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Carrying the Conversation Forward: Revisiting the Culture and Diversity Petition Debate

Carrying the Conversation Forward: Revisiting the Culture and Diversity Petition Debate


By Tim Lindsay and Benjamin Gee As many of our readers know, the last issue of The Spectator featured an article titled “Indoctrination: The Real Goal of the Culture and Diversity Petition.” This piece inspired a sweeping and varied set of reactions from both within the Washington and Lee community and beyond. We are excited about the interest expressed by W&L students, faculty and alumni, a testament to the great respect W&L holds for critical dialogue. You will find the original article and readers’ comments by searching the digital archives on The Spectator’s website. In the wake of the conversation inspired by the article, we feel compelled to carry on the conversation and address responses from our readership. The Spectator’s wish is to extend this important debate on the educational and political values at W&L. This article addresses the arguments raised by the original article on the addition of a Culture and Diversity FDR that appeared in The Spectator’s previous issue and responds to points raised by readers, including the following:

    If many of our greatest writers - including Plato, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche - place an emphasis on issues of gender/sexuality/race, then why would the study of those subjects be considered less important than the study of the authors themselves?

This question deserves a thorough answer. Firstly, the study of diverse topics is important, and should be encouraged as a wholesome academic and intellectual endeavor. Any philosophical conflict we express towards the C&D FDR does not come from a concern with encouraging and respecting diversity studies, but in making the learning of such topics mandatory. This is a subtle difference, but crucial.

Many of the most prominent writers in the Western Canon pondered issues of gender, sexuality and race in their writings. However, Plato, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and others do not remain fixtures of the Liberal Arts just because of their thoughts on sexuality, race, or gender. On the contrary, they remain for their universal scope and influence on history and culture - all aspects of history and culture. In order to best learn from these monumental figures, it would be more beneficial to study them in a broader sense rather than limiting one’s scope. Exploring the life of a historical character from multiple angles enhances one’s understanding of their work, and sexuality, gender, race and other factors should no doubt be included in this discussion.

In the Symposium, Plato elucidates his vision of love, a vision including both heterosexual and homosexual elements. This display of Plato’s contemplation of diversity issues is cited by proponents of the C&D Petition as evidence for the singular importance of those subjects. However, Plato’s influence extends far beyond the Symposium. His Timaeus inspired writers like Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus, advancing the development of Christian theology. The Republic’s discussion of Government played a significant role in the birth of the United States Constitution, the governmental model for numerous contemporary democracies and republics around the world. In the growth of philosophy, the British logician Alfred North Whitehead once famously remarked, “The safest characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” The writer’s value derives not from his thoughts on any one topic, but from all of them – his full investigation into fundamental questions of human behavior, society, and the universe. Philosophy students taking a Plato class inevitably encounter his thoughts on human sexuality, but they also critically gain knowledge of Plato’s entire universal vision. Studying an author to his or her fullest extent should always be preferable to issue-driven selectivity, regardless of the issues driving that process.

This leads to another important clarification. If many of the greatest writers in the Western Canon incorporate diversity issues into their work, which both proponents and opponents of the C&D Petition agree that they do, then why must Washington and Lee University compel its students to take explicit diversity issue classes where the Liberal Arts already satisfy this requirement? Many W&L students currently satisfy the literature FDR requirement by taking an English class. One of the common offerings for the literature requirement is a Shakespeare course. When reading and analyzing Shakespeare, his works resound with diverse persons and perspectives. Othello inquires tragically into gender relations and racial strife; Twelfth Night abounds with love affairs involving both inadvertent and conscious homosexuality; The Merchant of Venice’s Jewish villain Shylock both overturns and affirms anti-Semitic attitudes in his native Venice; As You Like It’s dauntless heroine Rosalind overwhelms male-dominated power structures with indomitable wit; and on it goes, interminably. Issues of race, gender, and sexuality each find a full and eloquent expression in Shakespeare’s works, ceaselessly challenging the viewer and reader to reevaluate their previous cultural suppositions. However, a solid course in Shakespeare does not satisfy the C&D Petition’s defined requirement for cultural learning, despite the evident cultural understanding gained from a general study of the playwright. This discrepancy also applies to dozens of other authors across genre and time: Homer and Ovid through George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson and beyond. The Petition does not take into account the already-existing propensity of the humanities to inspire deeper cultural understanding on its own, whether in Social Science, Literature, History or Language.

“This Article [‘Indoctrination: The Real Goal of the Culture and Diversity Petition’] is exactly why we need a C&D requirement at Washington and Lee University.”

