In all those years I was pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, the question of what my profession really stood for rarely came up in conversation with fellow academics, save for occasional moments when the position of the humanities in higher education came under criticism in public discourse. When such moments passed, it was again simply assumed that anyone entering a doctoral program in the humanities knowingly signed on to a traditional career of specialized research and teaching.
But the closer I got to receiving that doctorate, the less certain I became that this was a meaningful goal. I was surrounded by undergraduates who were rich, well-meaning, and largely apathetic to what I learned and taught. I saw my teachers and peers struggle against the tide of general indifference aimed at our discipline and succumb to unhappiness or cynicism. It was heartbreaking.
Fearing that I no longer knew why I studied religion or the humanities at large, I left sunny California for a teaching job at the Asian University for Women, in Chittagong, Bangladesh. My new students came from 12 different countries, and many of them had been brought up in deeply religious households, representing nearly all traditions practiced throughout Asia. They, however, knew about religion only what they had heard from priests, monks, or imams, and did not understand what it meant to study religion from an academic point of view. And that so many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds convinced me that this position would give me a sense of purpose.
I arrived in Bangladesh prepared to teach an introductory course on the history of Asian religions. But what was meant to be a straightforward comparison of religious traditions around the region quickly slipped from my control and morphed into a terrible mess. I remember an early lesson: When I suggested during a class on religious pilgrimage that a visit to a Muslim saint’s shrine had the potential to constitute worship, it incited a near-riot.
Several Muslim students immediately protested that I was suggesting heresy, citing a Quranic injunction that only Allah should be revered. What I had intended was to point out how similar tension existed in Buddhism over circumambulation of a stupa — an earthen mound containing the relics of an eminent religious figure — since that act could be seen as both remembrance of the deceased’s worthy deeds and veneration of the person. But instead of provoking a thoughtful discussion, my idea of comparative religious studies seemed only to strike students as blasphemous.
Even more memorable, and comical in hindsight, was being urged by the same Muslims in my class to choose one version of Islam among all its sectarian and national variations and declare it the best. Whereas Palestinians pointed to the "bad Arabic" used in the signage of one local site as evidence of Islam’s degeneration in South Asia, a Pakistani would present Afghanis as misguided believers because — she claimed—they probably never read the entire Quran. While Bangladeshis counseled me to ignore Pakistanis from the minority Ismaili sect who claim that God is accessible through all religions, Bangladeshis themselves were ridiculed by other students for not knowing whether they were Sunni or Shi’a, two main branches of Islam. In the midst of all this I thought my call to accept these various manifestations of Islam as intriguing theological propositions went unheeded.
With my early enthusiasm and amusement depleted, I was ready to declare neutral instruction of religion in Bangladesh impossible. But over the course of the semester I could discern one positive effect of our classroom exercise: students’ increasing skepticism toward received wisdom. In becoming comfortable with challenging my explanations and debating competing religious ideas, students came to perceive any view toward religion as more an argument than an indisputable fact. They no longer accepted a truth claim at face value and analyzed its underlying logic in order to evaluate the merit of the argument. They expressed confidence in the notion that a religion could be understood in multiple ways. And all the more remarkable was their implicit decision over time to position themselves as rational thinkers and to define their religions for themselves.
An illustrative encounter took place at the shrine of the city’s most prominent Muslim saint. I, being a man, was the only one among our group to be allowed into the space. My students, the keeper of the door said, could be "impure" — menstruating — and were forbidden to enter. Instead of backing down as the local custom expected, the students ganged up on the sole guard and began a lengthy exposition on the meaning of female impurity in Islam. First they argued that a woman was impure only when she was menstruating and not at other times; they then invoked Allah as the sole witness to their cyclical impurity, a fact the guard could not be privy to and thus should not be able to use against them; and finally they made the case that if other Muslim countries left it up to individual women to decide whether to visit a mosque, it was not up to a Bangladeshi guard to create a different rule concerning entry. Besieged by a half-dozen self-styled female theologians of Islam, the man cowered, and withdrew his ban.
I was incredibly, indescribably proud of them.
Equally poignant was coming face to face with a student who asked me to interpret the will of Allah. Emanating the kind of glow only the truly faithful seem to possess, she sat herself down in my office, fixed the hijab around her round alabaster face, and quietly but measuredly confessed her crime: She had taken to praying at a Hindu temple because most local mosques did not have space for women, and she was both puzzled and elated that even in a non-Islamic space she could still sense the same divine presence she had been familiar with all her life as Allah. She asked for my guidance in resolving her crisis of faith. If other Muslims knew about her routine excursions to a Hindu temple, she would be branded an apostate, but did I think that her instinct was right, and that perhaps it was possible for Allah to communicate his existence through a temple belonging to another religion?
In the privacy of my office, I felt honored by her question. I had lectured on that very topic just before this meeting, arguing that sacred space was not the monopoly of any one religion, but could be seen as a construct contingent upon the presence of several key characteristics. This simple idea, which scholars often take for granted, had struck her as a novel but convincing explanation for her visceral experience of the Islamic divine inside a Hindu holy space. Though she had come asking for my approval of her newly found conviction, it was clear that she did not need anyone’s blessing to claim redemption. Humanistic learning had already provided her with a framework under which her religious experience could be made meaningful and righteous, regardless of what others might say.
And thanks to her and other students, I could at last define my own discipline with confidence I had until then lacked: The humanities is not just about disseminating facts or teaching interpretive skills or making a living; it is about taking a very public stance that above the specifics of widely divergent human ideas exist more important, universally applicable ideals of truth and freedom. In acknowledging this I was supremely grateful for the rare privilege I enjoyed as a teacher, having heard friends and colleagues elsewhere bemoan the difficulty of finding a meaningful career as humanists in a world constantly questioning the value of our discipline. I was humbled to be able to see, by moving to Bangladesh, that humanistic learning was not as dispensable as many charge.
But before I could fully savor the discovery that what I did actually mattered, my faith in the humanities was again put to a test when a major scandal befell my institution. I knew that as a member of this community I had to critique what was happening after all my posturing before students about the importance of seeking truth. If I remained silent, it would amount to a betrayal of my students and a discredit to my recent conclusion that humanistic endeavor is meant to make us not only better thinkers, but also more empowered and virtuous human beings.
So it was all the more crushing to be told to say nothing by the people in my very profession, whose purpose I thought I had finally ascertained. In private chats my friends and mentors in academe saw only the urgent need for me to extricate myself for the sake of my career, but had little to say about how to address the situation. Several of my colleagues on the faculty, though wonderful as individuals, demurred from taking a stance for fear of being targeted by the administration for retribution or losing the professional and financial benefits they enjoyed. And the worst blow, more so than the scandal itself, was consulting the one man I respected more than anybody else, a brilliant tenured scholar who chairs his own department at a research university in North America, and receiving this one-liner:
"My advice would be to leave it alone."
It was simultaneously flummoxing and devastating to hear a humanist say that when called to think about the real-life implications of our discipline, we should resort to inaction. And soon it enraged me that the same people who decry the dismantling of traditional academe under market pressure and changing attitudes toward higher education could be so indifferent, thereby silently but surely contributing to the collapse of humanists’ already tenuous legitimacy as public intellectuals.
While my kind did nothing of consequence, it was the students — the same students whom I had once dismissed as incapable of intellectual growth — who tried to speak up at the risk of jeopardizing the only educational opportunity they had. They approached the governing boards, the administration, and the faculty to hold an official dialogue. They considered staging a street protest. And finally, they gave up and succumbed to cynicism about higher education and the world, seeing many of their professors do nothing to live by the principles taught in class, and recognizing the humanities as exquisitely crafted words utterly devoid of substance.
