A critical theory

Recently, I’ve had unrelated conversations with two of my friends, friends who could not be more different: Felipe Colina ’12 and Niralee Shah ’12. Although this difference itself bespeaks the promise of diversity to which Williams is so passionately committed, the import of the conversations was all too much the same: that our college remains, to no inconsiderable extent, a place of cliques and conformity, divided by race and class and resistant to the full development of one vibrant community outside the bounds of traditional elite sensibility. Now this, like all generalizations, is limited – yet for that, I think, no less true. It damn sure feels true – at least to me and at least to the many who have at times felt disaffected here. The question then becomes: Why? Why should Williams not have a kind of reflexive inclusivity?

Another seemingly unrelated conversation unfolded on the pages of the Record. Two pieces appeared in consecutive issues that struck a chord with me. One by Hanna Saltzman ’12 [“Faculty examine classroom dynamic, culture,” Feb. 18, 2009] reported on long-standing concerns among the faculty that students are far too polite and professional. “Students act,” Africana Studies Professor Travis Gosa was quoted as saying, “almost as if they’re at a job interview.” And this while, a week later, an opinion piece by Sam Jonynas ’12 [“Clamoring for productive discord,” Feb. 25, 2009] lamented the lack of spirited argument on campus.

So what relates all these concerns? In an essay in The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz articulates what he sees as “the disadvantages of elite education.” For him, top institutions, even those with traditional liberal arts ethos, are becoming ever more home to “specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.” Specialized questions, too. The problem, he claims, is the unintentional but increasing focus on training the professional and business leaders of tomorrow: the “holders of power, not its critics.” I take issue with this so far as it’s true that many students don’t aim for lucrative or influential jobs, and many don’t know what career they want at all. So it’s not careerism per se. Yet it still holds that even most of these students understand their project of Bildung here as one of finding and preparing for a fulfilling – but not a critical – niche in the greater world.

Just here I think is what binds issues of diversity and over-politeness at Williams together. Our student body is selected on its ability to play the elite education game, which insists on early self-categorization (from admissions “hooks” to choices about what OCC info sessions to attend), on ceaseless sociability and on overloading extracurriculars. The implicit rules of the game are effectively normalizing: study hard, make friends, dedicate yourself to worthy groups and take the many resume-building opportunities afforded to you. From this follows the politeness, the omnipresent niceness and the disturbing paucity of vigorous, spontaneous debate. No dissension, no argument and – it may seem paradoxical – no sparks of real community.

Why no community? Because some students – mostly those lumped together under the heading “diversity” – are stymied within the normalizing game precisely to whatever extent they must, by definition, stand outside of it. It’s a game no one questions, for to question it, to question anything, really, would be to step back from the journey forward into the future for which our educations, we are relentlessly assured, will provide. What we get are just 2,000 bright, conscientious kids who somehow can’t cohere in difference, our ac-Claimed diversity notwithstanding, on their internalized quests for their own brands of excellence.

It surprises me that no one ever wonders where the “liberal” in liberal arts might have come from. Whenever I ask people this question I always hear some murmured explanation of being “well-rounded.” Well, that, it seems to me, is at best incidental to the true liberal arts student. Instead, studia liberalia, as Seneca had it, involves becoming a citizen of the world dedicated to constant self-examination. The libertas we ought to be after, then, is that of the mind. It’s far from clear most of us are trying to pursue that alongside consulting internships on Route 2 and the like.

So rather than by trotting out, annually, the tired bromides of multiculturalism, I believe we must step back from the high-stakes game we’ve all played so well. Only by coming together as an institution in frank self-criticism about our intellectual priorities can we hope to begin to resist the pervasive normalizing forces that work at once both to alienate those groups marked by inassimilable difference and to etiolate the vital and unifying potential of earnest dialogue about questions of life and value.

Steven Hailey ’12 is from Fayetteville, Ark. He lives in Sage.