The Discourse of Generality

Dartmouth students occupy President Hanlon's office

Dartmouth students occupy President Hanlon’s office

On April first, the “Concerned Asian, Black, Latin@, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled students at Dartmouth College” acted on their promise of “physical action” and remained in President Phil Hanlon ‘77’s office overnight. Before they rolled out their sleeping bags, the protesters attempted – ultimately in vain – to glean from President Hanlon some kind of point-by-point response to the Freedom Budget.

The Concerned Students’ style of grievance has been roundly and justly criticized across most every non-Concerned Students-affiliated medium, from The Daily Dartmouth to The Wall Street Journal. But in response to this vociferous uproar, the Freedom Budget’s defenders have returned to one, overarching point: though the protesters’ methods are course, their underlying motivations are just. Critics ought not to miss the “bigger picture,” as Carla Yoon ’15 and Eliana Piper ’14 argued in an April 4 op-ed in the Daily D.

But the reason why observers have been so critical of the protesters’ methods – why they’re all missing “the bigger picture” – is not because they disagree with the methods alone. They simply find it too difficult to argue with the protesters on the merits of their points; to them, the Concerned Students seem to inhabit another plane of reasoning, where the medium supersedes the message and jargon substitutes for reason.

Question the existence or the level of “institutional violence” directed towards certain groups? If the inquirer doesn’t tick off the requisite number of boxes needed to qualify as “oppressed,” his or her question is inherently invalid. Dispute the protesters’ notion – articulated during the sit-in – that the College is a “historically, prestigiously, exclusively white institution [which has] had a history in the economies of slavery and genocide?” Some re-education is necessary. Whatever the question, the answer is invariably laden with pseudo-academic verbiage that ostensibly only means anything to the protesters themselves.  Debating the plan or even the need for a plan is inherently futile.

The Concerned Students’ sit-in, at heart, was an act of desperation. In their eyes, the protest was a last mode of recourse in a College dominated by “white power structures,” where only radical action could affect desperately needed change. In reality, the protest was self-deception writ large: the truth is that very few people, outside of the protesters themselves, actually agree with the bulk of the Freedom Budget. If reasonable action to reduce levels of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia – all anathema to virtually every single person at this College – were available, it would already have been endorsed by the administration. But instead of understanding this and adjusting their proposal, the Concerned Students choose to remain inside their echo chamber, blaming opposition on some kind of invisible, oppressive force instead of the fact that their plan simply isn’t a very good one.

Naturally, that entire swaths of the Dartmouth community are unable to communicate with one another does not help this state of affairs. As President Hanlon admirably and correctly put it in a March 24 blitz to campus, “it is vital that we have a respectful dialogue about the things that are of importance to us. Free and open debate is the lifeblood of any academic institution.” But while both the Concerned Students and their critics agree intuitively with the President’s sentiments, the Freedom Budget, if even partly enacted, would serve to further harm dialogue on campus.

On February 24, when the Freedom Budget was published, I wrote a response on The Review’s website that went up that evening. My initial reaction centered on two key points: that their physical action would inevitably backfire, and that their curricular suggestions would only serve to politicize and divide the College. My first prognostication has already come true: not only did I foresee that the Concerned Students would “begin occupying academic buildings,” but I predicted that “physical action” would only turn off potential supporters and allow natural opponents to paint a “false, sensationalized picture” of the protesters. With any luck, my second never will, for The Review desperately hopes that the College, instead of requiring “classes that will challenge [students’] understanding of institutionalized injustice around issues of race, class, gender, [and] sexuality,” institutes some kind of classics and liberal-arts centered core curriculum, similar to those in place at Columbia and Chicago.

A core curriculum would strengthen campus dialogue in two concrete ways. For one, it would help students at the College think outside generalities – a problem endemic to the United States. In his seminal Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville explains that:

In centuries of equality, all men are independent of each other, isolated and weak. So in order to explain what is happening in the world, you are reduced to searching for some general causes that, acting in the same way on each one of our fellows, therefore lead them all voluntarily to follow the same route. That also naturally leads the human mind to conceive general ideas and causes it to contract the taste for them.

Tocqueville explains the American predilection towards general ideas as a consequence of its unbroken history as a democratic republic. Because equality is assumed, all 300 million opinions hold the same sway; in turn, it seems that no one person can influence the direction of the country. This explains why American voter turnout rates are perpetually low, and, of course, why our citizens are unusually likely to accept deterministic explanations of society, explanations that show how little autonomy the individual has. The College can counter this tendency towards generality by becoming a depoliticized instrument of education, where the only goal is the impartial search for knowledge. It ought to train its students to think clearly and reject dogmatisms – and it can do so by focusing on the “great questions” and humanity’s best attempts to answer them.

The Concerned Students’ curricular suggestions, unfortunately, would only enhance our natural tendency toward generalities: certain fields of study often simultaneously encourage dogmatism and promote deterministic thinking. The home page of the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth, for instance, states that:
The Gender Research Institute (GRID) encourages, facilitates, and showcases gender-related research, teaching, and social engagement that address why the 21st century is still a time profoundly structured by gender, racial, ethnic, and economic inequality.

Implicit in GRID’s mission statement, that the twenty-first century is still defined by “gender, racial, ethnic, and economic inequality,” and that the ethnicity, sexuality, or gender someone identifies with determines their lot in life. This subtly encourages students to see one another as representatives of some group instead of as independent minds: the very nature of systemic oppression, after all, is that it is not conscious and individual but unconscious and collective. This tendency makes real campus dialogue inherently difficult, because arguments are often ignored solely on the basis of the ethnicity or gender of their articulators.

Also notice how GRID’s desired end is to produce research that proves what is taken to be given, that our era is “profoundly structured” by inequality. There’s no question that the statement is correct: the truth has already been ascertained, and all that remains is the legwork to prove it. This assured trait is unique to certain, identity-based programs: the economics department, for instance, would never organize its curriculum around the thesis that “laissez-faire capitalism is inherently correct.” It explains why many of the Concerned Students are so rigid in their claims and demands: their classes have simply not prepared them to doubt their own points.

In turn, the second function of a core in enhancing campus dialogue is that because there is no sort of standardized curriculum, people at the College share no common base of knowledge. Students subsequently acquire starkly different worldviews based on which “track” they take. A large, self-selecting group focuses on fields of identity scholarship. Certain students – many of whom participated in recent protests – exist in a sort of parallel university, often taking the same classes together each term and acquiring a new vocabulary that deeply informs they ways in which they interpret the world.

Like any other set of academic terms, their vocabulary serves to communicate abstract concepts in a concise manner: the problem it poses to campus dialogue, however, is that it is foreign to most at the College. Words like “violence” and “imperialism” have completely different meanings from their common usages; words like “ableism” and “microaggression,” to most, don’t mean anything at all. In turn, when well-versed students attempt to argue a point, their language is often unintelligible to much of the student body.

But, beyond the vocabulary, The Review simply believes that if the student body were to study the same texts at the same times, they would have the common ground necessary for effective dialogue. Right now, no such common ground exists, foregone in favor of a loose set of distributive requirements. Even within the required Writing 5 classes, future engineers join science-heavy sections while likely government majors flock to thinly disguised political science courses. There is no book that everybody has read, nothing universal between the student body; indeed, for such a “close-knit” community, this campus could barely be more academically discrete.

To The Review, the remedy to our stunted dialogue is clear; the College ought to do as Columbia and Chicago do and introduce a strong core curriculum. We only hope that, at some level, the administration feels the same way.