As my feeling about my discipline shifted from profound grief to ecstatic revelation to acute disappointment, I was able to recall a sentiment expressed by one of my professors, who himself might not remember it after all these years. Once upon a time we sat sipping espresso on a verdant lawn not far from the main library, and he mused that he never understood why young people no longer seemed to feel outrage at the sight of injustice. He is a product of a generation that once once rampaged campuses and braved oppression by the Man. On first hearing his indictment, I was embarrassed to have failed the moral standard established by the older generation of scholars like him. But now I see that it is not just young people but much of our discipline, both young and old, that at present suffers from moral inertia. With only a few exceptions, humanists I know do not consider enactment of virtue to be their primary professional objective, whether because of the more important business of knowledge production or material exigencies of life. And I can only conclude, with no small amount of sadness, that most humanists are not, nor do they care to be, exemplary human beings.
Maybe I should move on, as did a friend and former academic who believes that the only people we can trust to stand on principle are "holy men, artists, poets, and hobos," because yes, it is true that humanists should not be confused with saints. But the humanities will always appear irrelevant as long as its practitioners refrain from demonstrating a tangible link between what they preach and how they behave. In light of the current academic penchant for blaming others for undoing the humanities, it must be said that humanists as a collective should look at themselves first, and feel shame that there is so much they can say — need to say — about the world, but that they say so little at their own expense.
After a year and a half in Bangladesh, I do not doubt any longer that the humanities matters, but now I know that the discipline’s raison d’être dies at the hands of those humanists who do not deserve their name.
Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford University in 2011. He currently serves as Rice Family Foundation Visiting Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University.
Let me first say that my reply has nothing to do with the merits of either the resolution or your position. It has rather to do with your tactic and the presumptions upon which your open letter operates. I feel somewhat passionate about this because Asian-American studies is a field with which I have been long associated and for which I have immense respect.
I'll make this brief. So, all those who attended the Association for Asian American Studies in Seattle happened to, without public debate, vote in favor of a resolution. So what? Can't people unanimously feel passionate and committed to one point of view? If it were a resolution in favor of stricter background checks for gun purchases would you be as moralistic and publicly so?
Instead, you trot out some cherry-picked quotes from some leftists and chastise us for not taking these into account, calling into question our thoughtfulness and indeed personal ethics. But how do you know that many if not all of us did not in fact, on our own, or with friends, families, colleagues, conscientiously think through our positions? We were alerted well in advance of the resolution, after all, and we are, after all, academics, so maybe we did our homework.
I am sorry you are dismayed at the result, but your inference does not work.
But more importantly, I really do not see why you chose to use a mainstream journal of the academy to launch your public chastisement and browbeating.
Oh, I think I do. Your "position" lost so you decided not only to use Inside Higher Ed to offer it to a wider and assumedly more sympathetic audience, you also used the opportunity it afforded to lambaste an entire organization for reputed past sins of a similar nature.
Your letter moves out from a critique of a single vote to a broad indictment of many fine scholars and teachers, indeed all of those in the field, impugning their moral character simply because their judgment did not coincide with your own. Surely we can all stand to learn from one another, but your mode of persuasion is, to my mind, entirely counterproductive.
Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor
Professor of Comparative Literature and, by courtesy, English
Director of Asian American Studies
David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University.
Some months ago I started asking friends, colleagues from my teaching days, researchers in higher education, faculty members of various ages and ranks, deans, provosts and presidents, and focus groups of students: “What’s the status of the Big Questions on your campus?” Quite deliberately I avoided defining “Big Questions,” but I gave as examples such questions as “Who am I? Where do I come from? What am I going to do with my life? What are my values? Is there such a thing as evil? What does it mean to be human? How can I understand suffering and death? What obligations do I have to other people? What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? What makes work, or a life, meaningful and satisfying?” In other words, I wanted to know what was happening to questions of meaning and value that traditionally have been close to the heart of a liberal education.
Some of what I found puzzled me. People pointed out quite properly that some Big Questions were alive and well in academia today. These included some questions about the origin of the universe, the emergence of life, the nature of consciousness, and others that have been raised by the scientific breakthroughs of the past few decades.
In the humanities and related social sciences the situation was rather different. Some friends reminded me that, not all big questions were in eclipse. Over the past generation faculty members have paid great attention to questions of racial, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity. Curricular structures, professional patterns, etc. continue to be transformed by this set of questions. Professors, as well as students, care about these questions, and as a result, write, teach and learn with passion about them.
But there was wide agreement that other big questions, the ones about meaning, value, moral and civic responsibility, were in eclipse. To be sure, some individual faculty members addressed them, and when they did, students responded powerfully. In fact, in a recent Teagle-sponsored meeting on a related topic, participants kept using words such as “hungry,” “thirsty,” and “parched” to describe students’ eagerness to find ways in the curriculum, or outside it, to address these questions. But the old curricular structures that put these questions front and center have over the years often faded or been dismantled, including core curricula, great books programs, surveys “from Plato to NATO,” and general education requirements of various sorts. Only rarely have new structures emerged to replace them.
I am puzzled why. To be sure, these Big Questions are hot potatoes. Sensitivities are high. And faculty members always have the excuse that they have other more pressing things to do. Over two years ago, in an article entitled “Aim Low,” Stanley Fish attacked some of the gurus of higher education (notably, Ernest Boyer) and their insistence that college education should “go beyond the developing of intellectual and technical skills and … mastery of a scholarly domain. It should include the competence to act in the world and the judgment to do so wisely” ( Chronicle of Higher Education, May 16 2003). Fish hasn’t been the only one to point out that calls to “fashion” moral and civic-minded citizens, or to “go beyond” academic competency assume that students now routinely achieve such mastery of intellectual and scholarly skills. We all know that’s far from the case.
Minimalist approaches -- ones that limit teaching to what another friend calls “sectoral knowledge -- are alluring. But if you are committed to a liberal education, it’s hard just to aim low and leave it at that. The fact that American university students need to develop basic competencies provides an excuse, not a reason, for avoiding the Big Questions. Students also need to be challenged, provoked, and helped to explore the issues they will inevitable face as citizens and as individuals. Why have we been so reluctant to develop the structures, in the curriculum or beyond it, that provide students with the intellectual tools they need to grapple thoughtfully over the course of a lifetime with these questions?
I see four possible reasons:
1. Faculty members are scared away by the straw man Stanley Fish and others have set up. Despite accusations of liberal bias and “brainwashing” no faculty member I know wants to “mold,” “fashion” or “proselytize” students. But that’s not what exploring the Big Questions is all about. Along with all the paraphernalia college students bring with them these days are Big Questions, often poorly formulated and approached with no clue that anyone in the history of humankind has ever had anything useful to say about any of them. There’s no need to answer those questions for students, or to try to fashion them into noble people or virtuous citizens for the republic. There is, however, every reason to help students develop the vocabularies, the metaphors, the exempla, the historical perspective, the patterns of analysis and argument that let them over time answer them for themselves.
2. A second possible reason is that faculty are put off by the feeling they are not “experts” in these matters. In a culture that quite properly values professional expertise, forays beyond one’s field of competence are understandably suspect. But one does not have to be a moral philosopher to raise the Big Questions and show some of the ways smart people in the past have struggled with them. I won’t pontificate about other fields, but in my own field -- classics and ancient history -- the Big Questions come bubbling up between the floor boards of any text I have ever taught. I don’t have to be a specialist in philosophy or political science to see that Thucydides has something to say about power and morality, or the Odyssey about being a father and a husband. A classicist’s job, as I see it, is to challenge students to think about what’s implicit in a text, help them make it explicit and use that understanding to think with.
3. Or is it that engaging with these “Big Questions” or anything resembling them is the third rail of a professional career. Senior colleagues don’t encourage it; professional journals don’t publish it; deans don’t reward it and a half dozen disgruntled students might sink your tenure case with their teaching evaluations. You learn early on in an academic career not to touch the third rail. If this is right, do we need to rewire the whole reward system of academia?
4. Or, is a former student of mine, now teaching at a fine women’s college, correct when she says that on her campus “It tends to be that … those who talk about morality and the big questions come from such an entrenched far right position … that the rest of us … run for cover.”
