There was a time, within living memory, when the term multiculturalism was hardly known. More than twenty years ago, Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and in late July speaker at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, wrote a book with fellow Stanford alum David Sacks called The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford (1995).
The book’s title refers to the pretense that embracing “diversity” actually promotes diversity of all types, a claim commonly heard to this day. Thiel had been a student at Stanford when, in January 1987, demonstrators defending “the Rainbow Agenda” chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” This protest led to the infamous “revision” (i.e., suppression) of the Western Culture requirement at Stanford, replaced with a freshman sequence called Cultures, Ideas, and Values, mandating an emphasis on race, gender, and class.
In her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book, the well-known American historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese referred to Stanford as “a surreal world of social engineering and institutional arrogance” and highlighted the school’s efforts to wage a “campaign to reshape thought and behavior.” She noted that while the term “affirmative action” had been replaced by “diversity,” the latter term, far from actually promoting intellectual diversity, rested on “a series of interlocking attitudes and practices.”
Furthermore, “multiculturalism” did not involve greater emphasis on mastering foreign languages or carefully studying cultures other than those of the English-speaking world. Instead, work in literature and culture programs was (and still is) done increasingly in English and focused on contemporary writers. Nor did multiculturalism, any more than the word diversity, mean familiarizing students with a diversity of views. Rather, as Fox-Genovese summarized it, it meant requiring students “to agree with or even applaud views and values that mock the values with which they have been reared.” And all this, she observed, was being accompanied by rampant grade inflation.
On the very first page of their book, Sacks and Thiel commented on the double entendre implicit in the Stanford protesters’ chant of “Western Culture’s got to go.” It was not just the required Western Culture course that was being denounced, ostensibly because most of the books studied had been written by “dead white males,” a group that was by definition considered illegitimate. Rather, it was the Western tradition as a whole.
Such a move was both novel and extraordinary, Sacks and Thiel wrote, for it “attacked not the quality or historical significance of the great books, but rather the authors themselves – for being of the wrong race, gender, or class.”
The Diversity Myth noted the chilling potential consequences of such attacks, which are now entirely routine, hardly worth commenting on. “Whereas the Western Culture canon had been based upon a belief in universalism—the belief that the insights contained within the West’s great works were potentially available to everybody—the new curriculum embraced particularism: What one may know is determined by the circumstances of one’s birth.”
The assault wasn’t merely on the idea of universalism, which assumed that, as Sidney Hook explained in a 1989 essay that Sacks and Thiel summarize: “There exist truths that transcend the accidents of one’s birth, and these objective truths are in principle available to everyone—whether young or old, rich or poor, male or female, white or black.” A distinct view of human nature was being proposed instead, one that rejected the belief that individuals, and indeed humanity as a whole, “are not trapped within a closed cultural space that predetermines what they may know.” Sacks and Thiel warned that by this rejection, the Stanford protestors of 1987 “would pave the way for a very different kind of academy.”
Fast forward 20-some years and the “different kind of academy” is everywhere around us, proudly kowtowing to the demands of (certain) identity groups and wearing its heart on its sleeve about its profound commitment to, as the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst constantly reiterates, “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The pressures have intensified and grown more and more unabashedly political, as evidenced in UMass’s recently revised “cultural diversity” courses, which go well beyond the standard inclusion of particular identity groups.
Whereas in the past the university had concentrated on prohibiting offensive speech, via the sorts of “harassment” policies that exist to chill speech in virtually all universities today, UMass now also compels certain types of speech and attitudes. The new version of “cultural diversity” courses, of which all students are required to take two, must now explicitly critique inequalities and injustices, oppression and hegemony, in order to lead students to pursue change on behalf of “social justice,” yet another overused and vague term (see Patai and Silverglate).
At Yale University, to take another recent example, in 2016, in the context of the numerous protests across the nation that campuses were not addressing “systemic racism,” undergraduates in the English Department crafted a petition to “decolonize” (not just diversify) the department’s two-semester famed basic course sequence, Major English Poets, pre-1800/1900, which focused primarily on eight great poets. In the petition, the students claimed that the absence of women, people of color, and queer folk from these two courses “actively harms all students, regardless of their identity” by creating “a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”
The existence of many courses in the department (and out of it) related to race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality was deemed insufficient, since these were mainly upper-level courses. The demand shows that the students’ motivation is not to make available to them courses including or devoted entirely to non-white-males (since such courses already exist), but rather to force other students to study what these student activists believe they should study.
The Yale Daily News account of this episode is followed by 20 comments critical, often scathingly so, of the petition. One of these quotes at length from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk:
I sit with Shakespeare, and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out of 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 all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?
It is likely that most student protesters today are ignorant of this passage (and of so much else), or, if they knew of it, would merely sneer at its universalist underpinnings, or dismiss it as nothing but a “reinscribing” of dominant views.
