Avoiding annual exclusion

This week, the Williams College faculty will consider a motion to make Claiming Williams (CW) an annual event. Prior to the faculty vote, there will doubtless be much talk about CW’s successes and its alleged value to the community. Nevertheless, the faculty should vote the proposal down. Here’s why.

CW, it will be remembered, was created in response to incidents that raised troubling questions about the state of civility at Williams, especially among students. In other words, CW’s goal was therapeutic, although it had educational ends as well. The first CW was successful in sensitizing us to the challenges of maintaining a supportive community and, perhaps, healing some of the wounds caused by the incidents in question. Instead of moving on, however, the organizers proposed that it be staged again, this time without the expensive marquee speakers of the first year. The second time around, the results are harder to judge, in part because the objectives were ambiguous. Claims of success are anecdotal at best. On this shaky foundation rests the proposition that we should make CW a permanent fixture in the College calendar, where it would rival Mountain Day and Commencement with respect to its public salience.

Stop a minute to consider CW’s goals. Its online mission statement declares that this special day is designed to “[challenge] the effects of the College’s history of inequality that are based on privileges of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion” in order to “provoke individual, institutional and cultural change.” This implies that the College cannot successfully pursue shared educational goals and a common commitment to learning until it has atoned for its regrettable “privileges,” an atonement never likely to be achieved. Who will decide that all grievances have been heard, all past injustices righted? There is no end to it.

Ironically, CW’s organizational scheme is far from inclusive. It marginalizes many faculty, students and staff whose primary interests are not confined to the areas of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. CW’s focal concerns are undoubtedly important, but no convincing case has been made that their significance so outweighs other dimensions of the College’s mission that they merit a special day being set aside for them every year.

The cringe-worthy quality of some elements of CW’s rationale is not lost on students of the College. A fair number – and, yes, this includes students of color – have spontaneously voiced to me and to other faculty members their skepticism and even embarrassment about the event. Among the more outspoken are those international students with first-hand experience of overt political violence, poverty and institutional discrimination in their home countries. They find bizarre and self-indulgent CW’s claims that Williams is a fundamentally hostile place. What they see is a community privileged to enjoy such amenities as physical safety, enviable food and housing and competent, caring employees. To note this is not to defend prejudice or abusive behavior, which have no legitimate place at Williams. It is only to reject the trivialization of suffering inherent in CW’s vision of the College.

There is a more important reason that the CW proposal should be rejected: The relentless focus on the College itself sends an unfortunate message to our students and the world at large. Williams is in some ways an otherworldly place: isolated, attractive, insulated from many of the pathologies of life elsewhere, although not completely immune to them. As educators, we should be working tirelessly to direct our students’ attention to the wider world and its formidable problems – everything from global climate change to terrorism, from the relentless spread of neoliberalism to the precariousness of the global financial system – the significance of which dwarfs the injuries that gave rise to CW. The message that a permanent, institutionalized CW will send, then, is an inward-looking one that flirts with preciousness and self-absorption. There are surely more effective ways to assert the institution’s robust commitment to tolerance and diversity.

Something that CW has gotten right is the idea of setting aside one day a year during which the entire community can come together to ponder a single issue of transcendent importance. Why not appropriate this dimension of CW to turn our collective gaze beyond Williamstown? Call it “Williams/World.” Call it whatever you like. It could focus on issues of political or scientific or moral import, things that matter to everyone. Such a flexible model could periodically revisit the concerns that inspired the first CW, while offering a better prospect of taking us from grievances to ideas, from recrimination to creativity – and, in doing so, nurturing an ethic of mutual respect.