Multicultural madness in education

March 28, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON -- The ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit concerning affirmative action in the admissions process at the University of Texas Law School may or may not be momentous. Unless and until it is appealed to and affirmed by the Supreme Court, it applies only to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But if it is affirmed, its significance will transcend constitutional law.

The dynamite in the circuit court's ruling is the assertion that racial preferences can never be justified as a means of achieving "diversity." This means affirmative action policies, often referred to as "race-based remedies," must be just that -- remedial, narrowly tailored to correct specific discrimination by the particular institution, not by society generally.

The diversity rationale for affirmative action has served the double purpose of broadening the racial spoils system by severing it from mere remediation, and making it permanent by putting it in the service of an endless project.

But the deeper significance of the cult of "cultural" diversity in higher education is that it denotes an aggressive ideology concerning the meaning of culture, the aims of education and the merits of the United States.

It is serendipitous that the circuit court's ruling coincides with the publication, in The Public Interest quarterly, of Clifford Orwin's essay "All Quiet on the (post)Western Front?" Mr. Orwin, an American political scientist at the University of Toronto, unpacks from "diversity" the full agenda of multiculturalism.

Before the ascendancy in academic circles of what Mr. Orwin calls the relativistic understanding of culture, the idea of culture was connected to the idea of intellectual cultivation, which is a difficult attainment, not a democratic entitlement.

But, he says, cultural relativism asserts that every "people" (nowadays this means every racial, ethnic or other group organized around a grievance) has a culture, understood as the totality of its social practices, and all cultures are equal in the sense that there are no neutral principles -- no principles that are not themselves mere emanations of a culture -- for evaluating them.

Multiculturalism is a fact: Americans have various racial and ethnic backgrounds and experiences. But multiculturalism as a policy is not, Mr. Orwin argues, primarily a response to that fact.

Rather, it is an ideology, the core tenet of which is this: Because all standards for judging cultures are themselves culture-bound, it is wrong to "privilege" Western culture, and right to tailor university admissions and curricula to rectify the failure to extend proper "recognition" and "validation" to other cultures.

The professor says this "inclination to treat students ascriptively rather than as individuals" translates into the right of ever-more recondite "cultures" (for example, "gays and lesbians of color") to "construct a playground of their own at university expense"a course of their own, a department, a dormitory.

Because supposedly "marginalized" cultures are defined in opposition to the oppressive dominant culture, Mr. Orwin says multiculturalism has less to do with the serious study of other cultures than with promoting a particular interpretation of American culture.

Efficient engine

As a result, "multiculturalism is not ecumenical but adversarial." And "one will rarely encounter a more efficient engine of intellectual sameness than this ideology which celebrates difference."

Multiculturalism does not mean the replacement of the familiar by the strange. Rather, says Mr. Orwin, it means the replacement of the strange by the familiar as popular culture gains in panache as a subject of supposedly serious study.

In contrast, old books have two defects: they are old and they are books. Being old, they are mere representations of power relations (all works of the mind are merely such representations) in irrelevant social orders. And because there are no permanent standards, it is fallacious to think that old things can be what Orwin calls "permanent beacons for thoughtful human beings." Being books, they require reading. This explains "the aversion of today's students to reading."

All this may seem distant from the question of the unconstitutionality of different law school admissions standards for different races. But behind the seemingly bland and benign celebration of "diversity" there simmers an ideology of disparagement regarding this nation, and an agenda of what the circuit court calls "racial social engineering." The full resonance of the court's ruling could make the ruling an event as important as the presidential election.

George Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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