Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Between Conflict and Consensus: Multiculturalism
and the Liberal Arts

Mette Hjort
Aalborg University

If the titles of some recent books and articles are any indication, culture has become a matter of warfare.1 'Culture wars' is by now a prevalent expression used in critiques of attempts to reform university curricula along multicultural lines. The culture wars are about culture, as much of the hostility being expressed is fuelled by a deep commitment to a certain conception of culture, as well as to a view of the scholar as responsible for preserving and transmitting a national heritage. Yet 'culture wars' does not simply refer to ongoing disputes between proponents of rival conceptions of culture, for it polemically identifies a particular view of culture as war. Examples of this conception of culture abound in scholarly and popular writings alike. I am thinking, for instance, of Canada's Undeclared War: Fighting Words from the Literary Trenches, a work by the journalist Kenneth McGoogan, which comprises a series of commentaries on cultural events of political relevance to Canada. Reflecting on his career as a book review editor and literary columnist, McGoogan reaches the following conclusion:

I [...] discovered that for 10 years, without realizing it, I'd been covering an undeclared war. That war is raging in the minds and hearts of Canadians and on many fronts: French-English, Canadian-American, native-white, East-West. The theatre of operations includes the whole world of books. 2

What is described here is a view of culture, not as the expression of shared values and meanings, but as a site of strategic calculations motivated by various forms of more or less narrow self-interest. Referring indirectly to Clausewitz's famous dictum, Henry Louis Gates Jr. accurately identifies the extent to which the work of intellectuals is identified with war in certain contexts: "These days, literary criticism likes to think of itself as 'war by other means.'"3

Now, it seems to me that many of the debates over the relative merits of a traditional as opposed to multicultural education hinge on attitudes concerning the place of consensus or conflict within our pedagogical imaginaries. In the course of my discussion I would like to suggest that there may well be a tendency within multiculturalist thinking to focus excessively on the virtues of conflict and irreducible difference at the expense of other possibilities. It is important, then, to try to articulate at least some of the ways in which multiculturalism within the academy relies on, and helps to create, forms of sharing that are largely overlooked in discourses rejecting dubious notions of consensus.

I should admit from the outset that I am by no means a neutral observer of the "culture wars," for I believe that multiculturalism is an ideal worth defending and that many of the changes currently being envisaged and implemented in fact are positive developments. I would like to begin, then, by identifying what I take to be some of the central tenets of multiculturalist discourses. At the same time I hope to inflect these discourses in a comparativist, transnational direction.

'Multiculturalism', it should be noted, can mean many things. For example, 'multiculturalism', as it is used in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, has a more restricted sense than participants in the "culture wars" would wish to allow. This Act takes as its premise the "diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion" (C-18.7), and goes on officially to acknowledge that Canadian citizens have the right to "preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage" (C-18.7.3). The document recognizes the extent to which exercising the right in question involves government intervention, for it enjoins the relevant minister to undertake a number of measures. More specifically the minister is to "assist individuals, organizations and institutions to project the multicultural reality of Canada." He or she is "to assist the business community, labour organizations, voluntary and other private organizations, as well as public institutions, in ensuring full participation in Canadian society, [...] of individuals of all origins." The minister is also expected to "facilitate the acquisition, retention, and use of all languages that contribute to the multicultural heritage of Canada" (C-18.7.5). This Act focuses on respecting the dignity of Canadians by recognizing the value of diverse forms of cultural expression linked to ethnicity and religion. To move from the context of Candian policy documents to that of writing in an academic vein, is, as we shall see, to witness a shift in emphasis: the concept of ethnicity is retained, but is joined by others, such as class, gender, and sexual orientation. Religion, on the other hand, recedes into the background.

By the admission of both its proponents and its critics, multiculturalism in its utopian incarnation finds its origins in the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Multiculturalism has been understood as a form of identity politics rooted in the experiences of gays, blacks, women, and other marginalised groups. Indeed, multiculturalist discourses have been largely structured, perhaps excessively so, by concepts of victimization, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Now, although it is important to acknowledge multiculturalism's debt to the sixties, it is equally important to grasp the ways in which multiculturalist thinking is shaped by moral sources that pertain, not only to oppressed groups and visible minorities, but to modernity itself.