Some of the above? All of the above? None of the above? You tell me, but let’s not shrug our shoulders and walk away from the topic until we’ve dealt with one more issue: What happens if, for whatever reason, faculty members run for the hills when the Big Questions, including the ones about morality and civic responsibility, arise? Is this not to lose focus on what matters most in an education intended to last for a lifetime? In running away, do we not then leave the field to ideologues and others we cannot trust, and create a vacuum that may be filled by proselytizers, propagandists, or the unspoken but powerful manipulations of consumer culture? Does this not sever one of the roots that has over the centuries kept liberal education alive and flourishing? But, most serious of all, will we at each Commencement say farewell to another class of students knowing that for all they have learned, they are ill equipped to lead an examined life? And if we do, can we claim to be surprised and without responsibility if a few decades later these same graduates abuse the positions of power and trust in our corporate and civic life to which they have ascended?
W. Robert Connor
W. Robert Connor is president of the Teagle Foundation, which is dedicated to strengthening liberal education. More on the foundation's “Big Questions” project may be found on its Web site. This essay is based on remarks Connor recently made at a meeting of the Middle Atlantic Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa, at the University of Pennsylvania.
Submitted by Alex Golub on April 17, 2006 - 4:00am
As a Jewish professor, I know that it is my lot in life to deal with stereotypes of Jewish academics. As a Jewish professor from California, dealing with these stereotypes is even more difficult because I lack recourse to the solution favored by many colleagues: acting as if the complex negotiation of my identity can be accomplished simply by assuming that "Jewish" means "from New York" and leaving it at that. As a Jewish professor from California who teaches in Hawaii, navigating my identity as a practicing Reform Jew, both in the classroom and out, has taken many surprising twists and turns.
Oxford University Press's Judaism: A Very Short Introduction notes astutely that Jews, like tomatoes, are neither "particularly complicated or obscure when left to themselves, but they don't neatly fit into the handy categories such as fruit or vegetable or nation and religion which are so useful for pigeonholing other foods and people." Growing up in northern California, I went to a high school where the blanket term "Asian" was scrupulously decomposed into a wide variety of ethnicities, which included not just Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but Hmong, Miao, Mien, Lao, Hongkie, Taiwanese, and so forth. When I got lunch at Vang's convenience store, my Thai friend grumbled about "those hill people." But for him, as for me, there was only one kind of white person: the white kind.
It was not until I moved to graduate school in Chicago that I realized that there were different kinds of white people. Growing up in Reagan's America, "Marxism" to me meant a critique of the soullessness of suburban life. Exploitation was not about class -- it was about Mexican-Anglo relations. While I understood that my religion made me different from most people, it didn't seem to make me any more distinctive than the guy in my class whose family had a time-share in Tahoe: I missed a few days of class for high holy days, he missed them for the time share. But living on the south side of Chicago, class became an inescapable fact of life, and "color" meant "black" and "white."
That I could understand. But I was particularly puzzled by religion as a source of social differentiation in America. I traveled to Minnesota and visited small towns, which featured intersections with churches on every corner. Why did the Missouri Synod Lutherans need one church and the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans need another? And how was all this related to the graduate student parties where bizarre passes would occasionally be made at me by women whose complex psychological relationship with novels like Portnoy's Complaint and Ravelstein had driven them out of their dairy-rich farming communities and into the arms of a cosmopolitan intellectualism which they expected me to embody?
My dissertation committee consisted of three Jewish structuralists and a Protestant interested in performativity. The Protestant member of my committee claimed that reading Kierkegaard's analysis of the sacrifice of Isaac through a Derridean lens could help explain nationalism in Indonesia, but this was the closest I actually got to Judaism as a religious phenomenon. Actually that is not true. At one point as I was driving in the car with one member of my committee, she pointed out a kosher butcher shop and told me that that was where another member of my committee went "for really good meat." But that was it -- my committee was alarmed when I suggested that Judaism was not actually synonymous with being an atheist intellectual, or even who knew where to get a pound of lean pastrami.
I originally felt my move to Hawaii would be a sort of homecoming -- a return to the multicultural environment of my childhood and an end to the terrible, terrible cold I had suffered through in the Midwest. In fact I was in for a bit of a shock. Hawaii has a unique local culture derived from the state's legacy of plantation colonialism and its overthrow at the hands of a strong labor movement. As a result Hawaii owes much to the Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese workers who moved here to cut cane. And of course there is the rich tradition of native Hawaiian culture, which has experienced a renaissance here in the past 30 years. Since the United States has long been the inheritor of Spanish colonialism in the Pacific, our islands are called home by increasing numbers of Chammoro and Filipinos. The growing number of migrants from Samoa and Tonga allows Hawaii to challenge Auckland as the unofficial capital of Polynesia. And there is no doubt that Honolulu -- the forward point for the projection of U.S. political and military power into the Pacific -- has long been a center for Micronesian migration.
Further, Hawaii has one of the highest rates of intermarriage in the country, and the place is remarkably cosmopolitan given its small size and distance from major centers. The result of all this is that my students are more likely to visit Saipan than Schenectady, and know more about Pago Pago than Paris. It soon became apparent that the welcome return to my natal relation to my Jewish identity was not to be had -- and for reasons more enduring than the fact that the Web site for my new shul in Honolulu was "shaloha.com."
A great deal of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course involves getting students to rethink ideas of race and ethnicity in light of the anthropological concept of culture. However, I feel very uncomfortable asking my students to objectify themselves in class by asking them "as an Asian, how do you feel about this?" or lecturing my African-American students about supposedly innate black athletic ability. On the mainland I solved this problem by objectifying myself and examining, for instance, stereotypes about Jews. In fact I typically use the tomato imagery from Oxford's Very Short Introduction to Judaism. "So," I said in my first class in the islands, dry erase marker in hand and ready to make a discussion-spurring list, "what are some stereotypes you have of Jewish people?"
"Please," I say generously, "This classroom is a safe place where people can discuss controversial topics civilly, so don't feel you need to spare my feelings. So: what are some stereotypes of Jews?"
Silence. As a new professor I had read countless books and articles exhorting me not to get freaked out if it took a while for someone to say something. But this time I get nothing. Nada.
"How about the idea that Jews are good with money?" I finally offer.
"You mean like they're pake?" asked one confused woman, using a Hawaiian term originally meant to describe Chinese people, but which in local slang simply means tight-fisted.
In this and other classes I quickly came to realize that when it comes to Jews the Hawaiian response to the question of "is a tomato a vegetable or a fruit" is to ask "what's a tomato?" In California, my identity as a Jew wasn't particularly relevant. In Honolulu, I am pretty much off the table insofar as the ethnic imagination of my students goes. All white people were haole -- a Hawaiian word with a slightly derogatory connotations (one of my students wears a T-shirt to class that reads "Haole you flew here I grew here".)
The problem was not just that my students didn't know that I was a tomato, they're often a little unclear on the idea that people must be sorted into fruits and vegetables. To put it another way: it is difficult to expose the culturally-contingent nature of your student's essentialist folk theories of identity when they have names like Motoko Kapualani da Silva or Brian Ka'imikaua Li. This latter student claimed to be "Japanese, Filipino, and Hawaiian." I pointed out to him that his last name was Chinese. He paused and thought about it for a second and then remembered that yes, his family was also Chinese but he had never really thought of "Li" as a Chinese name. By speaking frankly about my own identity with my students I learned that they did not operate with the same concepts of race and ethnicity that my students on the mainland did, and this insight allowed me to teach anthropology in a way that was accessible to them.
Now when I teach my intro class I engage my student's expectations about ethnic difference by approaching some of the aporias of identity in Hawaii. How does the selective retention of taboos and purity laws by orthodox Jews provide a model of how (or how not!) to creatively innovate one's tradition? Why do we speak of Hawaii as a multicultural paradise when there is so much racial tension simmering under the surface? Is the distinction of "local" and "haole" one of race? Of class? What does it mean to talk about "ancient Hawaiian tradition" with a professor whose people lived in diaspora for a millennium before the first Hawaiians arrived in the islands? Why are haole tourists noisy, rude, and overbearing compared to locals? How can we use the concept of culture to render this comportment intelligible?
