Lonely intellectuals and the American Dream

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

When someone mentions the word ‘diversity’ among any group of individuals, the image that comes to mind is inevitably one of people with different colored skin, language or nationality. This is a belief we are all raised with and one that remains ascendant in American culture. However, beneath that definition there are other forms of diversity that remain either underappreciated or unrecognized among the vast majority of Americans.

Diversity of thought, intellect, ideology and belief are as, if not more, important as any of the issues raised before. Without diversity in thought, there would be no advancement, no invention and no exceptionalism. The traits that make our nation the greatest on Earth, and human society accomplished in science, business, the arts and government, are inspired and caused by a diverse society in thought and practice.

It is curious then, that a university whose sole mission is to train students for the realities of life in “the real world” so blatantly and egregiously ignores these core ideals.

This week the Case Western Reserve University Office of Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity publically announced their Power of Diversity Lecture series headlined by John Quinones, an Emmy award-winning ABC news anchor. While the talks highlight the benefits of racial and ethnic diversity, the possibility of intellectual and ideological diversity remains a fleeting ideal, forgotten by the organizers.

This reality is that this ignorance of deeper, more pressing diversity issues permeates through the entire campus of CWRU. Two weeks ago another columnist in this paper exclaimed that students at CWRU rarely enter into dialogue. The idea that education breeds egotism was the rationale behind this revelation.

However, I challenge that assertion. It is not egotism that prevents dialogue on this campus, but instead a lack of exposure to dissident beliefs. Ask any student at CWRU and you will find that the number that have read Aristotle and Plato, Machiavelli and Rousseau, Voltaire, Hayek, Keynes and Beauvoir is dismally low. Even fewer, I assert, could name a single work by the following list of authors— Faulkner, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Camus, Woolf, Melville and Joyce— a list that constitutes more than 10 percent of the “Best Books of All Time,” as ranked by 100 writers from 54 countries in 2002. Perhaps most telling (and potentially stereotypical) is the number of college students who consider themselves liberal, socialist or communist, and have not read the works of Marx, from whom the most modern theory devotes its origin. I propose these lists not to applaud myself for having read the texts, but to question what education, beyond the ability to solve an equation, the university provides for its students.

No longer do students learn great books. No longer do we discuss as peers the themes and symbolism inside history’s greatest literature. And perhaps even worse, no longer do we celebrate the successes and learn from the mistakes made by those who came before. A popular saying, seemingly appropriate here, is that fiction shows reality better than nonfiction. But how can this generation realize that when there is no instruction in the art?

A typical CWRU student will complain when asked to read texts that aren’t explicitly related to their area of study. No matter the significance of the work, Shakespeare will still elicit a moan from a vast majority of the student body. But there are some who would not have that reaction. They would be more optimistic, more agreeable and, I allege, more knowledgeable about the ways of the world.

Though literature is not the sole way to promote ideological diversity, a dearth of it, as seen here, represents a larger issue with the free expression of ideas and beliefs. How can one be critical about other issues if the most basic underpinnings of society are of no note to those in the community?

You cannot move the conversation forward to discuss ideological issues or even something as simple as political beliefs without first grounding the argument in the theories and works from which it arises. And this first step is the most glaring hole in our education.

Our university seems to disagree that this is a problem. We seem to disregard the ideals of intellectual diversity in favor of hammering home the false ideals of diversity of ignorance. The more we ignore and overlook diversity in thought, the more we condemn ourselves to fighting the same battles perpetually. Likewise, the more we emphasize and recall diversity in physical and cultural being, the more the issue remains ascendant.
But where does that leave us? We lack diversity in thought in education. We lack a program that exposes students to diverse ideologies and beliefs outside the classroom. And now we lack a method of learning about and exploring the great thinkers inside the classroom. Diversity has become a word that connotes ignorance. We are taught to ignore the racial, cultural or religious differences we face. We are taught to not challenge the beliefs of others for fear of offense. In reality though, should not the university teach the opposite? Should we not be told to challenge the beliefs of others? If one is confident in their ideology, should they not be able to stand up and provide reasoning for their beliefs?

While these questions do not have clear answers and potentially delve into issues much deeper than those I can address here, no one can assert there is not a problem in our university. If you are content with the mediocrity, pleased by the ignorant and mundane conversations that plague our university, I will be blunt. I do not want you here. However, if you are curious and want to investigate, if education is about more than learning numbers or letters on a page, if preparation for the world is about more than learning a skill, then you can remain.

But if you choose to do so, fight for freedom and diversity of thought. Fight for ideological conflict. Ask the questions that will get you criticized. And most importantly, challenge the beliefs that you cannot understand. Through it we will make better, more informed and intelligent members of society.

Malcolm Forbes perhaps said it best when he noted that diversity is “the art of thinking independently together.” We cannot limit ourselves to such a narrow-minded and improper image of diversity. We need the knowledge to think better. We need the background to evaluate critically. Perhaps more importantly, we need the ability to create together.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, planning on getting a master’s degree in political science before attending law school. He is the vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity and the treasurer of CWRU’s undergraduate mock trial team.