Last week at Providence College, a group of students occupied the office of the president, Father Brian Shanley, for thirteen hours, presenting him with a list of demands toward making the school a more “inclusive” place for students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. (I use the scare quotes not to criticize the students, but because Orwell has taught me to detest political slogans.) Back when Providence College was a school for local boys who had not the money or the connections or the right grandparents to attend Brown University, immigrants from Italy, Portugal, French Canada, and Ireland would have been rubbing elbows and occasionally throwing fists, and there was your diversity, ready to hand. If the college were to return to that founding vision, we would now be taking plenty of students of both sexes from the poorer neighborhoods in the state, and again we would have the ethnic diversity as a matter of course, only now the mix would include Haitians, Mexicans, African Americans, and people from the Middle East. But that would compromise our standing as a more than regional school, and a weather eye for their salaries and their prestige would suffice for most of the faculty to rebel against such a policy. Cherchez l’argent.
I have nothing against making sure that when young people come to college, they encounter a real community that fosters their personal and intellectual growth, rather than cold shoulders and shut doors. A youth from Nigeria or Morocco should be welcomed with genuine friendship and openness to what he has experienced of the world beyond our American horizons. It would be wrong to make him feel as if he were an outsider, tolerated graciously at best, and under sufferance at worst—as if he were a Jew at Harvard in 1900, or an orthodox Roman Catholic in 2016. I’m grateful for students to whom I can ask, “How do you say ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ in Tagalog?” and “What’s it like to live in Lagos?” Meanwhile, I have three millennia of poetry, art, philosophy, theology, and history to teach, and if you are willing to learn, I’m gladly at your service.
But the protesting students, encouraged by some of our professors, want more than that welcome. They want to change the curriculum, to make it more “diverse.” And here I make observations about those who use such students as stalking-horses.
Suppose I want to teach a course in a culture as far removed from ours as the Andromeda galaxy is from earth. It’s a tribal culture, each tribe loosely governed by a war chief and his council of elders. They have no cities. They have no writing. They have a few more or less permanent settlements, and some rudimentary agriculture, but mainly they get their food from livestock and hunting. They worship trees. Their religion is rather gloomy, as they believe that at the end of time the powers of good and evil will meet in an apocalyptic battle, and the evil will triumph, and the world will return to its original darkness. Their oral poetry is devoted to riddles, maxims, and war songs. The virtue they chiefly admire is loyalty, especially to one’s warlord, and courage on the battlefield, especially when the chips are down. Yet their history and their poetry are full of incidents in which brother betrays brother, or the warriors break their promises to their lord. The favorite pastime of the chief and his gang is to go raiding other tribes under some pretext of just vengeance, razing their settlements and bringing back treasure, which the chief distributes in gratitude to his men.
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