In his influential article entitled "The Politics of Recognition," Charles Taylor argues persuasively that identity politics is motivated by a deep human need for recognition, just as it is informed by an understanding of the injurious effects of various forms of misrecognition. And recognition, claims Taylor, only becomes an issue with the transition from the pre-modern to the modern period, for in contexts where identities are "socially derived," fixed, and stable, recognition is largely automatic. When hierarchies of being collapse, allowing for an "inwardly" generated identity, the conditions arise "in which the attempt to be recognized can fail." 4 On this view, then, the problematic nature of recognition flows directly from aspects of modernity.

The strength of Taylor's analysis stems partly from his convincing account of how multiculturalism or identity politics combines elements from two strands of modern thought. A discourse of authenticity, traceable to the Romantics, supports the idea that it is the value of an inwardly generated, authentic self that must be acknowledged. If we owe the idea of authenticity to the Romantics, we are indebted to Enlightenment thinkers, such as Kant, for our modern notions of equality and dignity. These are the notions informing discourses of human rights, which are bent on an equalization of rights and entitlements. When these two strands of thought combine, as they do in a politics of recognition, an agent is assumed to have a basic human right to demand that his or her particular mode of authentic self-expression be recognized as having the same value as other forms of self-expression. The criterion of universalizability governing a politics of equal rights is thus held also to pertain to the area of authentic self-expression.

Taylor argues that the demand for recognition, as it is currently articulated by certain proponents of multiculturalism, is deeply problematic. Their claim, more specifically, is not simply that room must be made for various forms of self-expression, but that these different kinds of identity formation must be recognized in advance and in principle as having equal value or worth. It is in caricatural versions of this claim that the likes of Dinesh D'Souza find their ammunition, and Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus is in many ways a litany of complaints directed against the idea, for example, that race alone provides a sufficient justification for teaching certain works by African-Americans.5 Agents, claims Taylor, cannot as a right demand that all cultural expressions be recognized as having equal value. What they can reasonably demand is a stance that expresses a "presumption" of "value."6 Whether different modes of self-expression are to be considered equally valuable is to be determined, not in advance, but through a process involving dialogue, the elaboration of shared vocabularies, and careful analysis. Although this part of Taylor's account is left undeveloped and thus remains vulnerable to rejoinders emphasizing the asymmetrical nature of any communicative exchange, his suggestions do help to bring into focus some of the goals of a multicultural education.

A useful distinction has been made by members of the Chicago Cultural Studies Group between "critical" multiculturalism and "corporate" multiculturalism.7 And insofar as corporate multiculturalism tends to be viewed as a travesty of multiculturalist ideals, a consideration of its defining features helps to clarify the central tenets of the "critical" multiculturalism that is rightly associated with the academy and certain counterpublics.8 In brief, corporate multiculturalism is motivated, not by notions of dignity or worth, but by a set of economic concerns. A certain form of multicultural literacy--the ability to speak a foreign tongue and to grasp the self-understandings of members of certain groups--may be sought for purely self-interested reasons. Insofar as the world of commercial exchange is governed by largely strategic calculations, its inherent tendency is to uphold patterns of domination, exploitation, and control. Corporate multiculturalism does not, then, in any direct way further the project of what Taylor calls "a reciprocal recognition among equals."9 A rejection of corporate multiculturalism on ideological grounds highlights the place of critical multiculturalism within an emancipatory, utopian project that seeks to redress various forms of victimization. What is more, the critique of corporate multiculturalism calls attention to the ways in which university curricula may be revised to include greater coverage of foreign cultures and languages without becoming any more multicultural in the desired sense of the term.

The distinction between corporate and critical multiculturalism does not rest on some naive assumption that modern societies can or should dispense with corporations. The aim, rather, is to ensure that curricular reform goes further than narrow self-interest requires. At the same time, however, members of the Chicago Cultural Studies Group fail to consider the idea that intercultural understanding based on dignity and equality might benefit indirectly from the workings of corporate multiculturalism. Curricular changes motivated by a desire to prepare students to trade more effectively with citizens of countries situated on the Pacific Rim may not in themselves be sufficient, but they do have a legitimate place within a more general program of multicultural reform.

