[Originally published 1/24/06 -KT]

Dear Seminarians,

As I first heard the story, Laszlo Versenyi used 1975 to mark the first year in the evolution of American higher education when he felt that he could no longer conduct a substantive exploration of Plato in his first-year courses.

Well over a decade earlier, in the fall of 1963, Allan Bloom had sat in the common reading room of Cornell’s Telluride House, writing similar concerns into the House Log. Those concerns would become, in part, The Closing of the American Mind. A few weeks later, the young Paul Wolfowitz would add to the log that Allan Bloom was the first “intelligent conservative” he had ever met.

At about the same time, John Sawyer was, with Kaplan and Goff’s petition against the fraternity system in hand– and with far more concerns about the social and academic systems of the College–, travelling with a group of students and professors to listen to Clark Kerr’s Godkin Lectures at Harvard.

Working from previous conceptions of the University– which he rather boldly declared “illusions of its inhabitants”– Kerr declared that the modern university was a “new type of institution in the world.” Lamenting that the previous century had “turned the philosopher on his log into a researcher in his laboratory,” Kerr outlined the vision of a MultiVersity– a dynamic institution serving divers and even incompatible purposes– an institution “neither entirely of the world nor entirely apart from it”– an institution whose fundamental pursuit of knowledge would extend far into its surrounding community.

Kerr’s handling of Mario Savio’s free speech movement would hamstring his position as President of Berkeley, lead to the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California, and to Kerr’s own removal by Governor Reagan in 1967. On the “fraternity question” and so much more, however, Jack Sawyer would begin to parallel a similar vision at Williams. A cursory examination of the course catalogs of Williams versus other institutions reveals that Williams dared to be the first to act to change the content of American education– far “diversifying” the then-current disciplines and endeavors of the liberal arts college, and many other institutions in turn.

In assigning me to dissuss Kimberly Goff-Crews’ report (and Hu-DeHart in the background), David has given me an assignment that is most difficult for me– personally.

I tend to agree– structurally and intellectually– with the projects and course of action they propose, and the over-arching idea of expanding the breadth and focus of undergraduate education to new, and seemingly hightly relevant, “perspectives.” Yet on the other hand– I’ve written at least fifty or sixty pages pulling apart their individual sentences and dynamics… and questioning whether their project is as “coherent” as it seems.

By presenting the very general– and absolutely questionable– narrative above, I hope to suggest not only that there are many other conceptions of “diversity” that those assumed in Goff-Crews and Hu-DeHart– and that all these conceptions of diversity touch us very personally– but — also– as Clark Kerr suggested– that the seeming certainties and goals of “racial,” “sexual,” and other visions of diversity presented above may be “illusions” of the “inhabitants” of institutions such as Williams and other universities.

As Ronit so cogently remarked some weeks ago, does hiring a science professor “of color” (etc) advance the needs of a student from India, China, Mexico, Indonesia (etc). Of are there other considerations of “diversity?”

I am particularly stuck by Du-DeHart’s claim that Williams as an institution still “embodies” a “master narrative–” without adding more, I wonder if the participants in this seminar see the same? Among those of you who advocate change– does the claim of a “master narrative” of “white, male, heterosexual” “priviledge” make sense? Does it explain your experience, and your needs, and the needs of those around you?

Again, I could now summarize and pick apart Goff-Crew’s suggestions– what seems a rationally planned project of increasing “diversity”– and I may do so depending on your responses.

But what I hope is that you who read this will will look at the project of “diversity” as proposed by Goff-Crews as a reflection of the hopes of Versenyi and Bloom and Kerr and Sawyer– and imagine that there is much more going on here than these immediate and “literal” proposals, and that we need to (together) look much further afield.

In our discussions of grading– which began with remarks on a peculiar course in organized crime– we have seen a multiplicity of perspectives on “diverse” methods of assigning grades. I suspect that the Williams Community has an equally diverse series of opinions on what the curriculum of Williams College– and of the University in general– should look like, and the instruction and opportunities it should provide.

Thus, before I begin to comment on Goff-Crews’ and Hu-DeHart’s particular path of change and “diversity”– what are the paths that each of you envision? What would you like the College and “the University” to provide? What goals should the curriculum embody? And most particularly– what are the paths and opportunities you may fear that we will not follow?

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