"Multiculturalism and University Lore"
Richard P. Horwitz

E-mail: Richard-Horwitz@uiowa.edu
WWWeb: http://myweb.uiowa.edu/rhorwitz

Copyright © 2020
a version of this essay appears in
Multiculturalism and the Canon of American Culture
European Contributions to American Studies XXIII, ed. Hans Bak (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1993), pp. 16-26

It is hard to miss the fact that academics and a much wider public in the U.S. have found reason to contest recent changes in American universities. Shrill accusations cascade down hallowed halls and cross ivied walls almost reaching Main Street itself. At issue is the sanctity or profanity of "multiculturalism" and all that it represents. My aim here is to help people who might be distant from American universities to understand what all the hoopla is about. I will focus on reasons the debate between opponents and proponents of academic multiculturalism should and should not be considered extraordinary. Key considerations include the range of phenomena under discussion and the emotionally charged circumstances, ideologies, and lore to which they allude. I will close with some comments intended to temper the discussion.

Even for an American, the controversy is hard to understand for at least two reasons. One is the extraordinary attention this particular controversy has received. Academic culture in the U.S. has long been so infamously contentious that non-academics rarely consider any controversy worth serious attention: "What are they squabbling about now?!"

Professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences, normally discuss their work as if the fate of life-as-we-know-it were at stake. Disciplinary celebrities are often best known for the elegance with which they bash their foes. For example, conference sessions and scholarly reviews often take the form of jeremiads, directing listeners to salvation -- truth, beauty, and justice -- implied in the speaker's interpretation of an obscure subject and warning them against the temptations -- superficiality, amorality, or traditionalism -- that rivals supposedly embrace. Graduate students who fail to master this form of argumentation are unlikely to earn a degree and even less so to gain a university appointment. The form is endemic to both professional certification and product differentiation. In the U.S. in general this contentiousness is as well known outside as inside the academy. It is part of the ho-hum stereotype of university life and among the reasons that many non-academics and undergraduate students consider scholarly dispute little more than a high-serious parlor game best observed from afar.

Hence, it is surprising, not that academics are at each others' throats, but that the controversy over multiculturalism has attracted such passionate, sustained attention even in popular media. A rash of articles in newspapers and magazines and best-selling books suggest that this controversy is unlike the thousands of others that preceded it. Although, for example, debates about the Frankfurt School or sociobiology spilled over into mass media, this one seems to have incited a frenzy that will not go away.

A second reason this controversy is hard to understand is the diversity of its ingredients. The term "multiculturalism" (like most "-isms") is supposed to stand for a single disposition, but commentators find it manifest in what seem very disparate forms. Natives no less than foreigners might conclude that the range of particular occasions that figure in the debate defies the simple categories its participants claim. Nevertheless, a vast array of forms of discourse, institutional arrangements, and activities are routinely taken to derive from "multiculturalism," as if it were a single animus of uniquely recent vintage.

Among the most frequently noted signs of multiculturalism is as a way of writing and speaking. To do so correctly means, for example, increasing the proportion of celebratory references to diversity, the oppressed, the Third World, peoples of color, revolution, and expanding the curriculum. Swipes at hegemony, exclusionary practices, standardized tests or objectivity in general, patriarchy, pluralism, super powers, liberalism, the melting pot, the canon, the American mainstream, and Great Books are also nearly obligatory. Although every academic movement has had its totems and taboos, few have had the self-confidence and good humor to mock their own symbols, as 1970s lefties did in dubbing such talk, their own, "politically correct" or "PC." These are the very terms that their foes on the cultural right chose to raise a civil libertarian counter-attack in the late 1980s, charging that the discourse of multiculturalism amounts to thought control. They are not amused.

Practically speaking, these discursive norms mean that in various fora people will take your use or neglect of such references as a reliable indicator of your more general stance, for or against multiculturalism. In citing, say, Maya Angelou, in a literary discussion, you signal, "I may be pro;" if Melville (or, even worse, Mailer), almost assuredly con. For a novice, then, academic discourse resembles a mine field. "People of color" is for the moment safe, but "colored people" will trigger an explosion. For many people all of the hoopla over multiculturalism amounts to little more than finding an inoffensive way to converse.