In sum, living in Hawaii has forced me to rethink not just my own Jewish heritage, but the issue of heritage in general. As an anthropologist I find the challenge of working through these multiple layers of identity and (as we say in the business) “group affiliation” to be both professionally and personally rewarding. And most important of all, it provides my students a chance to grow intellectually by thinking about identity and belonging in ways they may not have before. In the next few semesters I plan to put together a class entitled "Kohen and Kahuna," based on an unpublished manuscript by a Rabbi and sociologist who studied at the University of Hawaii in the 1940s. We will not discuss Woody Allen films or where to get a pound of lean pastrami. We will discuss the comparative study of taboo, social complexity in Polynesia and the ancient Middle East, and anxiety about not being able to chant properly in your heritage language. Shaloha, everyone!
Alex Golub finished his dissertation in anthropology at the University of Chicago in 2005 and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.
The University of Colorado committee investigating Ward Churchill has found him guilty, guilty, guilty. And on some level, they’re right: Churchill is guilty of occasionally shoddy scholarship and the dubious practice of ghostwriting, and perhaps even more. But we should be alarmed by the investigative committee’s report, and not merely because the committee exists only because of a concerted effort to fire Churchill for his obnoxious and idiotic comments about 9/11 victims.
By stretching the meaning of "research misconduct" far beyond its true definition, and by supporting the suspension and even dismissal of a tenured professor for his use of footnotes, the Colorado committee is opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.
If you don’t like a professor’s politics, simply file a complaint of "research misconduct." According to the Colorado committee, if you can find a factual error made by the professor with a footnote that fails to prove the contention, that scholar is guilty of "research misconduct" and can be suspended or fired.
The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that "professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas." ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”)
ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses. Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.”
Compelling action is also the goal of David Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights legislation. In March, Horowitz testified before the Kansas legislature. He denounced women’s studies programs as a violation of academic freedom and standards. According to Horowitz, because the University of Kansas Women’s Studies program express a goal of educating students about “how and why gender inequality developed and is maintained in the United States and in our global society,” it should be banned. Since Horowitz thinks there may not be any gender inequality in the world, women’s studies programs “can in no way be justified as taxpayer-supported programs.”
Considering how effortlessly Horowitz misreads the meaning of academic freedom under the AAUP standards, one can only imagine how effectively he could distort "research misconduct" to pursue his crusade against left-wing professors like those in his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. If Horowitz fails to get professors fired for talking about politics in their classes, he could try to have them fired for expressing controversial views in their research.
That's the harrowing possibility raised by the irresponsible claims of the Colorado committee. They claim to be following the University of Colorado’s statement on Misconduct in Research and Authorship, which defines research misconduct as “fabrication, falsification, plagiarism and other forms of misappropriation of ideas, or additional practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly accepted in the research community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research."
Because Colorado’s policy explicitly exempts "honest error," the Colorado committee turned into a kind of character police. Noting their dislike for Churchill’s "attitude," the committee members seem to have concluded without the slightest evidence that Churchill intentionally deceived readers with his footnotes.
For example, the Colorado committee concluded, “Professor Churchill repeatedly and deliberately cited the General Allotment Act of 1887 and once cited Janet McDowell’s book for the details of historical and legal propositions that he advances. Because both sources in fact contradict his claims, this is a form of falsification of evidence.” This logic is repeated in four out of the seven charges against Churchill. The Colorado committee’s basis for the claim of fabrication depends upon a fundamentally narrow-minded view of what a footnote should be.
However, footnotes serve many purposes. A footnote is not always definitive proof of the sentence being noted. It is common practice for footnotes to be used in order to refer readers to general works related to the period being discussed (as Churchill does), and even to cite works which provide a different or contradictory view of the era.
In my forthcoming book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I include a quote by former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer admonishing Americans to “watch what they say.” I have a footnote listing a news report about the statement. But I also include in the footnote a reference to a letter to The New York Times by Fleischer explaining why he is being misinterpreted. I do not comment on this claim, because every word in my footnotes counts against the word limit for the book, and I don’t want to waste precious space scrutinizing some political hack’s line of bullshit. But I thought readers might want to look at a different view.
According to the Colorado committee, I have committed "research misconduct." My footnote includes a source contradicting my interpretation of the comment. On the other hand, if I simply omitted the reference to Fleischer’s letter, and deprived readers of a chance to find a view disagreeing with my perspective, I would be a perfectly fine scholar in the committee’s eyes.
There is no reputable source for the Colorado committee’s claim that footnotes cannot include sources who disagree with the author. In order to evaluate the charge of research misconduct, the Colorado committee proclaimed that it would use the American Historical Association “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” as “a general point of reference.” However, the AHA statement is not intended to be a basis for punishing professors. Indeed, if anything the AHA justifies Churchill’s approach by urging scholars to be “explicit, thorough, and generous in acknowledging one’s intellectual debts.” Nor does the AHA statement include anything about the proper use of footnotes which would justify a charge of falsification.
The Colorado committee provides a footnote quoting the AHA statement that “historians pride themselves on the accuracy with which they use and document sources. The sloppier their apparatus, the harder it is for other historians to trust their work.” But there a vast difference between saying that lousy footnotes will affect your credibility and claiming that lousy footnotes can justify revocation of tenure.
In other words, the Colorado committee “proved” that Churchill was guilty of research misconduct for providing footnotes that did not support his claims by citing a footnote which did not support its claims. It seems strange that a committee which provides a thorough and fascinating account of the historical minutiae surrounding an 1837 smallpox epidemic would somehow fail to do any research on the meaning of fabrication and research misconduct. The Colorado committee’s shoddy work on the meaning of fabrication and misconduct stands in sharp contrast to its extensive research of the charges against Churchill.
The problem is that when a policy largely developed to address scientific misconduct is applied to the humanities, it must be properly interpreted. For example, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology dismissed a professor last year for research misconduct, it was because he literally fabricated data. No one has ever accused Churchill of fabricating data (such as making up historical sources). He is accused of making broad claims, without adequate evidence, which are probably wrong. That is lousy historical research, but it’s not research misconduct by any stretch of the imagination.
There is some evidence to find Churchill guilty on other charges of ghostwriting and plagiarism. But using footnotes as an excuse to fire Churchill makes the entire committee’s findings look like political expediency to remove an embarrassment to the University of Colorado. By turning every case of bad research into research misconduct, the Colorado committee threatens to expose the entire academic system to a political witch hunt. In an era when the right-wing is already targeting college professors for their extramural statements and political comments in class, this radical revision of research standards could mark the next step in the war on academic freedom.
Ward Churchill should be fired for academic misconduct -- that’s the decision made by the interim chancellor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, after receiving a report from a faculty committee concluding that Churchill is guilty of falsification, fabrication and plagiarism. That report shows that, even under difficult political conditions, it’s possible to do a good job dealing with charges of research misconduct. The Colorado report on Churchill provides a striking contrast to the flawed 2002 Emory University report on Michael Bellesiles, the historian of gun culture in America, who was found guilty of “falsification” in one table. The contrast says a lot about the ways universities deal with outside pressure demanding that particular professors be fired.
Churchill is the Native American activist and professor of ethnic studies at Colorado who famously declared that some of the people killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were “little Eichmanns.” In the furor that followed, the governor of Colorado demanded that the university fire Churchill; the president of the university defended his right to free speech, but then -- facing a series of controversies -- resigned. Churchill’s critics then raised charges that his writings were full of fabrications and plagiarism, and the university appointed a committee of faculty members to evaluate seven charges of specific instances of research misconduct. Their 124-page report, released on May 16, concluded that Churchill’s misconduct was serious and was not limited to a few isolated cases, but was part of a pattern. The panel divided on an appropriate penalty: one recommended revoking his tenure and dismissing him, two recommended suspension without pay for five years, while two others recommended that he be suspended without pay for two years.