One feature of multicultural literacy is an ability to approach other cultures, be they subcultures, minority cultures, or foreign national cultures, with a presumption of worth. In an important article entitled "The Two Faces of Culture", Greg Urban argues that "a crucial aspect of culture is not only that it can be learned, but also that it can be unlearned."10 To assume that a multicultural education is simply a matter of learning about marginal cultures is to overlook the ways in which processes of "unlearning" help to create the conditions of intercultural understanding. By allowing the prejudices of certain cultural contexts to be subjected to rational scrutiny, a multicultural education helps to remove some of the obstacles to symmetrical intercultural communication. A multicultural education brings about alienation in the Brechtian sense, for it underscores the conventional and largely arbitrary nature of what once seemed inevitable and wholly natural. A multicultural education is just as much about taking a certain distance from ourselves as it is about an enhanced understanding of others.

Critical multiculturalism, I have been suggesting, is intensely attuned to certain forms of exclusion and victimization and seeks to redress various injustices by making room for marginal voices and cultures. Yet, as Ben Lee and others have argued, multiculturalism remains largely a North American discourse to some extent blinded by its own cultural specificities. And the absence of a properly comparative and international perspective generates an inability fully to grasp the complexities of minority culture, which are not necessarily or invariably linked to violent forms of victimization.

North American multiculturalist discourses focus intensely on the value of culture produced by groups lacking economic and political power, and the demand for recognition is thus explicitly linked to a project of political empowerment. Interestingly, this focus on the link between cultural and political power makes it difficult for North American discourses to grasp the need for a politics of recognition in contexts where economic and political power are distributed more equitably among citizens. More specifically, there is a failure to understand the way in which problems of inclusion and exclusion are reconfigured at the international level.

The monologic nature of certain international publics dominated by a small number of major cultures and/or nations makes it particularly difficult for members of small nations to express themselves in anything resembling an authentic voice.11 International publics are frequently intensely monolingual, with participation hinging on fluency in the tongue favoured by the dominant culture. Whereas members of minor cultures must be multilingual if they are to be part of an international public, members of major cultures need rely only on their mother tongues. In certain contexts all traces of national specificity appear only as so many uncanny and displeasing departures from what is dominant and seemingly natural. The lack of reciprocity in question here is not merely linguistic. Whereas citizens of small nations find themselves inundated with the cultural products of larger nations, certain factors conspire to ensure that the minority culture's context of production coincides largely with its context of reception. A particularly telling example of this asymmetrical process is the history of Hollywood's role in the smaller European countries after the Second World War.

What contemporary theories overlook, then, are the ways in which relations between major and minor cultures require a politics of recognition aimed at international publics. To suggest that current multiculturalist thinking stands to benefit from the elaboration of a properly comparative dimension is by no means to trivialize the histories of genuine victimization underwriting certain attempts at curricular reform. It is a matter, rather, of recognizing that exclusion takes many forms and that in some instances countries and cultures wrongly included within a monolithic European camp are themselves marked by histories of asymmetrical exchange.

Insofar as a comparative perspective undermines a set of reified oppositions, it makes possible a more nuanced approach to differences between various rhetorics and strategies of recognition. For example, a comparative analysis can show that an explicit emphasis on cultural difference is viable only when the difference in question is linked, as a matter of common knowledge, to political and economic injustices that a given society, is committed, in theory or practice, to effacing. Given the impossibility of legitimately claiming victim status, citizens of small, but privileged nations necessarily pursue recognition by far more indirect means. More specifically, there is a tendency to yoke defining features of a national culture or identity to international elements that are deemed capable of winning the attention of larger publics.