But the term also refers to an array of more substantive institutional developments. The most controversial of them is affirmative action. Devices such as quotas or differentially weighted evaluation criteria have been introduced to increase admissions of students and employment and advancement of faculty from "under-represented" or "targeted" groups, namely (though not uniformly) people who are of Native American, African-American, and Hispanic descent, homosexual, "handicapped," and/or women. Administrators tend to refer to them as "women and [sic] minorities."

Of course, under-representation is not a universal problem. Particular institutions (e.g., "historically Black" institutions such as Howard University) and departments (e.g., Lesbian or Chicano studies, Home Economics, Nursing) have long attracted and well-supported some targeted groups. But more and more programs are begun and subject to evaluation in terms of their ability to shift the university demographically closer to representing the proportions of various genders, races, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and physical and psychological characteristics of the United States as a whole.

University facilities have also been enhanced explicitly to support members of these targeted groups. These include sundry "cultural centers," special tutors, counselors, library holdings, scholarships, research assistantships and funds in varying degrees reserved for "women and minorities." A number of routine operating procedures (e.g., "clocks" for developmental leaves or tenure evaluation, course scheduling, definitions of university or professional "service," day care or campus security priorities) have been changed to compensate for off-campus inequities that particular categories of people, especially mothers, are likely to suffer. Academic programs have been introduced (e.g., African-American Studies, required courses in "minority" cultures, or lectures on date rape) to increase, among other things, the sensitivity of the university and its audience to the contributions and vulnerability of those "under-represented" groups. Such programs may or may not be accompanied by policies to punish students or faculty who physically or even verbally harass people by virtue of their membership in some or any demographic group.

Outside of particular universities, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and quality of conferences, foundation grants, journals, and publication series on scholarship by and about targeted groups. In some disciplines, it is the growth industry. For example, the bidding for prominent specialists in African-American subjects is now almost a third as high as that for a decent relief pitcher in major league baseball, a fact that deeply concerns administrators, not to mention colleagues with different specialties confined to the minor leagues.

In fact, despite its relatively modest cost for the university as a whole, the visibility of resources for affirmative action (i.e., to benefit a group that is not at the moment a large on-campus constituency) invites an interpretation of the controversy that foregrounds political economy. Lurking just below the surface of discussions of proper speech and institutional priorities are concrete, personal anxieties: Who will land that grant or book contract? Whose kid will get into the prestige college? Will they or I get the goods? Affirmative action incites passions that can well be compared to those of suburbanites when a public housing project is under construction next door.

Often the participants will deny such base interests and move quickly over discursive or institutional ideals to highlight particular events that signal for them the epitome of what is right or wrong with multiculturalism. Most professors can remember particularly outrageous moments when multiculturalism was startlingly absent (e.g., when departmental policy was set in the men's room) or excessive (e.g., when a white student was rudely silenced in a class on Black culture). Such occurrences may, in fact, be rare. My own observation is that the excesses are far rarer than the absences. But, regardless of their frequency, such moments are often recalled in dramatizing the stakes, as if being for or against some particular, supposedly multicultural policy means you "must be" for or against the corresponding outrage that will next leap to mind.

There are, of course, a host of complicating circumstances, but I hope that the foregoing has already demonstrated that "multiculturalism" is a very flabby term. It covers an array of discursive practices, policies, and events that ought to be evaluated separately. They vary widely in locale, cost, flexibility, and impact on personnel. Some have obvious implications for curricula and freedom of expression; others do not. Some address the way we think or at least talk; others the distribution of resources or bodily safety. Some imply leveling a playing field that, almost every admits, has its slopes, while others suggest changing the game. It is hard to see how endorsing any one of them, much less the whole agenda, requires any particular motives or moral consensus. And vice versa.

Moreover, hardly all of these policies, arrangements, and events emerged under comparable circumstances. For example, Euro-American administrators accepted many "Afro houses" in the early 1970s, long before the current bally-hoo and less to advance multiculturalism of the university as a whole than to pacify Black nationalists who demanded a separate place of their own. The same institutions are now cited as evidence of an entirely different disposition.