One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan, an Indian tribe living in what is now North Dakota, who were decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1837. The Mandan, Churchill argues, provide one example of how American Indians were the victims of genocide. In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?," he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim. Nevertheless Churchill repeated his argument in six publications over a period of ten years, during which his claims about official U.S. policy toward the Mandan “generally became more extreme.” He refused to admit to the committee that his claims were not supported by the evidence he cited. Therefore, the committee concluded, Churchill was guilty of “a pattern of deliberate academic misconduct involving falsification [and] fabrication.” The panel members came to similar conclusions regarding five other charges.
The five-member Colorado committee worked under a cloud: The only reason they were asked to look at his academic writing was that powerful political voices outside the university wanted Churchill fired for his statement about 9/11. After the university refused to fire him for statements protected by the First Amendment, his critics raised charges of research misconduct, hoping to achieve their original goal. What are the responsibilities of an investigating committee in such a highly-charged political situation?
In this respect the Ward Churchill case has some striking similarities to the case Michael Bellesiles, who was an Emory University historian when he wrote Arming America, a book that won considerable scholarly praise when it first appeared -- and that aroused a storm of outrage because of its argument that our current gun culture was not created by the Founding Fathers. Pro-gun activists demanded that Emory fire Bellesiles, raising charges of research misconduct. Historians too sharply criticized some of his research. Emory responded by appointing a committee that found “evidence of falsification;" Bellesiles then resigned his tenured position.
Although the cases have some striking similarities, starting with the political pressures that gave rise to the investigations and concluding with findings of “falsification,” the differences are significant and revealing. The Emory committee concluded that Bellesiles’ research into probate records was “unprofessional and misleading” as well as “superficial and thesis-driven,” and that his earlier explanations of errors “raise doubts about his veracity." But the panel found “evidence of falsification” only on one page: Table 1, “Percentage of probate inventories listing firearms.” They did not find that he had “fabricated data.” The “falsification” occurred when Bellesiles omitted two years from the table, which covered almost a century -- 1765 to 1859. The two years, 1774 and 1775, would have shown more guns, evidence against his thesis that Americans had few guns before the Civil War.
But the Emory committee failed to consider how significant this omission was for the book as a whole. In fact the probate research criticized by the committee was referred to in only a handful of paragraphs in Bellesiles’s 400 page book, and he cited the problematic Table 1 only a couple of times. If Bellesiles had omitted all of the probate data that the committee (and others) criticized, the book’s argument would still have been supported by a wide variety of other relevant evidence that the committee did not find to be fraudulent.
The Colorado committee, in contrast, made it a point to go beyond the narrow charges they were asked to adjudicate. They acknowledged that the misconduct they found concerned “no more than a few paragraphs” in an “extensive body of academic work.” They explicitly raised the question of “why so much weight is being assigned to these particular pieces.” They went on to evaluate the place of the misconduct they found in Churchill’s “broader interpretive stance,” and presented evidence of “patterns of academic misconduct” that were intentional and widespread.
The two committees also took dramatically different approaches to the all-important question of sanctions. At Emory the committee members never said what they considered an appropriate penalty for omitting 1774 and 1775 from his Table 1. They did not indicate whether any action by Emory was justified -- or whether the harsh criticism Bellesiles received from within the profession was penalty enough.
The Colorado committee members, in contrast, devoted four single-spaced pages to “The Question of Sanctions.” They insisted that the university “resist outside interference and pressures” when a final decision on Churchill was made. Those favoring the smallest penalty, suspension without pay for two years, declared they were “troubled by the circumstances under which these allegations have been made,” and concerned that dismissal “would have an adverse effect on the ability of other scholars to conduct their research with due freedom.” These important issues needed to be raised, and they were.
Finally, the Colorado committee explicitly discussed the political context of their work, while the Emory committee failed to do so. The Colorado report opened with a section titled simply “Context.” It said “The committee is troubled by the origins of, and skeptical concerning the motives for, the current investigation.” The key, they said, was that their investigation “was only commenced after, and perhaps in some response to, the public attack on Professor Churchill for his controversial publications.” But, they said, because the claims of academic misconduct were serious, they needed to be investigated fully and fairly.
The basic problem with the Emory report was that it accepted the terms of debate set by others, and thereby abdicated responsibility to work independently and to consider the significance of the findings. Their inquiry should have been as sweeping as the stakes were high; instead they limited their examination to a few pages in a great big book. Colorado shows how to avoid the kind of tunnel vision that marred the Emory report. The report on Ward Churchill demonstrates that charges of research misconduct that arise in a heated political environment can be addressed with intelligence and fairness.
Last week, a scholarly group known as the Future of Minority Studies held a colloquium at Stanford University, drawing something in the neighborhood of a hundred participants. And the term "neighborhood" seems very fitting. The spirit of the gathering was unusual, even though the schedule and format were, in many ways, very typical of academic conferences. (Audio of my interviews with Satya P. Mohanty and Paula Moya, organizers of the conference, is available here.)
There was a keynote address, and a series of panels during which papers were read. Everybody wore nametags, of course, establishing one's right to be there as a member of some (more or less prominent) institution. Yet the event never had that stressful, desperate quality you come to expect at academic get-togethers. The cultural politics of prestige seemed out of commission.
That famous modality of ego-maintenance known as "the nametag glance" did not have the furtive and worried edge it normally does. The discussions following the papers and in the aisles afterward seemed remarkably open and devoid of theoretical one-upmanshup. In the course of two whole days, I never saw anybody grovel.
The gathering was drawn from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, and also included people with varying degrees of ability or disability, and a balanced array of gender identities and sexual orientations. Social diversity was only part of it. Participants also hailed from regions of the humanities and social sciences that otherwise tend not to stay in touch: literary critics, historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and probably a few more fields besides.
The impressive thing is not just that communication proved possible (friendly, even) but the prevailing intellectual attitude: a belief that collaboration is possible across the usual barriers, disciplinary and otherwise. It is easy enough to affirm this in principle. Only when you see it in being translated into demeanor and face-to-face conversation does it seem meaningful.
There is a theory behind the Future of Minority Studies project –- one with a name, in fact, though not a very catchy one. It is called "postpositivist realism." Henceforth let it be abbreviated as PPR, given the brevity of life. Some discussion of PPR has taken place in New Literary History and Diacritics -- journals prominent in literary studies. But PPR is not a dominant or even particularly well-known force within that field (as yet anyway). Its influence has grown quietly, in a somewhat roundabout way, through disciplinary exchanges and multicultural alliances.
Strictly speaking, the first work on PPR was done by philosophers of science (as discussed here). Its implications for cultural analysis were first discussed by Mohanty, a professor of English at Cornell University, in a series of papers he began publishing in the early 1990s. In a conversation earlier this summer, he recalled having been very strongly drawn to structuralist and poststructuralist thinkers at the start of his career, only to find that the critical perspectives they offered were hardening into an orthodoxy.
In particular, a dominant trend in critical theory was the rejection of the concept of objectivity as something that rests on a more or less naive epistemology: a simple belief that "facts" exist in some pristine state untouched by "theory." To avoid being naive, the dutiful student learned to insist that, after all, all facts come to us embedded in various assumptions about the world. Hence (ta da!) "objectivity" exists only within an agreed-upon framework. It is relative to that framework. So it isn’t really objective....
What Mohanty found in his readings of the philosophy of science were much less naïve, and more robust, conceptions of objectivity than the straw men being thrashed by young Foucauldians at the time. We are not all prisoners of our paradigms. Some theoretical frameworks permit the discovery of new facts and the testing of interpretations or hypotheses. Others do not. In short, objectivity is a possibility and a goal -- not just in the natural sciences, but for social inquiry and humanistic research as well.
Mohanty’s major theoretical statement on PPR arrived in 1997 with Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics (Cornell University Press). Because poststructurally inspired notions of cultural relativism are usually understood to be left wing in intention, there is often a tendency to assume that hard-edged notions of objectivity must have conservative implications. But Mohanty’s work went very much against the current.