This interesting counter-argument may be small, but its strong implications should be addressed. In the opinion of those who support this statement, The Spectator’s original article displayed so little respect for issues of culture and diversity that it proves the need for compulsory learning on diversity at Washington and Lee. In saying this, these individuals imply that the writer of the article is profoundly misguided, and should take a mandatory diversity class to see the error of his ways. Their argument can also be interpreted as an implication that students who have not yet taken a culture or diversity class are insufficiently prepared for life outside the “W&L bubble.” However, the writer of the article demonstrates a clean refutation of this view. Paul Lagarde took a class during his time at W&L that satisfies the proposed requirements of the Culture and Diversity Petition. If a mandatory class is meant to correct individuals like Mr. Lagarde, then the requirement evidently fails to accomplish its intended effect. Since Mr. Lagarde and those who share his opinion have yet to see the error of their ways, then following the logic of those defending the petition, those students must take yet another diversity course to desist from holding such improper attitudes. This ever-expanding process of attitude “correction” is called indoctrination. The individuals who advocate the argument above do not want to debate Mr. Lagarde, but to fix him. This is an authoritarian sentiment, considering its position above reproach and holds contradictory opinions as illegitimate and needing correction rather than persuasion.

“Opposing the Culture and Diversity FDR requirement demonstrates a lack of appreciation for culture and diversity classes, and sends a message to minority students that they are not welcome at Washington and Lee.”

This is untrue for several reasons. There are hundreds of students at Washington and Lee who oppose the C&D FDR, most of them for practical reasons. As the Petition’s supporters claim, it is true that many W&L students already take classes that would overlap with C&D-designated courses, from First-Year writing seminars to major requirements. However, there is also a group of students in the W&L community whom the C&D requirement would compel to take a diversity-oriented class instead of a course they need for a major or another requirement. In the Winter Term of 2016, the Administration strictly tightened the overload policy, which severely restricts the academic options of many students. Ambitious individuals pursuing double majors, triple majors, or dual degrees now face tighter limits on their class schedules and long-term academic plans. With the new overload restrictions in place, every class counts even more than before; therefore, many students can no longer take elective courses if they hope to accomplish their intended majors and other goals. Many of these students would be harmed by a C&D requirement, so they oppose it – not because of insensitivity to diversity issues, but because they simply cannot afford to risk negative registration consequences. This concern is perfectly reasonable and is one that many students share, regardless of their position on the symbolic nature of the petition. To Falsely conflate opposition to a requirement with being insensitive unfairly stigmatizes well-meaning people – the vast majority of W&L students support diversity classes, and even want them encouraged - however, a diversity requirement remains quite different in its consequences from a principled support of diversity.

How dare a student magazine publish this article! That kind of opinion should not represent Washington and Lee University, and it reflects badly on the student body’s awareness of diversity as a whole.”

If this is your view, you have every right to hold it. However, a few important reminders are in order. First, The Spectator is not an official publication of Washington and Lee University by any means. We are entirely independent and student-run. As a magazine of student thought and opinion, we publish pieces and editorials that represent the views of contributing students, not of the University in its entirety. If an article in The Spectator engenders disagreement, the opinion being advocated does not, and should not, be taken as necessarily representative of University values. The Spectator’s importance derives from our ability to begin constructive conversations on campus, not from any perceived authority over University values. If anything, we represent an honest observer and promoter of student thought, free to raise those questions that should be asked, unapologetic to controversy when a discussion needed to be facilitated. We take this duty of providing an alternative narrative on otherwise uncontested administrative changes very seriously. To expect The Spectator to have enforced parity and “fairness” in argument, or to demand that The Spectator be governed by the prevailing ideas of our student body and Administration, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature and mission of the magazine.

In order that we might continue this dialogue deserved by the debate over the C&D Petition, we will now further this discussion with new perspectives. The following argument will respond to a those who claim that a liberal arts education requires a culture and diversity requirement.

In a piece entitled “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts,” an article referenced by The Spectator in a previous issue, John Agresto, a former President of St. John’s College in Santa Fe and former Archivist of the United States, maintains that the liberal arts serve primarily as a vehicle to better examine the world and all the works of civilization, as well as a means to think “freely, critically, and humanely.” These four words also appear in the Washington and Lee Mission Statement. This definition does not incite any debate. It indeed satisfies the various auxiliary elements often considered alongside the liberal arts - the making of a well-rounded nature, instilling general knowledge, and building a diverse character.

