Georgetown’s institutional arrangements embody a subtle but profound philosophy about the relationship of the “Many and the One.” Each of us at once belongs to a specific school as well as a university. We are part of a collegium – a gathering of colleagues, of particular people bound in a spirit of community – as well as members of the universitas, the whole or entirety. Neither of these memberships contains the whole of the human experience or understanding. Rather, we are simultaneously creatures of specific communities as well as parts of a created order that is whole and entire.

Intellectually, we are further divided into departments, or disciplines. Departments are separate approaches to knowledge that can only know part of the whole when standing alone, but which together seek a more comprehensive knowledge. At Georgetown, the disciplines that have had a special place of pride are theology and philosophy, reflecting the Catholic belief that, through the distinct but compatible approaches of faith and reason, we can ascend to a comprehensive knowledge of the created order.

This basic arrangement gives its due simultaneously to the “Many and the One.” As human creatures, we are placed diversely, embodied as men and women; born in different places and to different circumstances; drawn by disposition and talent to different professions and interests. Yet we are all part of a larger whole, a more comprehensive membership in the body of which we are all constitutive parts.

The brilliance of Georgetown’s longstanding arrangements is to acknowledge the simultaneous truth of both of these aspects of human life – that we are simultaneously Many and One, parts and a whole, colleagues within university. The two are mutually reinforcing, distinct but compatible.

The proposal for a set of diversity requirements and the attendant creation of new programs based on ethnic and racial identity, threatens to obliterate this longstanding philosophy. While it speaks of the ideal of broadening perspectives and increasing tolerance, its more subtle and insidious teaching will be to propound the notion that diversity is most fundamentally based in forms of ascriptive identity – such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation – and that certain of these identities need official representation on campus.

The proposal moves the university away from the constitutive idea that the diversity of the world is the pathway to knowledge of a more comprehensive whole. A diversity requirement would move the university toward the idea that we are fundamentally defined by fragmentation and disintegration, and the only approach in such a situation is a kind of uncomprehending toleration and a kind of benign indifference.

This arrangement would institutionalize the notion that certain kinds of assigned identity make the experiences of various groups fundamentally unique and unknowable. Rather than ultimately aspiring to know what is common about humanity as parts of the created order, we would instantiate the idea that we are most fundamentally creatures of ascriptive happenstance.

I would submit that the challenge of diversity demands not that we create academic enclaves around racial and ethnic identity, but that we foster more commonality, more collegiality within the university. If anything, the basic design of Georgetown has been undermined by fragmentation and lack of integration: Students study little in common, and thus have ever less intellectual material by which to bridge their personal experiences. The proposed requirement would have the effect of further imprisoning our students within their personal experiences, thwarting conversation about what is shared by appeal to the inviolability of identity.

At the first town hall meeting to discuss the diversity requirement proposal, one African-American student pointed out that he had been in classes in which various European philosophers had been discussed, but that it was only when they began reading “The Color Purple” that he was able to read the course material for the first time. I fear that this proposal, if adopted, will institutionalize this kind of subjectivism and that each of us will in effect be subtly taught that we are all fundamentally trapped in our own caves. Until now, a Georgetown education has sought to point us above the cave, to a shared knowledge of the truth. It was this very Platonic belief that was echoed centuries later by W. E. B. DuBois, when he wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk”:
“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not; I move arm in arm with Balzac and with Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come with no scorn or condescension. So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil, above the dull red hideousness of Georgia; and standing upon this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, I sight the Promised Land.”

DuBois would point us to what is more common in our humanity than those things that may appear to separate us, a knowledge that will be blocked if we trap ourselves within the caves that this proposal would create.

Patrick Deneen is an associate professor in the government department. He can be reached at deneen@thehoya.com. Against the Grain appears every other Tuesday.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*