Or, to cite another example, admissions quotas were introduced in the 1920s, not the 1980s, and they were used, not to increase the diversity of the university, but to restrain it, particularly by holding down the number of Jews in higher education. Foes of quotas can use this precedent to suggest their evil nature, but proponents can just as easily cite it to show the promise of the device. The fact that in universities quotas were (for a while) effectively, even if wrongly, applied in the past is all the more reason they might be better applied in the future. You do not necessarily make a better cake by throwing away the old measuring cup, especially if the pantry only grants ingredients to those who can document measured needs. That is precisely the difficulty for people who seek legal redress for institutional discrimination. While secret quotas were once used to exclude and deny due process, public ones could now be used to include and enhance due process, as they have, for example, in federal contracts since affirmative-action quotas were introduced, ironically enough, under the Nixon administration.

Of course, such judgements reveal my own bias and are contestable, but the point is that each of the developments now gathered under the name of multiculturalism has its distinctive history. Treating all of them as if they represented a uniform, recent revolution simply distorts the diverse interests and actions of people who initiated these changes in the past. They did not and need not now imply any singular mentality. Frankly, I do not see how treating multiculturalism as unitary is likely to do much more than counsel cliched polarities.

Of course, demographically speaking, multiculturalism ought to be considered a reality of American life. This is to say that the population of the United States includes people who can be considered more or less culturally distinct by virtue of differences in ethnicity, class, gender, sexual-orientation, region, age, anatomy, mother-tongue, religion, and/or ideological conviction. Of course, too, they could always have been so considered. What is new is the dramatic increase since the 1960s in the number and prominence of groups that claim cultural distinctiveness, people who are, for example, Spanish-speaking, of East-Asian origin, or Islamic. Feminists of widely divergent orientations and professors schooled during the student movements of the 1960s now are among those occupying secure positions in the university establishment. They have been very influential in setting the tone of the debate.

Clearly, it has as much to do with ideology and character assassination as admissions or curriculum. Ideologically speaking, invoking U.S. "multiculturalism" (entirely unlike "pluralism") is a way to recognize that America should not be considered the bastion of English-speaking, elite, "normal"-bodied or -minded, heterosexual men. It is a shorthand denial of what used to pass for the "mainstream" and its implicit subordination of "others" as mere "tributaries" to it.

Of course, the demographic changes in themselves need not require this judgement. For example, nineteenth-century feminism, the Second Immigration at the turn of the century, and the northern migration of African-Americans after World War I inspired some of the fiercest assertions of misogyny, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, old-stock nativism, and white supremacy in U.S. history. Along with recent outbreaks of bigotry on college campuses, these are among the precedents that advocates of multiculturalism cite in positing a supposedly new, more aggressive response to social inequity.

Just as important, this ideological dimension of multiculturalism, with its implied rejection of the mainstream and past intolerance, is among its most attractive features to members of groups -- particularly feminists and/or people of color -- who are estranged from academic life which they still find oppressively "mainstream." They are no longer content to be "tributaries" and are in a position to direct the dredging. At the same time, in connection with the decline of the Democratic "liberal" coalition and the rise of the Republican and religious right, an opposition that is largely, though far from entirely, Euro-American and male feels both personally threatened and politically charged to reassert what they take to be "traditional" if not "universal" standards.

The term "multiculturalism," then, tends to be associated with bodies of lore that are presumed to signal positions ranging quite radically from left to right. In fact, academics tend to read one's use of the term, its totems and taboos, as a test of your politics. You are supposed to stand cleanly on one side or the other of an ideological chasm. People listen to your use of the word "multiculturalism," the ease with which it falls from your lips, not only to follow your argument but also to judge which side your are on.

When viewed from outside of the U.S., all of this may seem like much ado about nothing, at least nothing new, small variations on familiar themes. I am inclined to agree. But participants claim that this dispute is about a "revolution," changes uniquely tied to present circumstance and a current ideological divide. For example, challenging multiculturalism is likely to imply standing for great (i.e., currently canonized) books, Enlightenment reasoning, individualism, meritocracy (vs., say, quotas), freedom of speech, tolerance, dispassion, objectivity, restraint, tradition, and Western Civilization. Advocating multiculturalism, on the other hand, is likely to entail or imply standing up for books by and about the oppressed, cultural relativism, affirmative action, "inclusive" speech, collectivism, passion, personal engagement, political activism, "non-traditional" values, and "oppositional," non-Western cultures.

