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Debating diversity, multiculturalism on campus
STANFORD -- Diversity has acquired a new meaning at many universities, Dinesh D'Souza said Wednesday, April 17. Rather than referring to a wide range of views, it now requires "genuflecting" before a particular political agenda and promoting "a kind of homogeneity of thought on many American campuses."
D'Souza is the author of the just-published Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, which devotes one chapter to Stanford University's broadening of the required Western Culture curriculum. He spoke at Stanford to an audience of about 200, that contained a few angry critics as well as a number of enthusiastic supporters.
D'Souza, 29, is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A native of India, he is a 1979 graduate of Dartmouth, where he served on the board of the conservative student newspaper Dartmouth Review.
D'Souza labeled as "affirmative action for books" the demand at a number of schools that the curriculum include the perspectives of women and a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups.
This demand, he said, "creates a kind of perverse cultural Olympics in which each group comes to the reading list and asks this question: What did my guys do?
"The reduction of ideas to the narrow categories of race and gender is really an obstacle to the true purpose of liberal education, which is to teach us to attempt to cross these narrow boundaries."
Why focus on Rigoberta?
In a question session after his talk, D'Souza was challenged by Jonathan Reider, associate director of undergraduate admissions and a lecturer in the Structured Liberal Education track of Cultures, Ideas and Values (CIV), a three-quarter course sequence required of all Stanford students.
Reider questioned D'Souza on the chapter in his book titled "Travels with Rigoberta: Multiculturalism at Stanford," in which D'Souza discusses at some length a book called I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.
Reider ascertained in a back-and-forth exchange that D'Souza understands that there are eight tracks in CIV and that Rigoberta Menchu is assigned only in the "Europe and the Americas" track. Reider then went on: "How many assign Aristotle. All eight. How many assign Shakespeare? All eight. The Bible? All eight."
Reider asked why D'Souza had focused on Rigoberta Menchu and Frantz Fanon (who, said Reider, is taught in two tracks) "when the core of the Western Culture program is essentially unchanged from what it was 10 years ago when I was on the committee that designed it."
Changes in the curriculum, D'Souza responded, raise concerns among alumni and others, "so then you jump up and say nothing has changed. Everything is pretty much the same as it was before. In other words, none of this was needed in the first place. This whole movement was a kind of play we put on for the national media to excite people like Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) or Bill Bennett, former secretary of education.
"I don't allege in my book that Stanford students are not reading any of the great books, or that great books have been summarily expelled from the curriculum."
"But you do," said Reider, who read a sentence from D'Souza's essay, "The Victim's Revolution," in the March 1991 Atlantic Monthly: "In practice this meant that texts such as Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's Prince would have to make way for such works as I, Rigoberta and Fanon's Wretched of the Earth."
"That simply didn't happen," Reider said. "Admit it."
D'Souza said that while thousands of courses are offered, the debate is over what will be required.
If a "white male perspective" is deemed too narrow and new authors are going to be brought in, "then somebody else has got to leave," he said. "It is not possible to teach every book."
He is not in favor of a rigid, fixed canon, he said, but believes that arguments about changes should be based on the content of the book, not the race or gender of the author.
Calling I, Rigoberta a horror-story example that illuminates a larger problem, he said the book "is a projection of Western political prejudices onto the Third World. It is a distortion of Third World culture. I would like that to be acknowledged."
'Caricature of debate'
Barry Katz, senior lecturer in the Program in Values, Technology, Science and Society, which offers one of the CIV tracks, challenged the "honesty, integrity and intellectual rigor" of D'Souza's book chapter on Stanford.
Katz called that chapter "the most grotesque caricature of the debate, of the issues, and the way it was resolved that I could imagine. I was on the verge of hysterical laughter sitting in the bookstore reading it. It bore not the remotest resemblance to the issues at stake."
He asked D'Souza: "In your travels across America, did you ever hear anybody say we shouldn't read Shakespeare because he is a white male, except maybe in jest or in a drunken fit?"
"I don't argue that in my book," D'Souza said. Rather, he said, he dealt with the presumption on the part of many student activists that the curriculum "represents a collective white male heterosexual bias, and Shakespeare, together with his insidious compatriots Homer and others, are assumed to embody this bias. Maybe Shakespeare hasn't been singled out, but it's hard to see how these guys collectively embody an ethos that no one individually reflects."
The History Department was listed as the official sponsor of the lecture, but David Kennedy, department chair, disavowed that sponsorship. He said that D'Souza has "an interesting point of view" and that he might well have approved the sponsorship if he had been approached, but he was not. History Prof. Lewis Spitz, who made arrangements to obtain a room for the talk, said Kennedy was out of town when the room had to be reserved.
The talk, originally scheduled in a small classroom on the second floor of History Corner, had to be moved next door to a large lecture room in the Political Science Department, which has an official capacity of 175. An additional two dozen people sat in the aisles.
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