Multiculturalism Sparks Debate
Students and Administrators Discuss Diversityby Miranda Reason (11/12/99)
The Nov. 11 discussion regarding "The Future of Multiculturalism at Oberlin: a Learning Conversation" aroused engaging topics of debate as well as deeply felt student sentiment.
Professor of Politics Paul Dawson moderated the conversation while guest speakers, Professor Amy Gutmann from Princeton University and Professor Michael Sandel from Harvard University, answered questions about their experience and knowledge on the subject. The panel also included Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith, and President of the Senior Class Ingrid Huang.
Dean Goldsmith opened the conversation by asking that the audience take into consideration certain curriculum issues in order to examine and re-evaluate the College's cultural diversity goals. The discussion was moved to issues of learning and multiculturalism occurring outside of academic curriculum. Many students' questions were directed at the Oberlin administration on such topics as program housing, minority studies, and admission standards.
Discussion quickly turned into heated debate. Students proposed many strains of questions but frequently failed to expound upon them. Jokingly describing the formation of the discussion, Sandel said, "[This has become] a super-charged, high-powered Oprah Winfrey show." Perhaps this was a realization on the part of the College community that this conversation was a catalyst to addressing this topic, not only on a yearly basis, but a daily one.
"I don't think the purpose of the curriculum is to nurture people or to make them feel comfortable. I think the main purpose [in regards with engaging and challenging people with knowledge] is to make everyone uncomfortable, so that learning takes place. So you won't feel settled in your beliefs, assumptions, and convictions," Sandel said. "The people who are angry should be happy because they are uncomfortable, and they are getting the best education. The ideal should be for everyone to seize those opportunities. Diversity is not a property of one person, but a collective of people. Diversity is nurtured by making every one of us aware and unsettled."
He pointed out that the conversation that was taking place had no particular topic because multiculturalism is such a deeply sensitive issue. He asked whether the community should be discussing multiculturalism at all. Perhaps that term is much too broad and will lead nowhere, but to more questions and more deeply sentimental feelings.
Dean Goldsmith said, "The start of the conversation is what students ought to have learned and acquired [during their time at Oberlin] on the subject of multiculturalism."
Gutmann differentiated between two different concepts of multiculturalism: a notion of one person with distinct cultural identities or a notion of one person with many cultural identities. The latter may be harder to understand, yet the community may benefit from the clash of cultures while concurrently benefiting from cooperation. She said the balance between clash and cooperation provides an environment of open-mindedness.
The question plaguing many students after the conversation is not what to say about multiculturalism, but how to approach talking about the issue. In the words of Sandel, "We should start with asking ourselves how can we live with differences and how can we learn from these differences?".
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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