The Critical Examination

by John Stevenson | 6/28/02 5:00am

The 2001-2002 academic year at Dartmouth raised many questions and brought many issues upon which we acted. Now that summer has come, let us turn back our gaze and examine the issues and questions that arose. Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." It is in this spirit of questioning that we must look at the past year. In the moment when we acted to the challenges that arose, the express goal was to answer the questions and face the challenges. Now, in our period of retrospection, we must question the answers and discern if the path that we have chosen and are choosing is the best path for us.

I would like to begin a series of op-eds in "the D" to examine our values, multiculturalism as a reality and our worldview. I am aware it is an ambitious project; however, our liberal arts education theoretically prepares us to be fruitful citizens of this democracy and face the challenges of a changing and unstable world. Global events have prompted local responses, but whether or not these responses are the right ones remains to be seen.

Looking over the scope of the year at issues which surfaced, we see an emphasis on war/peace/terrorism and identity/ diversity. Specifically, Sept. 11 introduced us to the real world and made us acute, for a short time, to the world beyond the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We were forced to see the ugly facts of a naked reality where people fervently believe in things; we were and still remain neither equipped nor trained to discern between the good and the bad in these situations without sounding as if we were "moral absolutists."

In fact, in the wake of these attacks, we had to deal with the existence of and reasons for such words as "good," "bad," "evil" and"wrong." The College community was quite uncomfortable in our cultural and moral relativism trying to find an explanation that did justice to the facts of the event and yet accommodated our relativistic egalitarianism and openness. To us, intolerance is a greater vice than error, and we were trapped in a strait betwixt two: justice and acceptance. In the second, diversity/identity, we found our salvation.

Questions of identity dominate our intellectual and social landscape here at the College. Our relativism comforts us. To believe in anything more than the need for and the existence of diversity, is bias and prejudice, and therefore must be rooted out. We took comfort in our attempts to understand what we call "Islam" (as if the religion attacked us), superimposing our progressive superstitions onto it, while feeling guilty for thinking about it at all. We then took a moment to show our "post-colonial" colors and question U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, not based on its efficacy, but based on our moral relativism: the notion that America has no right to interfere (unless of course Israelis are killing ancient Palestinians).

Abercrombie and Fitch gave us another outlet. We showed our commitment to antiracism and anti- "hate" speech. The debate of white and wong cast us straight into the arms of a senior thesis which alleges that "white people," itself a fuzzy concept, don't think about ethnicity. See "Stereotyping Affinity Housing," The Dartmouth, May 14, 2002. ChienWen Kung '04, the author, gives the most concise reasons for questioning the notion of 'the whites' as anything more than a straw man for what Orwell called, "One Minute of Hate." In the same vein as Abercrombie and Fitch, I should mention the push for an Asian-American Studies program and the new REM credit.

Identity has moved from the picket lines to the classroom. If it continues to do so, we acknowledge that identity is the central issue in higher education today. Unfortunately, identity politics and ethnic concerns are shallow and lazy answers to the questions "Who am I?" and "Who is my neighbor?" The longer we allow them to become a ubiquitous psychological framework, without challenge, the more we will become like the last Western civilization to devote itself entirely to these questions -- Nazi Germany -- which will impoverish our souls and fail our democracy.

Before we go any further, we are not alleging (yet) that interfaith dialogue, notions and myths of identity, and relativism are wrong. We do wonder, however, whether the shock of Sept.11 and our retreat back to issues of diversity (do not forget the Student Assembly created a diversity affairs committee, of which I am a part), made us miss more important issues.

This series of articles will examine other important issues and then apply them to the multiculturalism debate. To hone in on that effect, let us consider in my next op-ed a question that will show us the failure of our philosophy of education.