Having highlighted some of the central features of various forms of multicultural thinking, I would like now to focus on a specific point of contention between proponents of multicultural and traditional curricula. On the whole, opponents of a diversified curriculum seem to agree that curricular reform along multicultural lines is undesirable, even dangerous, because it threatens to undermine a shared or common culture. Inasmuch as the shared culture in question is understood also to be a national culture, multiculturalism is considered a corrosive force capable of destroying the nation's social fabric. Multiculturalists, it is wrongly assumed, have largely ceased to teach and preserve the venerable touchstones of a shared tradition, having devoted themselves instead to an irresponsible glorification (among other things) of the ephemera of contemporary culture. Thus, Rambo is believed to have displaced Rimbaud, just as Shakespeare now must compete with "the collected works of Bugs Bunny."12

The charge just evoked has, I believe, been met with a number of fairly cogent responses. One compelling argument foregrounds the extent to which nostalgic notions of loss hinge on assumptions about the enduring and unchanging nature of a common culture. When considered in the light of historical evidence, the dubious nature of such assumptions becomes clear. Virulent debates, such as those between the anciens and the modernes in 17th-century France, create instabilities that do not leave core curricula untouched. The point is that a commonly held culture is the product of strife and is subject to change. Change, in other words, does not in and of itself rule out important forms of sharing, provided that the newly included elements are properly disseminated.

A second and equally compelling rejoinder focuses on the highly selective nature of the cultural forms being upheld as common by those who resist change. Although it is the putative universality of such forms that makes them worthy of preservation, many of them are in fact firmly linked to particular histories, geographies, and modes of social organization. The common culture allegedly requiring preservation presents itself to its proponents as a form of zero-degree or unmarked culture, the main characteristic of which is an ability to transcend local differences of region, dialect, gender, class, and so on.13 Yet, from the perspective generated by alternative histories and trajectories, the common culture in question appears as culture marked by a series of differentiating factors. To require the preservation of this common culture in the name of universality is to embark on a course of self-deception, bad faith, or ideological delusion. What is disputed is not so much whether the cultural forms in question can be imposed on diverse groups, but whether such an imposition is in any way desirable. Nor, as the following quote illustrates, does the attempt to pinpoint a process of false universalization entail a rejection of the notion of a common culture.

Ours is a late twentieth-century world profoundly fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. And the only way to transcend those divisions--to forge, for once, a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities--is through education that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture.14

It is true, as we shall see, that not all multiculturalists are moved equally by this vision of a common culture. What is equally true, however, is that it is a questionable gesture at best to equate multicultural critiques of a particular view of common culture with rejections of common culture tout court.

Critics of a diversified curriculum systematically overlook the extent to which multicultural perspectives have helped either to create or to strengthen certain traditions. I am thinking, for example, of the emergence in recent times of a series of countercanons centered around writings by women or African-Americans. Gates' remarks concerning the importance of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature underscore the extent to which increased access to certain institutions can support a common culture: "a well-marketed anthology--particularly a Norton Anthology--functions in the academy to create a tradition, as well as to define and preserve it."15 Indeed, according to one view, the effect of the emerging canons has been not so much to displace the traditional canon held to be central to a common culture, but to mark it as "a particular canon, a canon of mastery."16 It is important, however, to note that ongoing processes of canon formation do more than consolidate modes of expression favoured by particular groups or counterpublics. There is a tendency to assume that since countercanons are the work of counterpublics, such canons necessarily promote a radical proliferation of mutually isolated cultural traditions. Yet, this fear is itself based on an erroneous conception of counterpublics, which, as Nancy Fraser notes, are not "by definition" "enclaves" although they frequently are "enclaved." Fraser's important point is that

the concept of a counterpublic militates in the long run against separatism because it assumes a publicist orientation. ... After all, to interact discursively as a member of [a] public, subaltern or otherwise, is to aspire to disseminate one's discourse to ever widening arenas.17

On this view, countercanons are themselves interventions within a larger public sphere, and as such they help to identify some of the components of a properly inclusive common culture.

Although the above arguments pinpoint weaknesses in ongoing celebrations of a common culture, they barely begin to shed light on a far deeper question separating camps embroiled in the culture wars. The thorny issue, it seems to me, concerns the extent to which well-functioning, modern, democratic societies depend on the existence of something called "common culture." If the existence of such societies does in fact require certain forms of shared culture, then what is the nature of the sharing involved? How much sharing is needed? What exactly must citizens have in common? And, finally, to what extent is it the task of a liberal education to ensure that the appropriate levels and forms of sharing occur?

