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Table of Contents

As Big As All Outdoors

Turn Left in Bismarck, and Go Until…

Granting Research

Rocking Our World

Relax! We Have New Labs for That

Fieldwork Across the Curriculum:
Update on ISEI

The World of Science

Laurentian Reviews

Letter from James Costopoulos '83

Lifelong Learning
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Page 2

Alumni Accomplishments

Table of Contents

The following letter to the editor addresses issues raised in the Summer/Fall 2002 St. Lawrence, whose theme was “The Difference That Difference Makes.” An abridged version appears in the print version of the Winter 2003 magazine.

To the Editor:

After reading the Summer/Fall issue of St. Lawrence, I was half inclined to write a letter to President Sullivan to demand my parents’ money back. I went to St. Lawrence in the pre-difference days (1979-83), so if difference really makes the sort of difference that the authors indicate, then my St. Lawrence education was seriously defective. To be honest, though, I feel like I got a pretty good education, or at least its defects had nothing to do with a lack of difference. But as I reflect back on my experiences as a student, I wonder whether my spontaneous encounters with difference, and difference’s encounters with me, were not in fact more genuine and felt precisely because they were not mediated by an elaborate discourse of difference.

There are many aspects of the articles by Lisa Cania and Joseph Kling that I really cannot understand. It seems hard to believe that the Hewlett Foundation and Christine Zimmerman would have funded such an extensive project whose only goal seems to have been to vindicate the truth of a platitude, “we are all different.” Cania claims that "if a society is truly diverse, the distinction of group identity is critical, and should be promoted rather than denied.” How is that statement consistent with what she says almost immediately afterwards: “All members of a society, then, are different.” How can we speak about group identity if we consider all members of a society to be different? Would it not be the case that if we were to designate one group as "culturally dominant," and another as not, then we have denied to the members of both groups (if such groupings are even possible in the first place) precisely the thing we seek to promote -- difference?

Cania also claims that “diversity is described by attitude,” but then goes on to say that the “predominant descriptors of diversity” are gender, race and class. Do these “predominant descriptors” suggest attitudinal differences within these groupings or between them? Do we not deny difference by using abstract categories like gender, race and class to classify attitudinal differences? Why only these descriptors and not others?

The audits seem to say that St. Lawrence has a lot of work to do to promote difference on campus. The data indicate, for example, that a concerted effort needs to be made to attract and retain more men, more conservative students, and especially more conservative women. Will St. Lawrence undertake a serious effort to create a community that includes conservative women? Will St. Lawrence make the recruitment and retention of conservative students and faculty not just a primary but an over-riding policy goal? If not, why not?

Cania's use of the term “Caucasian” is instructive since, at least in the way it was originally conceived, this category would include such people as Adolph Hitler, Mother Theresa, Joseph Stalin, Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, Cleopatra, Yasir Arafat, Ariel Sharon, Fidel Castro, Joan of Arc, Osama Bin Laden, and Albert Einstein, among others. If the “Caucasian” category can encompass such diversity, can it have any real meaning? If the category was created by those who deny difference, then can it be usefully employed by those who claim to promote it? Or is the anti-difference bias an inherent feature of the category? Is it an inherent feature of any such category?

Kling says his purpose, and one assumes the purpose of the Hewlett committee, is to overturn “the biases of an entire culture.” I could not help but wonder whether this claim is consistent with President Sullivan's claim that diversity and inclusiveness are “aspirations embedded in the American creed.” (p.73). In any case, the question of overturning biases makes me wonder if Kling claims a privileged perspective as a basis to pursue his revolutionary purpose. How were you able to transcend the biases of your culture? Do you advocate replacing one set of biases with another, or do you claim an unbiased perspective? Is not the very idea of an unbiased perspective part of the cultural matrix you seek to overturn? Have you not simply replaced one “mythical norm” with another, one that merely reflects your own biases?

Kling has more difference categories than Ms. Cania, including “race, color, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and those who are physically challenged.” What about regional differences, or type of community (urban, suburban, rural)? Or body type, IQ, handedness or diet (flesh-eating, vegetarian, vegan, etc.)? Why do Kling and Cania privilege some difference categories while ignoring others?