As Sacks and Thiel foresaw in their book, the diversity myth has devolved into a host of additional myths rooted in identity politics and ideological policing, while the reality of a debased education, deliberately made subservient to present political passions, goes unaddressed. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, however, was still optimistic at the time she wrote her foreword to Sacks and Thiel’s book.
Stressing the alarming core argument of The Diversity Myth, she nonetheless believed that the book was “appearing at a moment of mounting public consciousness of the ways in which our educational system is failing our young people. We all know that we are doing something wrong.”
Such warnings, along with numerous similar ones, as it turned out, went unheeded, as the ever more extreme episodes of politically correct demands on college campuses over the past two decades indicate. An ironic detail confirms this reality: Just before their book was released, Sacks and Thiel published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (October 9, 1995) ridiculing the new curriculum as “mindless.”
This in turn inspired Stanford’s president to write in protest, labeling their op-ed “demagoguery” and accusing them of concocting a “cartoon” image of the new curriculum. By now, sadly, it is hardly possible to satirize American universities, since even not-yet-dead white administrators rush to embrace perspectives that used to be held mostly by angry students.
Increasingly, students these days present their grievances as non-negotiable demands. In addition to the ever-expanding identity categories, in recent years we have seen both administrators and faculty members forced to resign for holding the “wrong” opinions or not capitulating rapidly enough to the demands of student protesters. In other words, what Sacks and Thiel argued very clearly more than two decades ago was on the mark. They saw that the real issues roiling universities had to do not with education or intellectual diversity or even equal opportunity (long since replaced by the demand for equal outcomes, “safe spaces,” and “comfort”), but rather with promoting particular aggrieved identity groups and their political views, in the classroom and out.
Stanford’s story doesn’t end with the curriculum revision thirty years ago, however. As it happens, in 1987 Peter Thiel was a co-founder of the Stanford Review, created to promote campus debate beyond the perspectives that were rapidly acquiring the status of a new orthodoxy. In the spring of 2016, the Stanford Review, still pursuing its contrarian mission, sponsored a ballot initiative to restore, as a requirement, a two-part freshmen course on the Western world. The result – which ought to shock everyone but in fact surprised few people in the academic world – was that the initiative was roundly rejected, garnering less than 15% support from the student body.
The strict limitations, both political and cultural, that define multiculturalism and diversity are also displayed in the spate of disinvitations in recent years of Commencement speakers, lecturers, and other guests whose political views do not suit the petty tyrants on college campuses (see FIRE’s “Disinvitation Report 2014: A Disturbing 15-Year Trend”).
To take just one example, which also demonstrates that to campus ideologues, having the correct politics trumps even race and gender, consider the case of Somalian-born writer and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to Hirsi Ali, who was to receive an honorary degree at Commencement. A campus petition objecting to the award, on the grounds of her impassioned criticisms of Islam, was signed by nearly 25% of Brandeis’s faculty and 6,000 others inside and outside Brandeis.
FIRE’s Disinvitation Report noted that the trend was growing, and that severely restrictive speech codes were typically found at those schools with the highest numbers of incidents of disinvitation. There is a sublime irony in the spectacle of self-righteous individuals at an elite university using the liberal values of free speech and open debate to denounce a fearless critic of female genital mutilation and other practices of violence that she experienced as part of the Islamic culture in which she grew up. This intolerance of “diverse” points of view is particularly telling at the present time, when Islamist terrorism is on the rise worldwide but, mysteriously, is seldom addressed on college campuses.
For her outspoken positions, Hirsi Ali is accused of “hate speech” and “Islamophobia” – even as equally adamant critics of, say, the U.S. or Israel are welcomed as speakers and faculty members, and universities and professional academic associations seek to enforce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. In fact, as Andrew Anthony wrote in The Guardian (April 27, 2015), Hirsi Ali “is loathed not just by Islamic fundamentalists but by many western liberals, who find her rejection of Islam almost as objectionable as her embrace of western liberalism.”
Perhaps the students at these prestigious universities need to read the work of historian Niall Ferguson, who moved to Stanford’s Hoover Institution in 2016, after 12 years at Harvard. Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011) presents a thorough account of 500 years of Western civilization’s contributions to the world, in terms of such basic measures of well-being as health, economic prosperity, and civil and political rights.
No doubt all this counts for nothing among today’s student protesters, who are incapable of spotting anything other than racism, sexism, and imperialism in the West. Although these university students are among the very people who benefit the most from all that Western culture has achieved, they evidently lack the imagination to grasp what it would mean to actually live in a society that controls their speech and movements, deprives them of the right to be heard, and imposes a rigid political ideology (not the one they happen to support) on their education. But to truly understand the values they so blithely reject, they’d probably need a course in Western culture.