Takaki espouses an intellectual approach to the study of America's racial and cultural diversity. The author of eight books, including Iron Curtain: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, he has explored how the Western concepts of democracy and equality have become American; "how excluded groups claimed those principles and made them more."
Takaki acknowledged that multiculturalism in the classroom has its opponents, and is often dismissed as identity politics. "There is a narrow ethnic nationalism that can be restrictive and problematic," he admitted, although he believes such pitfalls can be avoided by encouraging students to study ethnicities other than their own, and to incorporate what they learn into a larger context.
Professor Takaki's visit to campus was the second in the all-campus convocation series. Initiated by President Nancy S. Dye last fall with Cornel West's September visit, the series is designed to "bring our community together to discuss a topic of common concern, a shared conversation about important issues of the day," she says.
The West and Takaki visits involved more than an hour-long speech followed by a question-and-answer session. Copies of their books were distributed on campus, and forums were organized for faculty and students to discuss the issues they presented. Takaki spent two days on campus, during which he met with faculty in a mini workshop, Expanding the Multicultural Curriculum.
Convocations "are great for unifying the campus around a particular event," says Assistant Dean Shilpa Davé of the Division of Student Life & Service's Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), but it's important to maintain that unity. The MRC organized a series of discussions focusing on particular chapters of A Distant Mirror, with faculty leading the discussions.
"I hope to see this series become an integral part of campus life," says Dye. "Many alumni have told me how important convocations have been in the past. We are trying to recreate a sense of Oberlin as an intellectual and artistic community."
Benson Tong, visiting associate professor of history, also hopes the convocations will be integrated into campus life. "We must find bridges between different disciplines," he says. "We can never become complacent about the state of our teaching and scholarship; we must devise a means through which we can create a synthetic understanding of the past, present, and future."