Kling goes on to make the startling claim that for the work of the Hewlett committee to be successful, “’difference’ has to be recognized as including white people.” What is “white”? Does this designation fall under race or color? Who created this category in the first place and then decided who belongs to it? Is this category socially constructed or grounded in nature? Is not this category riven with differences of color, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and those who are physically challenged, etc.? Does not this category then disintegrate into multiple differences and therefore cease to be meaningful? Can there be such a thing as “we” versus “they” if there is no singular “we”? Does not the very use of “white” elide all the differences of those who are assigned to that group, and is doing that not contrary to a recognition of difference?

President Sullivan remarks that "diversity education is not about the inculcation of ideology." (p.72). I take it that the necessity of including this disclaimer means that there is some concern that difference has become an ideology. I think that is wrong, but there is a good reason why a person of modest means like me could be confused.

In most ideologies, Nazism, Communism, feminism, for example, one can expect a high degree of internal consistency. This is because ideologies seek to reduce the diversity of human life down to a single category or principle, race, class, or gender, for example, and then use that as the basis to create an elaborate conceptual structure that seeks to explain the totality of our existence. An important feature of such structures is a struggle narrative derived from the base category: Aryan versus Jew, Bourgeoisie versus Proletariat, male versus female. The struggle narrative is necessary to justify trying to force a recalcitrant reality to conform to the strictures of the ideology. The point, to paraphrase Marx, is not simply to understand the world, but to change it.

From what little I can tell, “difference,” as articulated by Kling and Cania, does not seek such a reduction since it does not claim a single category as its own. It claims all categories apparently on an equal basis! We might think of difference as constituting a principle, but because it has no specific content, it cannot work as the foundation of an ideology. Difference discourse, then, cannot be an ideology, at least not in a strict sense. So why the confusion?

Instead of thinking of “difference” discourse as an ideology, maybe we should think of it as a story, a narrative, that purports to encompass all of us. The pretense of providing a total account is one reason for the confusion. In addition, for some reason, Kling and Cania seem compelled to try and derive a struggle narrative from their difference principle. Of their many categories, race, class, gender, etc., they seem to privilege race (or is it color?) by way of making this connection. In my view, however, these categories are all antithetical to the difference principle so that any connection to the struggle narrative can only be rhetorical.

Kling and Cania present us with a grand narrative, “Other versus White,” that essentializes both these groups, thus denying to each what it is they, Kling and Cania, claim to advocate – “difference.” The “mythical norm” is itself a myth, a corollary to the grand narrative, whose purpose is to create a fictional enemy, bleached and brittle, and set up to be consumed in a revolutionary conflagration of otherness. It's quite a tale!

The issue is not so much that St. Lawrence students will be inculcated with an ideology, but that they will be inculcated with incoherence. Kling's resigned tone in his “Where Do We Go From Here?” comments suggests to me that many St. Lawrence students understand the problematic character of the difference narrative. That most keep their reservations to themselves is probably rooted in the misperception that difference is an ideology whose struggle narrative will define critics and dissenters as enemies, bigots, counter-revolutionaries, and chauvinists.

Since the flaw is in the narrative itself, whatever institutional forms or programs are created based on that narrative, will be fatally compromised. In my view, that is not necessarily a bad thing. I do wonder, though, whether such an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and resources could not be better deployed.

Before concluding, let me make a preemptive strike against those who would claim that I am being ahistorical, that the struggle narrative is an obvious fact of history. The “facts” of history are rendered meaningful by the biases we bring with us when we look at the past. A communist will see the class struggle as a fact, every bit as much as a difference narrator might see “White versus Other” as a fact. There is no unbiased perspective, so there are no meaningful facts separate from the conceptual structures through which we view the world.

When I graduated from St. Lawrence, I looked forward to the possibility that my diploma would appreciate in value, that my college would become more competitive in the years after I left. From what I can tell, that has not happened.

For me it remains a source of deep concern that St. Lawrence, which has such potential, seems to settle for so much less. Imposing a difference regime on campus is not going to improve the education that St. Lawrence offers its students, nor will it enable St. Lawrence to compete with other small liberal arts colleges for the best students. Most of these other colleges are also partisans of difference, but what many of them also have is a curriculum of genuine depth and breadth, a truly skilled and knowledgeable faculty, and staff, and a commitment to excellence throughout the institution. Many of them can afford to dabble in difference rhetoric, experiment with new institutional structures and programs, and, in general, keep up with the latest fads in higher education. St. Lawrence cannot afford to do that.

James Costopoulos '83
Poughkeepsie, New York