"Since the lowest common principle of evaluation is all that I can invoke," wrote Mohanty, complaining about certain strains of multicultural relativism, "I cannot -- and consequently need not -- think about how your space impinges on mine or how my history is defined together with yours. If that is the case, I may have started by declaring a pious political wish, but I end up denying that I need to take you seriously."
PPR did not require throwing out the multicultural baby with the relativist bathwater, however. It meant developing ways to think about cultural identity and its discontents. A number of Mohanty's students and scholarly colleagues have pursued the implications of postpositive identity politics. I've written elsewhere about Moya, an associate professor of English at Stanford University who has played an important role in developing PPR ideas about identity. And one academic critic has written an interesting review essay on early postpositive scholarship -- highly recommended for anyone with a hankering for more cultural theory right about now.
Not everybody with a sophisticated epistemological critique manages to turn it into a functioning think tank -- which is what started to happen when people in the postpositive circle started organizing the first Future of Minority Studies meetings at Cornell and Stanford in 2000. Others followed at the University of Michigan and at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Two years ago FMS applied for a grant from Mellon Foundation, receiving $350,000 to create a series of programs for graduate students and junior faculty interested in minority studies, and for scholars from minority backgrounds who work in the humanities and the humanistic social sciences.
The FMS Summer Institute, first held in 2005, is a two-week seminar with about a dozen participants -- most of them ABD or just starting their first tenure-track jobs. The institute is followed by a much larger colloquium (the part I got to attend last week). As schools of thought in the humanities go, the postpositivists are remarkably light on the in-group jargon. Someone emerging from the Institute does not, it seems, need a translator to be understood by the uninitated. Nor was there a dominant theme at the various panels I heard.
Rather, the distinctive quality of FMS discourse seems to derive from a certain very clear, but largely unstated, assumption: It can be useful for scholars concerned with issues particular to one group to listen to the research being done on problems pertaining to other groups.
That sounds pretty simple. But there is rather more behind it than the belief that we should all just try to get along. Diversity (of background, of experience, of disciplinary formation) is not something that exists alongside or in addition to whatever happens in the "real world." It is an inescapable and enabling condition of life in a more or less democratic society. And anyone who wants it to become more democratic, rather than less, has an interest in learning to understand both its inequities and how other people are affected by them.
A case in point might be the findings discussed by Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford, in a panel on Friday. His paper reviewed some of the research on "identity contingencies," meaning "things you have to deal with because of your social identity." One such contingency is what he called "stereotype threat" -- a situation in which an individual becomes aware of the risk that what you are doing will confirm some established negative quality associated with your group. And in keeping with the threat, there is a tendency to become vigilant and defensive.
Steele did not just have a string of concepts to put up on PowerPoint. He had research findings on how stereotype threat can affect education. The most striking involved results from a puzzle-solving test given to groups of white and black students. When the test was described as a game, the scores for the black students were excellent -- conspicuously higher, in fact, than the scores of white students. But in experiments where the very same puzzle was described as an intelligence test, the results were reversed. The black kids scores dropped by about half, while the graph for their white peers spiked.
The only variable? How the puzzle was framed -- with distracting thoughts about African-American performance on IQ tests creating "stereotype threat" in a way that game-playing did not.
Steele also cited an experiment in which white engineering students were given a mathematics test. Just beforehand, some groups were told that Asian students usually did really well on this particular test. Others were simply handed the test without comment. Students who heard about their Asian competitors tended to get much lower scores than the control group.
Extrapolate from the social psychologist’s experiments with the effect of a few innocent-sounding remarks -- and imagine the cumulative effect of more overt forms of domination. The picture is one of a culture that is profoundly wasteful, even destructive, of the best abilities of many of its members.
"It’s not easy for minority folks to discuss these things," Satya Mohanty told me on the final day of the colloquium. "But I don't think we can afford to wait until it becomes comfortable to start thinking about them. Our future depends on it. By ‘our’ I mean everyone’s future. How we enrich and deepen our democratic society and institutions depends on the answers we come up with now."
Portions of the Colloquium will be made available online. For updates, and more information on the Future of Minority Studies project, check the FMS Web site.
A version of the keynote speech from this year’s Colloquium, “Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the 21st Century Academy,” by Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, will appear soon at Inside Higher Ed.
The following essay was adapted from the author's keynote address at for the Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute Colloquium, at Stanford University last month. Last week, Scott McLemee explored the colloquium in Intellectual Affairs.
Preamble: What Keeps Chancellors Up at Night?
Two years ago I attended a conference of presidents in which among the many panel discussions on American Competitiveness (“The World is Flat” ), Federal Science Funding, The Future of the Humanities, and the like, was one panel entitled: “What Keeps Presidents and Chancellors Up at Night?” Expecting to hear a great deal about the arms race in intercollegiate athletics -- absolutely a genuine concern -- I was rather surprised to hear instead about multiculturalism and what might be called its associated “culture wars.”
Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised, as there had been so many high profile examples, from the public’s reaction to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigning the Qur’an as its first year shared reading to the media coverage of strife in Middle East studies at Columbia University. Moreover, I had just spent six years defending affirmative action at Michigan and three years in the midst of debates at Illinois on the campus mascot, Chief Illiniwek. Anyone in these positions long enough knows well that universities are like sponges for society’s tensions and that one way or another something will erupt on every campus that reflects the fraying of multicultural community and the state of “civil” society.
Whether it is in athletics or the student media, in the classroom or in campus organizations, tensions over religion, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, are powder kegs on our multicultural campuses -- as they are of course in our cities and towns. As one of my colleagues noted, conflicts, such as occurred at Duke recently, can happen on any one of our campuses in one form or another. At Syracuse, for example, we are overcoming the impact on our campus of the production of an entertainment television show, by a student-run station, that used caricatures of various groups as “humor.” As at Duke, when we go beyond finger pointing, these incidents alert us to our communal responsibilities, and to the work still to be done on our campuses and in our connected communities.
For not being surprised doesn’t mean we can stop talking about it. There is a crying need to take these kinds of incidents -- and they are indeed widespread -- seriously as symptoms of a society that is not comfortable with pluralism. I suggest that we address this state of affairs with the same deep thinking that we give to understanding how to respond to our increasingly “flat world,” for it is as much in our national interest. In fact, I suggest that thoughtful analyses of group dynamics and communal responsibility in a diverse society may actually help us better face the “flat world.” Instead of competitively fighting between ourselves for a shrinking piece of the pie -- whether in higher education or in our connected communities -- shouldn’t we learn to live and work together and find innovations that enlarge the pie? Wouldn’t that get us closer to fulfilling the agenda of universal human rights that lies at the foundation of a just and effective society?
Taking Groups Seriously
Many people’s reaction to these “culture wars” is to suggest that we all just turn our backs on groups altogether -- as when people call for a color-blind or culture-blind or gender-blind society. Not only do I see this as naïve (in the face of pervasive group dynamics and tensions), but also as missing the constructive role that groups must play in promoting a social justice agenda and building an effective multicultural community. Taking groups seriously can be constructive both for those who are on the “outside” trying to get in to a particular community and for those who are more securely established as insiders. This is especially true in a world full of insiders and outsiders -- and we all occupy both positions -- in which as outsiders we could benefit from seeing more personal possibilities (on the inside) and as insiders we could contribute by taking more social responsibility (for those outside). And, like it or not, we need to build effective multicultural communities to be competitive and just, so we better start taking groups seriously.
We first need to recognize some “facts” of social life and the pervasive disparities in our pluralistic, insider-outsider world, and find an avenue to constructively confront them. Here is where it helps to know something about the psychology of multiculturalism (and of insiders and outsiders) and to work with it, rather than remain oblivious to its powerful impact. For, in the midst of this fraying of community, and widening of the gap between those who belong and those who don’t, it is easy to miss the fundamental interdependence of individuals and community. Easy to miss the truth in the oft repeated notion that if we don’t all hang together we will all hang separately.
So, in the hopes of starting this discussion, I turn now, as a social psychologist and educator, but also as a chancellor in charge of a multicultural campus community, to consider why and how we go wrong in our group dynamics, and what we might do differently to face our challenges head on.