Not surprisingly, an analysis of the public discourses about education and the liberal arts reveals radically different answers to these difficult and to some extent imponderable questions. What is striking, however, is the fact that the divergences in question do not in any straightforward way reflect a stable opposition between traditionalists and multiculturalists. Some multiculturalists, as we have seen, share the traditionalists' view of the importance of a common culture, even as they dispute the precise nature of the required beliefs and attitudes. The voices of multiculturalism are diverse, and some of the more influential ones deny entirely the need for common culture. The extent to which multiculturalists disagree about the issue of common culture is largely overlooked in ongoing debates, which thrive on a rather caricatural view of multiculturalist perspectives. The failure to take note of a range of views is unfortunate, for it supports reified oppositions between traditionalists and multiculturalists and has the effect of foreclosing genuine debate about the substantive issues.

In thinking about the place of a common culture within modern democracies and their educational systems it is helpful to focus on a number of views. Ernest Gellner's influential work on the modernity of nationalism provides a compelling account of the extent to which industrial societies depend on the existence of a common culture.18 As is well-known, Gellner's analysis hinges on a contrast between agrarian and industrial societies and focuses on key differences in their modes of social reproduction. Social reproduction in an agrarian society takes place within local communities, proceeds on a one-to-one basis, and aims at the vertical transmission across generations of roles, practices, and beliefs.19 In industrial societies, on the other hand, forms of "intra-community training" are "significantly complemented (or in extreme cases, wholly replaced)" by a highly centralized educational system supported largely, if not entirely, by the state. 20 Industrial society, claims Gellner, is

based on a high-powered technology and the expectancy of sustained growth, which requires both a mobile division of labour, and sustained, frequent and precise communication between strangers involving a sharing of explicit meaning, transmitted in a standard idiom and in writing when required. 21

Industrial societies rely on citizens who are largely interchangeable and mobile by virtue of a shared, standardized education involving qualifications such as the following: "literacy, numeracy, basic work habits and social skills, familiarity with basic technical and social skills." 22 According to Gellner the requisite degrees of cultural homogeneity can only be guaranteed by the state, and it is for this reason that he considers a "monopoly of legitimate education" more central to a definition of the modern state than the "monopoly of legitimate violence" foregrounded by Max Weber. 23 Only the state, claims Gellner, has the resources needed to establish and sustain an educational system predicated on a generalized access to standardized knowledge.

Gellner's account is important in the present context for at least two reasons. It underscores the extent to which a reform of the educational system along multicultural lines must be compatible with the cultural conditions of industrial societies, unless, of course, the goal is to replace these societies with an entirely different mode of social organization. In the absence of a full-blown revolutionary intent, however, the forms of nation-state culture that are so reviled in certain circles prove inevitable. What seems equally inescapable is the role assigned to a national, or provincial, educational system in the production and reproduction of nation-state culture.

A further contribution is made by Gellner's decision to situate the need for a common culture within a properly socio-historical framework that involves none of the processes of false universalization characteristic of the views of Bloom, D'Souza, Bernstein, and others. What Gellner establishes is the necessity of citizens' sharing a range of skills, knowledges, practices, and attitudes, not the necessity of a monologic elimination of diversity through the imposition of a single cultural tradition. Literacy, for example, can be acquired by means of a wide range of readings from diverse cultural contexts. The social skills needed within a given industrial society depend in part on the nature of that society's work force. If, for example, the latter includes women and visible minorities, as well as males from dominant ethnic groups, then multicultural literacy will be one of the skills requiring widespread dissemination through a centralized educational system. What is more, inasmuch as industrial societies are part of a larger, overarching economic system, at least some of the skills in question will be transnational in nature. A desire to ensure that the cultural conditions of industrial societies are met does not, then, entail a commitment to a shared culture that is monologically generated.

What emerges clearly from Gellner's account is the need for a common culture and the importance of the state in ensuring that culture's existence. Yet, an attempt to mobilize his insights within the context of debates about curricular reform quickly reveals that the boundary between common and other forms of culture remains hard to determine. At the same time, it is necessary to have at least some sense of where this boundary can or should be inscribed, for the culture wars are to a large extent generated by diverging intuitions about this very issue.