A lot could be said about this ideological divide. Most of it has the familiar ring of bourgeois individualists sparring with progressive social constructionists, as they have in the West since the Reformation. Similar themes appeared in the U.S. in particular in the debate over British- vs. Continental-style universities in the 18th Century, over common schools and female education in the 19th Century, over educational reform in the 1930s, and over "relevance" in the 1960s. These are among the reasons I resist seeing anything terribly revolutionary about the present moment.

Moreover, except in isolated cases, both sides tend to claim a common enemy that is real enough: social inequality, particularly Euro-American, masculine supremacy. People on the cultural right aim to address it by upholding and sharing a legacy that has been necessary for admission to social privilege; people on the cultural left by changing the legacy to allow for new admission criteria.

Both sides also borrow from questionable but long-sacred presumptions that are common in American universities, particularly those that are publicly funded:

  • A pragmatic, future orientation -- that intellectual practices are best justified, not in terms of past accomplishments, but in terms of future promise.

  • Anti-intellectualism -- that intellectuals are suspect unless they justify their work as a service to the public at large. Without explicitly addressing some external constituency, the academy is likely to be at best irrelevant and at worst a parasite on the body politic.

  • Populism -- that intellectual practices are justifiable insofar as they help uplift the less fortunate. Despite their modest salaries and relatively small political import, academics are presumed to be gifted with a noble obligation to share their wealth.

  • Elitism -- that universities are not only qualified for but also effective in shaping the minds of students. They learn what they are taught. Education can and should proceed by objective.

I suspect that the foregoing only begins to detail the gnarl of circumstances and legacies to which the debate over multiculturalism alludes. I aim only for a serviceable introduction to the folklore that passions inscribe and that foreigners might easily miss. But I also think I owe readers candor about my own position.

First, in case it is not already obvious, I must announce that in general I ally with the proponents of multiculturalism. The university has for too long acted as if its standards were eternal, self-evident truths. I particularly part company with those who decry multiculturalism as an assault on standards. Those standards have, fortunately, themselves long been volatile, contested and changed. I do not see how changes in response to the real or anticipated demands of now "targeted groups" are necessarily more dangerous or irrevocable than those that preceded them. In fact, I detect it is bigotry that allows critics on both sides to lump so many disparate developments together simply because they are justified, even if wrongly, in terms of advancing "women and minorities." I would hope that we could all begin with a commitment to social justice, even as we disagree about its importance relative to other imperatives or the most desirable means to that end.

I also insist that particular acts on behalf of multiculturalism are different enough to demand more focused, case-by-case trials and evaluation. As with "romanticism" (or other "-isms," including those I list above), we need not assume that "multiculturalism" implies a single frame of mind or that actions taken in its name are necessarily effective. Generally, I advocate a more pragmatic approach. We do not have to be like-minded, for or against every variety of multiculturalism, to know that the university should be open to contests, including passionate ones, not only about substantive standards but also about how they can be well applied and who will decide.

At the same time, it must be admitted that some multicultural strategies, no less than the ones they supplement or replace, have costs. At a time when university and family budgets in the U.S. are strained, opportunities for groups who are now, even if only slightly and very recently favored are purchased at the expense of those who are not. For example, there are infamous cases where Asian-Americans have in effect been penalized for collective success in the academy. Judging from the past, however, it will be members of the Euro-American working class -- that son of a clerk who is the first in the family to do as well in school as the children in elite, suburban schools -- who will pay the heaviest price, and they deserve to be taken seriously. Advocates of multiculturalism must face the challenge of justifying hurdles which, if longer in place, might well have denied them college admission, research grants, publications, tenure, esteem, the very platform from which they speak. We should expect to be charged with hypocrisy and cruelty. Given limited resources, it is not just the foes of affirmative action who have to defend exclusion.

But it seems to me that realism cuts as well in the other direction. Every significant change is painful, and this one is long overdue. The "playing field" in as well as out of the academy has never been level. Euro-American patriarches have run down hill and others up since colonization. It is wrong as well as politically unrealistic to act as if we need only trim the grass and rechalk the lines. We can gain the courage to persist in leveling the field, even to face that clerk's son, if we remember that change in a multicultural spirit is realistic and right.

Finally, it seems to me obvious that the university may not effect the sort of social vision its faculty and bureaucrats imagine. For example, like many of the proponents of multiculturalism, I was schooled during the 1950s and early 1960s when monoculturalism was the subterranean lesson of the day. I was taught to be a loyal advocate of the liberal, individualist, Protestant, anti-communist consensus that "my country" supposedly represented. Despite years of chanting the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, I now have serious doubts about that lesson, as I suspect veterans of current lessons may in the future. In a way fortunately, teachers cannot so control the imagination of students.