The Social Embedding of Individuality
To see how the social embedding of individual human potential -- which I will abbreviate from now on as “individuality” -- works, it is important to start from the premise that self-construals -- who we think we are and what we see as possible for our selves -- matter. But, we do not think about our selves in a social vacuum, either.
Our self-construals are embedded within and shaped by critical cultural practices and social organizations that constitute a matrix of opportunities and constraints in our daily lives. Over the long course of history, for example, numerous different cultures and societies have expressed more concern about the educational and career paths of boys than girls.
These self-construals are also embedded in a matrix of critical interpersonal relations through which we garner diagnostic input from other people about our selves. Other people serve as sources of social comparison, including those whom we take on as models or idols. Importantly, other people play a fundamental role in legitimating our selves -- as we are now and might possibly become -- especially those with some power over us, but also sometimes those peers who provide consensus information about similar experiences.
Social group memberships, particularly those organized around gender, race/ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, and nationality, constitute critical influences in most cultures on both the matrix of opportunities and constraints and the input received from others. Of course, individuals personalize their social identities (contrary to an essentialist view of identity politics), by accepting or rejecting group-based constraints and feedback, but nevertheless, their impact is pervasive.
Claude Steele’s elegant demonstrations of stereotype vulnerability document the pervasiveness of these group-based dynamics. For example, as he has shown in laboratory experiments at Stanford, the performance of high achieving women students, including those who consider themselves as analytically smart, can be undermined by simply and subtly invoking gender stereotypes with an off-hand comment about the test measuring analytic ability. There is nothing overt or “in your face” about these experimental manipulations, and certainly nothing that should over-ride a student’s own acknowledged individual performance history. Yet, it is hard to act as an individual, when the “group” lurks in the background.
And beyond the laboratory, our groups often don’t just lurk quietly in the background. This is a media culture in which there is relatively constant attention to and (perhaps inadvertent) promotion of group-based stereotypes of all sorts, in the sports and entertainment arenas, in politics, and, yes, even in the academy. Consider, for example, the flood of media coverage after Larry Summers questioned the capacity of women and girls to be stars in science and mathematics. Even, as in his case, when the marketing of group-based stereotypes comes unintentionally, those who are “marked” by highly visible and/or contested identities find them hard to ignore. Few women scientists had a choice of whether to be scrutinized under those conditions -- their individuality was swept into a tidal pool of issues defined by their “group.”
“Insiders” and “Outsiders” and the Social Embedding of Individuality
However, the social embedding of individuality varies importantly as a function of the “location” of one’s significant groups -- with respect to status, security, and power -- in a particular community. Those whose groups are less well-entrenched in a community -- “outsiders” -- will be more marked by and connected to their group(s) than will “insiders.” By contrast “insiders” operate more easily as “individuals” and feel both less connection to and less identified by their groups.
In turn, this different psychology of insiders and outsiders is readily apparent in different attitudes toward communal responsibility in a diverse and multicultural community. That is, as insiders, we take a great deal, cognitively and socially, for granted in daily life. We engage in cognitive egocentrism, using, for example, our own experience and assumptions as a road-map for making judgments about others, rarely taking into account that they may be operating with a different matrix of opportunities and constraints, and with less of a sense of individuality.
Most specifically, we underplay the level of scrutiny and constraint that is felt by an outsider when his or her group is even subtly or minimally invoked, not to mention derided. The degree to which outsiders’ identities are wrapped up in their group(s) seems almost irrational to an insider, prompting them to question the authenticity of outsider reactions. Frequently, for example, an outsider will be described as “over-reacting,” or being too “pc.” It is extremely difficult for an insider to imagine their individuality so intertwined with their group(s). They simply don’t live a life of “guilt by group association,” and so they are skeptical of and not particularly empathetic to those who do. In turn, by failing to recognize these constraints on individuality and on the freedom to dissociate from the group, insiders miss a lot about the social life of outsiders, and this is a critical impediment to interpersonal trust.
By contrast, the psychology of the insider at least with respect to his or her “visible” groups -- such as race or ethnicity or gender -- is much less explicit or “marked.” For the insider, groups are more about voluntary association, such that they can be held at an “arms length,” especially if something goes wrong. Since, as insiders, we each view ourselves largely as individual actors, it is relatively easy, in good conscience, to distance from the group’s mistakes or the culture of an organization. There is little or no “guilt by group association.” Others may have made a mistake, but “if I didn’t touch it, I didn’t do anything.” Moreover, the insider remains ever on guard against any ill-informed accusations that would implicate him or her in some unfair guilt by association with the (mistakes of others in the) group.
This psychology is, of course, perfectly rational and fair from an individualistic perspective, but not terribly good for building a community in which only some people feel disproportionately “marked” by their groups, unable to just walk away. Surely, we all want to avoid unfair individual blame, but at the same time we should feel some communal responsibility when an organization or group to which we belong ends up hurting others. This should be the case even when no harm was intended and you can’t imagine why they are hurt. This “arms length” relationship to group behavior is another critical impediment to facilitating a broad sense of fairness and interdependence in a diverse community.
“Epistemic Privilege” of the Outsider
While the insider’s gaze is generally away from the group, the outsider instead looks right at it with, what Satya Mohanty and others refer to as the “epistemic privilege of the oppressed.” Outsiders typically see how their group marks them, and how therefore social location matters for what they can do and how they can expect to be treated. Largely, this clarity of vision comes from being in a perpetual state of guardedness and uncertainty, examining the social landscape, always prepared for some group-based challenge.
By contrast, the challenges faced as an insider come less routinely, and relate more to individual comparisons or interactions, one on one, with peers, competitors, idols, and the like. What insiders rarely face head on is some group-based challenge -- direct or subtle -- that they see as constraining who they are or what they (as individuals) can do.
In other words, the outsider lives with the discomfort of epistemic privilege and the insider lives with the comfort of cognitive egocentrism, often oblivious to the effects of social location on others. And, the epistemic privilege of the outsider does not raise the probability of being heard by the insider.
The outsider always has a “theory” about social location in need of some validation. Like any theory, there are multiple avenues for validation. The outsider can spend time with other group members, sharing experiences and insights that provide some validation by consensus. Many of us remember the “consciousness raising” groups of the women’s movement as just such experiences. And we see powerful examples of the importance of consensus information in group affirmation all the time, including, for example, the social support that junior faculty give each other, the importance of professional identity group organizations (such as black journalists or women engineers), and the theme houses on college campuses.
These consensus-building experiences are very important and should never be under-estimated as part of the constructive role that groups can play when we take them seriously. However, precisely because the insiders in the community will likely remain blind to or skeptical of the conclusions of such discussions, other avenues of validation are needed. The outsider needs to be heard beyond the group, and the insider needs to listen to other groups.
How do we create a context for such inter-group dialogue in which the guardedness of the outsider can lessen and the insider can go beyond the egocentrism of individuality. As insiders, we each can listen -- and move toward communal responsibility -- when we get past an individualized framework to see the powerful role of groups in social life. When insiders begin to acknowledge that outsiders have little or no choice but to be seen through their groups then suspicion often evaporates, and the potential for collaboration and community grows. This is when multicultural education is at its best, and when colleges and universities can play a very constructive role in turning the tables of epistemic privilege.
In this regard, it is worth repeating that contrary to an essentialist version of identity-politics, we are all both insiders and outsiders in our lives. That is, the experiences of group-based vulnerability, on one hand, and individuality, on the other, are shared, even if they are distributed differently for different groups or individuals. This is not to say that some dimensions of social organization, such as race/ethnicity or gender in our society, don’t powerfully tip the scale toward constraint over opportunity, group over individual. It is simply to say that the ground is ripe, even for those frequently on the inside, to engage attention to social inequality, in part by turning the tables on whose insights matter and who is listening.
Giving Voice to Outsiders and Asking Insiders to Listen
But, how do we do this in the midst of inter-group competition and suspicion? How do we do it when our campuses and our communities more broadly are quite divided, with many insiders and outsiders, and two strikingly different psychologies about group life?