Gellner, it seems to me, gives priority to a sharing of basic skills over common knowledge of particular texts and authors. Although a particular body of knowledge must to some extent be shared by students of a given discipline, students aiming at positions within a highly mobile work force may find basic skills, as opposed to specific academic content, more useful in the long run. This is not to deny that in certain cases competence or skill may be inseparable from certain forms of scholarly knowledge, as Jürgen Habermas's discussion of the boundary question makes clear. Habermas's aim in considering this issue is to arrive at an understanding of the basic conditions of democratic citizenship, and the context for his reflections is provided by a changing European landscape. Habermas argues convincingly that "democratic citizenship need not be rooted in the national identity of a people," and goes on to establish that what citizens of a modern, multicultural, and democratic society must share is "a common political culture." 24 "Political culture" is said to be different from a "cultural form of life," and whereas diversity can be tolerated when it is a matter of life forms, active citizen participation depends on attitudes and practices based on forms of common knowledge. What can be demanded, then, of citizens is a basic knowledge of and commitment to the political principles of a democratic society, what Habermas calls "constitutional patriotism." Ensuring that the requisite levels of common knowledge and commitment obtain would thus be one of the tasks of a national educational system.

A very different sense of where the boundary should be inscribed seems to preoccupy figures such as William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, Chester Finn, Hirsch, Bloom, Kimball, and members of the public who agree that "the foremost job of formal education is to teach our children--all of them--about those things we have in common." 25 Opponents of multicultural reform seek not only to link common culture to a particular group, but to establish a level of commonality that by far exceeds the requirements of industrial societies and democratic citizenship. What is deemed desirable is a kind of cultural homogeneity that effectively would negate what Edward Said calls "other varieties of the human adventure." 26 For example, a common taste culture, or at least a stable hierarchy of taste cultures, is considered preferable to the existence of multiple contexts and modes of aesthetic appreciation. And if taste is to be contained within a single framework, then so arguably is erotic desire, for the common culture is to be saturated with the various forms of cultural expression to which a single, heterosexual orientation gives rise.

The demand for consensus on multiple fronts is linked to a meta-cultural phenomenon that is worth considering briefly. One feature of a genuine consensus is that agents not only share certain beliefs but know that their beliefs are shared. 27 What is more, consensus is not simply a matter of sharing beliefs, but of knowing that we share the beliefs. Inasmuch as the mutual beliefs that support a genuine consensus are linked to a sense of the collectivity, it is not surprising to discover that meta-cultural expressions of the group are particularly prized by traditionalists. Meta-culture may take many forms, including a honking of horns in support of a nurse's strike or of a nation's troops abroad. In its most familiar incarnation, meta-culture involves the deployment of a traditional arsenal of symbols of national pride. And one of the demands being made by opponents of multicultural reform is precisely that certain cultural artefacts rooted in a particular tradition be preserved, taught, and transmitted as icons of national belonging.

The consensus desired by traditionalists foregrounds, in what is at times a fetishistic and nationalistic manner, the importance of particular texts, names, and discrete items of learning. A caricatural expression of this focus may be found in E.D. Hirsch's well-known Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, where 'Teddy Roosevelt', 'Hamlet', 'DNA', and 'consumer price index' figure in a list of terms and names that all informed citizens should know. 28 Hirsch's list privileges familiarity with a series of discrete items over access to a set of basic skills and attitudes. And it is in part this kind of preference that engenders resistance to multicultural reform, for whereas basic skills and attitudes can be acquired by diverse means, familiarity with a list of discrete items requires the existence of a rigid and unchanging canon. What is operative here is a strong desire for closure, as well as a commitment to the idea that the canon, however selective it may ultimately be, in fact finds a basis in an adequate and fairminded survey of diverse cultural forms.

The views on common culture discussed so far contrast strikingly with the conception endorsed by a significant number of multiculturalist thinkers. Stanley Fish, for example, claims that "it is difference all the way down; difference cannot be managed by measuring it against the common because the shape of the common is itself differential." 29 The dual assumption that difference is irreducible and that a common culture is both unnecessary and illusory is equally apparent in the following extraordinary passage from Barbara Herrnstein Smith's commentary on Hirsch's Cultural Literacy:

it is a "universal fact" that people can communicate without a "shared culture" and that they do it all the time. Japanese suppliers, for example [...], communicate with European and African buyers without sharing the latter's cultures in the anthropological sense; and, just to speak of other Americans, I communicate quite effectively with my eighty-five-year-old ex-mother-in-law from Altoona, Pennsylvania, my twenty-five-year-old hairdresser from Hillsborough, North Carolina, my five-year-old grandson from Brooklyn, New York, and my cat, without sharing much, if anything, of what Hirsch calls "the shared national culture" with any of them. The reason I can do so is that all the activities that Hirsch classifies as "communication" and sees as duplicative transmissions that presuppose sameness--"common" knowledge, "shared" culture, "standardized" associations--are, in fact, always ad hoc, context-specific, pragmatically adjusted negotiations of (and through) difference. We never have sameness; we cannot produce sameness; we do not need sameness. 30

This passage is truly idiotic in at least some of the etymological senses of the word, for the ancient Greek 'idiotes' refers to a private person, to someone who is ill-informed, as well as to what is commonplace. Herrnstein Smith's claim that agents marked by a series of purely private differences can communicate without any form of sharing, without even a basic orientation toward understanding, is nothing short of ill-informed. Herrnstein Smith does not simply reject the suggestion that communication between herself and her five-year-old grandson could require mutual knowledge of the meaning of 'DNA,' 'Teddy Roosevelt,' 'Hamlet,' and so on. In a dramatic crescendo she denies the need for any form of sharing whatsoever, be it of norms, practices, skills, or even interests. Herrnstein Smith seeks support for this extreme view in an example that serves only to highlight some of the shared bases of communication. Grandsons and former mother-in-laws are precisely individuals with whom one in fact shares a very great deal, including, for example, a set of non-defeasible relations and a history of familial disputes. To assume that ineradicable differences based on age or profession provide the most basic context for a series of successful communicative exchanges is willfully to overlook the role played by shared norms, attitudes, and practices in bringing about understanding. Herrnstein Smith's alternative to ill-conceived notions of a common culture is to invite us to embrace its polar opposite--difference--as fundamental and ineliminable.

Herrnstein Smith's focus on difference at the expense of a range of shared phenomena is by no means uncharacteristic of certain forms of multiculturalist thinking. A more nuanced and interesting example of this tendency is Gerald Graff's insistence that the role of a multicultural curriculum is both to undermine an existing consensus and to "teach the conflicts" that emerge as a result. 31 According to Graff, a

past consensus was made possible only by the narrow and exclusive social base from which educators and educated then were drawn. It is not too hard to get a consensus if you start by excluding most Jews, blacks, immigrants, women, and others who figure to make trouble. 32

Graff points out that a multicultural university includes groups drawn from a much wider social base, just as it provides a hospitable environment for ideas generated within diverse contexts and life worlds. And this expanded social base, concludes Graff, makes impossible any form of consensus: "we should recognize that such conflicts are here to stay and start looking for ways to make them educationally productive." 33 According to Graff these conflicts must themselves become the topic of debate, and this involves taking issue with a well-established means of organizing knowledge, the "field-coverage model."

Underwriting the field-coverage model is the dual assumption that departments need specialists capable of covering a number of fundamental areas of knowledge, and that students should be required to cover a number of the areas in question. 34 One of the advantages of this model, claims Graff, is its flexibility. Thus, for example, the dissenting voices of newly included groups can be readily accommodated by simply adding a new area of specialized knowledge to the core curriculum. Yet, the model also has important drawbacks, the most important of which is that it ignores, even hides, the very conflicts that in Graff's mind are lasting features of a multicultural curriculum and university environment. The model discourages genuine debate about the curriculum, for the "grid of periods, genres, and other catalog rubrics" seems to embody "a clear and seemingly uncontroversial conceptualization of what the department [is ...] about." 35 Graff does not so much propose to eliminate the grid in question as to bring into public the conflicts that it conceals. His intuition is that an institutional denial of conflict engenders, not harmony or consensus, but various forms of systematically distorted communication. What is needed, then, is an ongoing debate between proponents of profoundly conflicting views. Students should not simply experience the ineliminable conflicts of a multicultural curriculum as they try to make sense of a series of mutually negating courses of Marxist, new critical, psychoanalytic, or analytic inspiration, but should instead be allowed to witness a public debate about the conflicts in question. Thus, suggests Graff, "the course on Rimbaud and modern French poetry and the course on Rambo and current popular film" might "meet for a joint conference" in order to explore conflictual relations between highbrow and lowbrow traditions. 36

