We are all ethnics

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

May 15, 1991|By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

I RECENTLY asked the dean of a prestigious liberal arts college if his school would ever have, as Berkeley has, a 70 percent non-white enrollment.

"Never," he replied. "That would completely alter our identity as a center of the liberal arts."

The assumption that there is a deep connection between the shape of a college's curriculum and the ethnic composition of its students reflects a disquieting trend in education.

Political representation has been confused with the "representation" of various ethnic identities in the curriculum.

The cultural right wing, threatened by demographic changes and the ensuing demands for curricular change, has retreated to intellectual HenryLouisGates Jr.protectionism, arguing for TC great and inviolable "Western tradition," which contains the seeds, fruit and flowers of the very best thought or uttered in history. (Typically, Mortimer Adler has ventured that blacks "wrote no good books.")

Meanwhile, the cultural left demands changes to accord with population shifts in gender and ethnicity. Both are wrongheaded.

I am just as concerned that so many of my colleagues feel that the rationale for a diverse curriculum depends on the latest Census Bureau report as I am that those opposed see pluralism as forestalling the possibility of a communal "American" identity.

To them the study of our diverse cultures must lead to "tribalism" and "fragmentation."

The cultural diversity movement arose partly because of the fragmentation of society by ethnicity, class and gender. But to make the cultural diversity movement the culprit for this fragmentation is to mistake effect for cause.

A curriculum that reflects the achievements of the world's great cultures, not merely the West's, is not "politicized." Rather it situates the West as one of a community of civilizations. After all, culture is always a conversation among different voices.

To insist we "master our own culture" before learning others -- as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has proposed -- only defers the vexed question: What gets to count as "our" culture?

What has passed as "common culture" has been an Anglo-American regional culture, masking itself as universal.

Significantly different cultures sought refuge underground.

Writing in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois expressed his dream of a high culture that would transcend the color line: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not."

But the dream was not open to all.

"Is this the life you grudge us," he concluded, "O knightly America?"

For Du Bois the humanities were a conduit into a republic of letters enabling escape from racism and ethnic chauvinism.

Yet no one played a more crucial role than he in excavating the long buried heritage of Africans and African-Americans.

The fact of one's ethnicity, for any American of color, is never neutral: One's public treatment, and public behavior, are shaped in large part by one's perceived ethnic identity, just as by one's gender.

To demand that Americans shuck their cultural heritages and homogenize into a "universal" WASP culture is to dream of an America in cultural white face, and that just won't do.

So it's only when we're free to explore the complexities of our hyphenated culture that we can discover what a genuinely common American culture might actually look like.

Is multiculturalism un-American? Herman Melville didn't think so. As Melville wrote: "We are not a narrow tribe, no . . . We are not a nation, so much as a world."

We're all ethnics; the challenge of transcending ethnic chauvinism is one we all face. We've entrusted our schools with the fashioning and refashioning of a democratic polity. That's why schooling has always been a matter of political judgment. But in a nation that has theorized itself as plural from its inception, schools have a very special task.

Our society won't survive without the values of tolerance, and cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural understanding.

The challenge facing America will be the shaping of a truly common public culture, one responsive to the long-silenced cultures of color.

If we relinquish the ideal of America as a plural nation, we've abandoned the very experiment America represents. That is too great a price to pay.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. assumes the post of W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the humanities at Harvard on July 1.

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