Dan recently posed the question, “how self-referential are we?”, and I’d now like to take a stab at answering that: A lot. How do I know? Three potential answers:
a) I live in Washington, DC
b) I teach undergraduates, or
c) I recently sat through two and a half hours of “dialogue” on diversity, engaging difference, and the Jesuit tradition of liberal arts education.
True, (a) is a strong contender, but the answer is (c). (I’m pretty fond of my undergrads, at least today, and in any case we can probably just expect them to be a bit self-referential at this stage.) The event started off well enough, with a Jesuit historian asking whether “engaging difference” is something that is consonant with 450 years of Jesuit liberal arts education tradition. He answered that yes, of course, a liberal arts education produces, as one of its happy side effects, the student’s ability to come out of himself, to expand his mind and, yes, engage different ways of thinking and seeing the world. Furthermore, though by no means perfectly, the Jesuits themselves have served as missionaries to just about every culture on earth, usually learning the local language and adopting local customs (in dress, food, lifestyle, etc.). So, you know, yes. We can both have a liberal arts education and engage people who are different from us.
This would all be just fine, if a bit, well, obvious (again, if we’ve been doing this for 450 years, why are we hosting a half-day symposium on the matter?), but then everyone else spoke. Topics included seminars for students on experiences and differences among socio-economic classes, racial identities, sexual orientation, etc. Very little was enlightening. In fact, the only genuinely thought-provoking question from the audience – asking why a program in which students have cross-cultural skype conversations as part of certain courses would insist on using only English, for this presumes that “we can understand the world in English alone” – was left unaddressed.
Before I’m hauled off by the thought police for hating diversity, though, I would like to repeat, for the record, the Jesuit’s point: we should engage people who are different from us. Yes. I’m sorry, but duh. At what point was that idea lost within the liberal arts? Was it when we were forced to read philosophy that challenged our core assumptions about the world? When we had to tackle the depths of Shakespeare – Western white man that he was – which provokes the imagination to see beyond the pale images of the life it sees on its own? Or was it through the study of history, which puts our own moment in time – and our own lives – into proper perspective as at once tiny and potentially earth-shattering?
Evidently that’s not enough, though. Rather, after the initial nod to the liberal arts, panelists, including current students, were lauded for having had “experiences” and “dialogues.” These experiences were usually a form of encounter rather than real engagement – e.g., a student studied in Egypt but lived in a dorm with the American students, falling into the habit of meeting with her assigned Egyptian family maybe just once a month instead of their scheduled weekly meetings. The dialogues were ways of talking about differences, rather than actually working with different people.
I don’t mean to be overly critical; I’m thrilled that these students are studying abroad and I’m thrilled that they at least have planted within the themselves the notion that their own perspectives are not the only ones. But what was missing from the entire conversation was a mention of truth. What mattered was that students had “experiences” and “dialogues”; nowhere was the entire point of the liberal arts tradition – to come to know the world, oneself, and the truth – allowed to interfere with whatever impressions and feelings those experiences elicited.
I include the picture above in part as protection against the Thought Police/Academia Guardians (look! I like people who don’t look like me!) but actually to illustrate a point about engaging difference. The picture is of a man from Azilal, Morocco, with whom I worked to train rural association members in grant-writing and project-planning (water projects, ecotourism, aid for the disabled, etc.) The point I mean to make is that yes, we engage difference. But not for its own sake; for the sake of something higher. My boss in the Peace Corps, a very thoughtful Moroccan man who had studied in both Morocco and America, made an important point during our training. Yes, Peace Corps exists for the two-fold purpose of a) filling needs in developing countries for skills and knowledge and b) facilitating cultural exchange between Americans and the people of host countries. But as he pointed out, if you do (a) you will get (b) thrown in with it; if you aim only for (b) you won’t really get either. Getting to know another culture does not happen in a dialoguing vacuum. When you work side-by-side with Moroccans on a project, you will – of necessity – learn about their culture, ways of life, and different perspectives. But if you shirk your work duties and content yourself with drinking tea (er, “dialoguing”) with locals, yes, you may learn something about the culture. But you’ll never understand it. In my experience, those who only talk and absorb the culture mistakenly believe they really know something about it. Those who do the hard work of learning the language, working with people who initially make no sense to you (or drive you crazy) – or to whom you make no sense – find that there is infinitely more to learn about these people than they can ever hope to gain. They acquire at once a humility – not claiming to know everything that every Moroccan would say or do in situation X – and a firm understanding of at least some things about those people who are different.
And so it is, I think, with truth, including the truths we learn when we “engage difference.” If we just talk about it, we are likely to congratulate ourselves on having really learned what it’s like to be the person on the other end of the Skype conversation, because, well, they spoke your language and you never had to see them when they weren’t talking to you. But if instead you simply go about life seeking truth – in Dan’s words, “that truth that is independent of its adherents” – you’ll go ahead and work with those people that are different from you precisely because you are learning that you don’t know it all, nor will all the scattershot experiences and contrived dialogues get you there.
There is plenty of room in a liberal arts education for more exposure to great works of other cultures and to engage all kinds of differences. But this is no reason to abandon the mission to educate human beings in seeking truth – especially not in favor of the poor substitute of adding up “experiences”.