What Graff has in common with Herrnstein Smith is a stubborn interest in difference, for he fails to discuss the basic norms or frameworks that would make possible a productive, although conflictual, debate about culture. Nor does Graff acknowledge the extent to which individual professors must be committed to the norms in question. If, for example, the debate is to be more than a dogmatic confrontation of views, participants must be willing to respect certain modes of argumentation. The modern, secular university is part of civil society and provides an important context for rational discussion or what Habermas calls "discursive will formation." And inasmuch as Graff neglects to account adequately for the norms underwriting such processes, an important form of common culture is overlooked.

It would be unfair to accuse Graff of valorizing conflict for its own sake, for he explicitly states that we should not "spurn consensus when it proves possible to get it." 37 At the same time, it is important to note that Graff's focus on conflict at the expense of other realities supports the widespread view referred to above that sees culture and discourses about culture as "war by other means." Following in the wake of poststructuralism, identity politics and multiculturalism have set ajar the door to a renewed discourse of agency. And although it is still difficult to discern the features of the agents hovering behind this door, it is already clear that they differ markedly from the subjects populating the world of the traditional humanists who oppose multicultural reform. More specifically, the agents populating recent social imaginaries are deeply strategic, for they are convinced of the ineliminably conflictual nature of human interaction, just as they are motivated by self-interest and willing to mock the norms supporting communicative action oriented toward mutual understanding.

As I have argued elsewhere, this conception of agency and knowledge as fundamentally strategic rests on a number of dubious assumptions. 38 What needs to be emphasized here is the extent to which strategic behaviour is appropriate only in certain contexts. To assume that multiculturalism necessarily involves a foregrounding of strategic rationality within the university is not only to overlook the possibility of dialogue and mutual understanding, but to fail to recognize the emancipatory potential embodied in a culture of genuinely rational argumentation.

Compared to clerical universities, the modern, secular university enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy, and this is so even in those cases in which funding comes largely, or even entirely, from the state. The ideal of academic freedom embodied in secular universities does not, of course, provide a warrant for any and all forms of thinking, but establishes a right to scrutinize received truths, traditions, and conventions in a process of rational, public debate governed by basic norms. Conflicts, in universities, are to be settled discursively, rather than by means of brute force or intimidation, and this preference for discursive will formation is precisely a feature of civil society or what Habermas calls the "bourgeois public sphere." 39 Through their commitment to certain basic norms, universities help to create the conditions under which communicative action and research can unfold. For example, universities provide environments in which it is appropriate to require evidence for a particular point of view, and in which it is inappropriate knowingly to deceive interlocutors or to withhold information pertaining directly to an issue under discussion. To point in this manner to some of the norms underwriting communicative exchanges within the university is by no means to claim that the ideal is always realized. However, the very fact that the norms in question can be evoked to unmask forms of authority based illegitimately on notions of age, rank, or gender, merely underscores their hold on us.

It is by respecting the norms of rational debate that universities will be able to deal adequately with the challenges of an increasingly multicultural future. Multiculturalists have at times expressed scepticism about the norms in question, and we know that traditionalists have been quick to see in multiculturalism nothing more than a radical curtailing of academic liberties. Yet, the creation of a properly inclusive common culture is best achieved, not by means of various forms of strategic action or separatist processes of regroupment, but by means of a critical debate about the university's tasks and goals. What is more, it would be a mistake to assume that multiculturalism necessarily is accompanied by the demise of reason. Inasmuch as multiculturalism foregrounds the untenable and contradictory nature of habitual modes of thinking, it encourages a spirit of rational critique. And this critique is motivated, quite legitimately, by an unshakeable sense that notions of dignity and fairness should play a role in our thinking about what citizens of a modern democratic society should know.


This paper draws on discussions with Sue Laver, Adam Muller, Trevor Ponech, Paisley Livingston, and Charles Taylor. Special thanks are due to Ben Lee, Greg Urban, and Dilip Gaonkar, who in various ways encouraged me to think through the issues in question. John Hall helped with the material on nationalism.

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