Teachers are, though, obliged to treat their subjects and students with diverse sensitivities respectfully, to welcome them to campus and teach them from conviction. As much as I wince before the hyperbole in the debate over multiculturalism, then, it seems to me a decidedly healthy development. It is extraordinary, not because it is new or revolutionary, but urgent. Now is the time to raise voices, even risk cruel mistakes, for the chance to try to do what is necessary and right.

* * *

I want to express my gratitude to the Netherlands America Commission for Educational Exchange which underwrote my work on this essay during my year as John Adams Professor of American Studies at Katholieke Universiteit in Nijmegen. I am also grateful for the editorial assistance of Prof. John Calabro who, of course, has his own opinions on this subject.

* * *


Even the most obscure examples of recent scholarship, especially in the humanities, in one way or another allude to the debate surrounding multiculturalism. The following books are simply among the most explicitly concerned with the controversy and frequently cited:

Bennett, William J. Our Children and Our Country: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Bloom, Allan D. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free Press, 1991. Also in The Atlantic (March 1991).
Gless, Darryl L. and Barbara Hernstein Smith. The Politics of Liberal Education. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.
Hirsch, Eric D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Lodge, David. After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Purpel, David E. The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey, 1989.
Ravitch, Diane. The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Salusinsky, Imre, ed. Criticism in Society: Interviews with Jacques Derrida, Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Frank Kermode, Edward Said, Barbara Johnson, Frank Lentricchia, and J. Hillis Miller. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Smith, Page. Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. New York: Viking, 1990.
Wilshire, Bruce. The Moral Collapse of the University, Professionalism, Purity and Alienation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

To get a feel for the place of these arguments in academic lore, I suggest reading reviews of these books and sketches of the authors that abound in scholarly and mass-market periodicals. Among the articles I have found most useful are:

Bernstein, Richard. "The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct," The New York Times (October 28, 1990).
Diamond, Sara. "Readin', Writin', and Repressin'," Z Magazine (February 1991).
Ehrenreich, Barbara. "Teach Diversity -- With a Smile," Time (April 8, 1991).
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "It's Not Just Anglo-Saxon," The New York Times (May 4, 1991), 23.
Genovese, Eugene D. "Heresy, Yes--Sensitivity, No," The New Republic (April 15, 1991).
Goodman, Matthew. "PC Debates I: The Alchemy of Bias," Z Magazine (July/August 1991), 120.
Gray, Paul. "Whose America?" Time (July 8, 1991), 12-17.
Kagan, Donald. "Western Values are Central," The New York Times (May 4, 1991), 120-4.
Kimball, Roger. "The Periphery vs. the Center: The MLA in Chicago," The New Criterion (February 1991).
Lapham, Lewis H. "Acceptable Opinions," Harper's Magazine (December 1990), 10-12.
Lerner, Gerder. "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges," Feminist Studies 3, 1-2 (Fall 1975), 5-14.
Martinez, Elizabeth. "PC Debates II: Willie Horton's Gonna Get Your Alma Mater," Z Magazine (July/August 1991), 126-30.
Miller, J. Hillis. "Presidential Address 1986: The Triumph of Theory, the Resistence to Reading and the Question of Material Base," PMLA, 102:3 (May 1987), 218-29.
Morton, Brian. "How Not to Write for Dissent," Dissent (Summer 1990), 299.
Paglia, Camille. "Ninnies, Pedants, Tyrants and Other Academics," The New York Times Book Review (May 5, 1991), 1.
"Race on Campus," New Republic (February 18, 1991).
Ravitch, Diane. "Multiculturalism Yes, Particularism No," The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 24, 1990).
Reiff, David. "Victims, All? Recovery, Co-dependency, and the Art of Blaming Somebody Else," Harper's Magazine (October 1991), 49-56.
"Resturcturing the Academy," Signs (Special Issue) 12, 2 (Winter 1987), 203-409.
Searle, John. "The Storm Over the University," The New York Review of Books (December 6, 1990).
"Taking Offense: Is This the New Englightenment on Campus or the New McCarthyism," Newsweek (December 24, 1990).