A liberal arts institution historically accomplishes this end by guiding its pupils through major issues of history, science, philosophy, literature and art. The Liberal Arts, as Dr. Agresto correctly argues, encourage a person to examine and ponder central matters of “creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death alone…law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.” Essentially, Dr. Agresto refers to the principal studies and questions that occupy the core of human thought and expose students to ultimate truths, not dissimilar to Plato’s Forms. A liberal arts curriculum, then, is comprised of the triumphs of human imagination and achievement, and on the other end, mankind’s worst failures. They answer the most fundamental and captivating questions, teaching us how to open our eyes to the world. For one’s wit, appreciating these topics will invariably foster the ability to see and even marvel at reality in an educated and serious way.

Some would maintain that this definition buttresses the necessity of the recently circulated Culture and Diversity Petition. Would it too teach students how to see and marvel at the world? The two activists driving the petition did, in fact, state in the petition,

This request is motivated by a concern for the overall appreciation of diversity within our student body. Diversity doesn’t just allow the university to check a required box. It introduces different points of view to our educational experience. This exposure is an integral part of any education, especially in a liberal arts environment where we as students take pride in our ability to think outside chosen majors.

The petitioners argue that courses intended to foster an awareness of different perspectives and vantage points would engender a more sensitive and more understanding student body, and that this awareness is naturally instilled within the liberal arts.

Such a proposition ignores the fundamental and aforementioned purpose of the liberal arts. Seeing and examining differs entirely from interpreting, understanding and appreciating. The proposed FDR requirement would not liberate the minds of students in the proper, classical, and intended sense of the word. In the worst cases, it would even serve to indoctrinate these minds in the “prejudices of the current culture and the opinions of his tendentious professors.” Understanding, well-intended as it may be, does not constitute an integral and elementary aspect of the liberal arts education, as claimed. As stated previously, the liberal arts intend to reveal, “the truth about many of the most important things.”  When accurately perceived, it serves to liberate a mind through examination of core subjects and questions which have long provoked mankind’s inherent interests. These themselves are later used to discuss, seriously and intelligently, the marginalized groups the petitioners advocate for. And it is this simple reality that evidences diversity is extrinsically incorporated in the liberal arts; the study of culture and diversity relies on the answer to these central questions.

Culture and diversity is also intrinsically a part of the Liberal Arts. Professor Anthony Esolen of Providence College aptly states that students from different backgrounds should be treated with open and communal arms at whatever college they attend. This proposition seems no more relevant after the recent deplorable actions employed against one student here on campus. But Professor Esolen also remarks that while studying different cultures and diverse perspectives is useful, this study follows second to the “three millennia of poetry, art, philosophy, theology, and history” Esolen desires to teach. The Providence professor further assumes, correctly, that the goal of cultural diversity is the introduction of a “culture that diverges far from his own.” Suppose a student takes Chinese to fulfill his language requirement. Would such a course, already intrinsic to the liberal arts, not fulfill this new requirement? Why does sweating over an entirely new alphabet, language, and even thought process not satisfy the petitioners’ demands but “a few short stories written in their mother tongue by a (fill in appropriate ethnic or racial or sexual adjective) novelist living and breathing and watching television and reading pasteurized and homogenized newspapers right now,” does? Why should a student’s exposure to culture be relegated strictly to current issues of race, sex, and religion? The examination of intellects such as Plato, Shakespeare, Faulkner and their wildly different cultures, is in and of itself a satisfaction of the culture and diversity petition and an introduction, as the petitioners say, to “diverse perspectives.”

A diversity FDR requirement would undoubtedly encourage interpretation rather than observance. The liberal arts exist, as understood throughout this campus, to ensure that every student be “not unmindful of the future.” This is done properly through examination rather than sensitivity training; it is this idea that effectively imparts the freedom of thought we all seek. This writer would assert that perfect obedience to the liberal arts would, if anything, encourage a contraction of classes offered as FDR’s.

This discussion is far from over, but its civil continuation clearly demonstrates the high standards for critical thought, diverse perspectives and constructive conversation that exist at Washington and Lee. As the school Administration and Student Body continue their consideration of this proposal, let us participate as individuals and as a community in the shared pursuit of finding the correct application of our most cherished ideals. As the American Scientist James Byrant Conant eloquently remarked in 1948, “Diversity of opinion within the framework of loyalty to our free society is not only basic to a University but to the entire nation.” In our own diversity of opinions on this issue, we honor the liberal arts, the mission of this University, and the importance for expanding awareness of perspectives that builds a free and honorable society. Let us bear this sentiment in mind as we continue this debate, both now and always.


Note: This is an updated version of the originally published article. We apologize for any confusion. We welcome anyone to join in the discussion, by sending us an email or submitting a comment. Thank you for your interest in the Spectator - and be sure to check out more of our work!

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