intellectual inquiry as the primary mission of universities. It’s for the faculty at California Community Colleges, and it advises: “Take care not to ‘weaponize’ academic freedom and academic integrity as tools to impede equity.” In other words, spreading a specific ideology is more important than academic integrity.

Students have gotten the message that they are not on campus to learn; they are there to express their certainties and to advance a rigid ideological formula.

One upshot is that universities have become battlefields. Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith America, which over the past 20 years has worked on about 1,200 campuses to narrow toxic divides and build bridges between people of all faiths or no faith. Over these decades, he has concluded that far from creating a healthier, more equitable campus, this ideology demonizes, demeans and divides students. It demeans white people by reducing them to a single category — oppressor. Meanwhile, it demeans, for example, Muslim people of color, like Patel, by reducing them to victims.

Patel doesn’t believe we should try to “end D.E.I.,” as some have proposed. That’s not going to happen anyway. Besides, in a liberal society we beat bad ideas with better ideas. Patel does argue that we’re at a paradigm-shifting moment when we can replace a destructive form of diversity, equity and inclusion with a better form — one that actually includes people, instead of excluding them.

The right intellectual framework for effective diversity work is pluralism. Pluralism starts with a celebration of the fact that we live in one of the most diverse societies in history. The job of the university is to help young people from different backgrounds learn to work and live together. (Would you really want to hire someone who spent his college years learning how to demonize, demean and divide?)

Pluralists seek to replace the demonizing, demeaning and dividing ethos with one that encourages respect, relationships and cooperation. Pluralists believe that people’s identities are complex and shifting, that most human beings shouldn’t be divided into good/evil categories, that we become wise as we enter into many different points of view. Patel says that universities shouldn’t be battlefields but potluck dinners, where all guests bring their own cuisines to the common table.

Donors who are offended by what’s happening on campuses today shouldn’t stop funding universities. They should fund pluralistic programs that offer an alternative to and a critique of the currently prevailing ideology. There is a rich tradition of thinkers who explore diversity, identity and history from a pluralistic framework: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Danielle Allen, John Courtney Murray, Miroslav Volf, Jonathan Haidt. Whole courses could be built around these bodies of thought.

There is also a range of books on the social and moral skills you need to see people across difference, by people like Amanda Ripley, Mónica Guzmán and yours truly. Already there are programs like the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy and Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute and its Greater Good Science Center. Patel suggests universities could appoint a chief cooperation officer, a senior person whose responsibility it is to help diverse communities work together, say, on joint service projects.

Over the past decades, the crude ideology that’s been marching across American society has taken advantage of the fact that some people like to see the world through Manichaean us/them categories. Now is the time for donors, faculty members, students, parents and everybody else involved in higher education to support the pluralistic counterweight, which actually practices inclusion, celebrates complexity, fosters cooperation and leads to social justice.

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