I would point to two types of multicultural “projects” that can help bridge these two psychologies, while also creating more educational opportunity and more scholarly innovations that matter to the world. One project is internally-focused on constructing opportunities for intra- and inter-group dialogue that capitalize on the relevance of group-based vulnerabilities for virtually everyone. The other project is outwardly focused on connecting the campus -- and its diverse group of scholars and students -- to our broader communities, capitalizing in that case on faculty interest in public scholarship and students’ interests in volunteerism. In each project, however, the central ingredient to success will be to take multicultural groups seriously, unpacking rather than covering up disparities in voice and opportunity and building communal responsibility.
As to the “internal” project of facilitating intra- and inter-group dialogue that address social inequalities head on, this work is, of course, at the core of the expertise of those gathered here and central to the agenda of the Future of Minorities Studies. In this work, and I would point to the curriculum developed at the University of Michigan by Patricia Gurin and her colleagues as a prototype -- there is a commitment to exposing inter-group inequality through group-based experiences that individuals can share. So, for example, women in a dialogue on gender might find consensus support for their experience of not always being listened to by men. At the same time, the men in the group might begin to listen to these observations and take them seriously, even if they believe there was no “intent” to discriminate. Sometimes, the tables turn in a dialogue, so that the experience of being “marked” by one’s group can be felt even by those who more often than not operate with more individuality in their lives. These moments of “epistemic privilege” for the insider -- when our own group-based vulnerability intersects with the consensually expressed views of the outsiders -- can make us more receptive to seeing the situation of outsiders in a new and more empathic light. When the tables turn, common ground, respect and shared responsibility emerge.
At that point, it is also critical to relate these personal experiences to the pervasive social inequalities that attach to some groups -- and therefore to their members -- in particularly powerful ways in our society, and therefore also on our campuses. Through this mixture of the personal and the general, in narratives and in empirical work, it is possible to begin to unpack how for some people, there is often “guilt by group association,” whereas for others, communal responsibility is easy to keep at “arm’s length.”
To make a real difference, however, these dialogues on the power of groups and the effects of social location -- the different psychologies of outsiders and insiders -- must reach far across a campus. While there is little doubt that some group-based vulnerabilities are more pernicious and pervasive than others -- and certainly race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and disability fall in this category -- the framework here can be applied broadly and in helpful ways. Many campuses, for example, worry about the kinds of mentoring given to their junior faculty -- in whom they have a substantial investment for the future. I would suggest that this same analysis can be applied constructively to the experiences of untenured versus tenured faculty, and especially if at the same time one considers the issues confronting women and junior faculty of color. Taking this approach one step further, I believe that academic leaders -- including chancellors, deans and department chairs -- can profit from a better understanding of the outsider experiences of particular groups of faculty, staff, and students, and particular disciplines, such as minority studies, for example. It is not at all uncommon on campuses to see the tell-tale signs of insiders and outsiders, each with “good intentions,” talking past each other -- operating with different expectations from different psychologies. We can do something about this if we take on this multicultural campus project.
Connecting to Communities and Turning the Epistemic Table
The complementary project that I see for universities is an external one, in which we forge outward-looking connections to diverse communities, working on the pressing issues of our times -- from failing schools to environmental degradation to inter-religious conflict.
When universities start collaborating with their connected communities (at home and abroad) on the most pressing issues of the day, I have seen the tables turn in ways that benefit both our innovations and the quality of our multicultural community. Why does this happen? I believe the answer lies first in the nature of the problems to be solved now and the connected question of who becomes the expert. It is hard, for example, to make progress on environmental sustainability in an urban ecosystem without addressing questions of environmental justice, and whose voice do we need to listen to in that case? How do we tackle the urban epidemic of diabetes, even if we develop a better understanding through genomics of the disease itself, without contextualizing its spread within the broader questions of race disparities in health? Wouldn’t we understand the genesis of inter-religious conflict better if we engaged with refugee communities in our own cities and towns? It is virtually impossible to find a problem of major importance to our society in which the insights of a diverse, multicultural community would not be very valuable to the solutions.
Additionally, there is a growing cadre of faculty -- including many women and faculty of color -- extending well beyond the social sciences into the arts, humanities, sciences and professions, who are increasingly doing scholarly work that matters to communities. This engagement can also capitalize on the robust presence of service-learning curriculum and volunteerism on campuses. For oddly, interest in service-learning and volunteerism is very high, despite the individualism and detachment, even communal “irresponsibility,” that I described earlier. This engagement of students and faculty in community-based work, and work around the world, can provide a launching pad for sustained attention to questions of social inequality and multicultural community.
It also does something else dramatic. It turns the tables on who has voice, and who can benefit by listening. It reverses roles and the epistemic privilege -- perhaps even its enlightening discomfort -- spreads to a different set of actors. As George Sanchez has suggested, those who often feel relegated to the outside of our campus communities, such as faculty and students of color, emerge with more expertise and authentic voice in this agenda, as they often begin with more “standing” in the surrounding community and on the issues at hand. The social/academic landscape begins to change when the insights of outsiders -- either from the community outside or on the academic margins -- begin to be heard.
This reversal of perspective (or social location) not only prepares everyone for doing the work of the nation, but as importantly it shines some light on inequality. It shows both the strength of diverse groups and cultures and constraints on them. In turn, this is a lesson with powerful ramifications back on campus. As we engage with our communities, we also recognize the stresses of the broader world as they are “brought to” the campus, and then feel some fundamental responsibility to address them as part of building a productive campus community.
Rewarding Scholarship in Action
And when we take that responsibility seriously, then new scholarly and educational vistas open too. At Syracuse, for example, our academic vision is based on the notion of "Scholarship in Action," where interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students engage with communities of experts on issues that matter, such as disabilities, shrinking cities, failing schools, neighborhood entrepreneurship, religious pluralism, or environmental sustainability and the urban ecosystem.
These collaborations, like our Partnership for Better Education with the Syracuse City Schools, create a shared mission that breaks down barriers, between campus and community, and embeds the traditional diversity agenda within the academic work of the institution, and in turn embeds that work in the public good.
To make the Scholarship in Action agenda work, however, we must change our reward structure for faculty who do this collaborative work. We must, for example, support faculty members who want to do public scholarship, with results that may be published in academic, peer-reviewed journals, but may also result in network news specials, digital modules for public libraries, or museum exhibitions. We must find the right incentives for a diverse faculty to engage with communities of experts on innovation that matters, and to that end, many institutions, including Syracuse, are re-evaluating their tenure and promotion criteria. A tenure-team initiative, organized by Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life, a 70-institution consortium, is gathering best practices on how to promote standards of excellence in public scholarship. Momentum is growing to take public scholarship seriously.
In my view, investing in excellence in public scholarship in our multicultural communities is a pathway toward bringing questions of diversity and diverse students and faculty from the margins of our institution to the center. As we work on innovation that matters -- from the science needed to remediate environmental pollution in our cities and waterways to the art that gives voice to refugees resettling in America -- we learn to value diversity and the insights of diverse others. We also learn to listen harder to each other, dropping a bit of the egocentric covering of our own positions. We see the observations of our peers and colleagues within the broader social landscape in which they are shaped, and we take more responsibility for changing that landscape. We come to see that multicultural progress will be shared, but only if we also take groups seriously.
Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the Lessons of Citizenship
At the end of the day, the hope of these two kinds of projects -- internal multicultural dialogue and external multicultural collaboration -- is that we all come to value diverse groups, not just diverse individuals. We will do this by expanding the lesson of citizenship from one purely about individual rights to one about connectivity and responsibility -- and the social embedding of individuality. We’ll learn that we are all in this together, and we can’t just make creating opportunity someone else’s project. If this works, then I believe that, at least in this regard, presidents will sleep at night, and, more importantly, universities will make a difference in promoting social justice and universal human rights.
Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Syracuse University. Her keynote address in full is available online. A video of the address is available on the institute's Web site.