Bard College Berlin, where I am currently a student in my senior year, has recently seen a debate, both informally and on an institutional level, about the diversity of its curriculum. The challenge brought forth by some of its students is that the curriculum fails to be as diverse as it should be if it is to be just and meaningful in our globalized world and that it represses subaltern and marginal voices in its alleged emphasis on canonical Western text. Michael Weinman, Professor at Bard College Berlin, has offered an answer to this challenge in two recent posts on Public Seminar (here and here). I know from our conversations that Michael and I are very much agreed about questions of curricular design, questions of what we should read and how we should read it. But we arrive there in different ways; I would like to take up his call for reflection and offer some thoughts here to clarify where and why we differ and how it matters. Let me begin by setting out Michael’s answer to the call for diversity.

As I understand it, what lies at the heart of the debate is the question of how two social spheres should relate: the community that is our college, on the one hand, and society at large, on the other. By using a single term to designate each side, I do not, of course, mean to imply that either side is homogenous. If it sounds strange to call a college a community, let me briefly (re)introduce the college, as Michael too has done: it is a small liberal arts college in Berlin, the first of its kind in Germany (there is one more now in Freiburg) with about 150 students of around 40 different nationalities, most of whom live together on a residential campus, and with around 30 faculty members of 11 different nationalities. The challenge issued by some of its students is that the curriculum does not sufficiently reflect the diversity, in particular the racial and sexual diversity, of this community and the contemporary, multi-ethnic, pluralistic societies that it mirrors in its composition. Students call for “voices like their own” on the curriculum.

Michael responds to the challenge and asks “‘what is the referent in the clause ‘voices like our own’ when we say, ‘We want to hear more ‘voices like our own’ in … our seminars?’” He draws on Judith Butler, especially her essay “Contingent Foundations,” to argue that all group identifiers are shifting signifiers and have no stable referent. ‘Voices like our own’ should thus not be understood to mean voices of people of my own gender / ethnicity / sexual orientation / faith background etc., because such categories are unstable and deconstructible anyway. An author’s whiteness or maleness or deadness is no inescapable determination and thus no obstacle to his being a voice for diversity — what matters is not a self-claimed or ascribed identity but the way we read these authors for us. Michael argues that such Butlerian “metaphysics” are the right kind of metaphysics for building a curriculum that is diverse in a rich sense, and in a sense that is responsive to the needs and nature of contemporary, multi-ethnic, pluralistic Western societies.[1] Politically speaking, it will allow us to avoid the dilemma of siding with either classical liberal universalism, which has noble aspirations but is all too often blind to how it falls short of genuine universal inclusivity; or with identity politics, which does not even pretend to such noble aspirations. Most importantly for me here, Michael sees continuity between the metaphysics appropriate to our college community and curriculum and those that are appropriate to the public discourse in contemporary, multi-ethnic, pluralistic Western societies. I do not think that there is such a continuity, but rather that our college community and society at large need different metaphysics, and that Butlerian contingent foundations are no proper foundations for either.[2]

What is it to live with contingent foundations? The life most committed to such views is the life of the philosopher. In its ideal form the life of the philosopher is a life of questioning again and again all foundations, of shifting signifiers and constant escape from all received dogmas. It is a critical life that never rests easily on its assumptions. It is the life that is sometimes called Socratic, when philosophy looks for an epitomizing hero-saint or a foundational myth. But, and I say this as someone who wholly affirms the ideal of constant and courageous questioning for himself, the philosophical life cannot be for everyone. A society of only philosophers would be no society at all, but a horrible chaos: it would be all gadflies and no horses.

Yet the allegations brought forward against the curriculum are distinctly moral allegations. The curriculum is accused of being unjust and repressive. Considerations of stability alone thus won’t cut it and might even be seen, not entirely unreasonably, as mere apologia of the status quo. A response to the challenge needs to say something about the justice of the curriculum. Is the life with contingent foundations a just life? There are many different views on justice, of course. Let me just offer one thought: the just life is a life that follows the law, except when the law itself is evil. Though inspired by Radbruch’s famous formula, I deliberately do not intend it to serve as a formal definition. I only want to capture with it the insight that one crucial requirement of justice is good judgment about how to follow the laws (moral, legal, etc.) and also when not to follow them. Justice follows the law, but not blindly. If we can agree on this much, then I would suggest that on the curricular level everything depends on mixing in the right manner the philosophical life, which is always ready to question laws, practices, and identities, with the non-philosophical life, which builds on some foundations that for all practical purposes are not deemed contingent and which are protected from suspicion and suspension. If there is a continuity between the metaphysics for the college community and the metaphysics for society, it is that both need some kind of mixture between the two, yet the degree to which the two are mixed can and should vary.

In its ideal purity the philosophical life seems to be very much just that: an ideal, and thus never completely realized. For the better, I think, since even slightly less pure approximations still seem dangerous. The upper-bound on constant questioning is madness, and the same authors who tell us of Socrates’ greatness tell us also of his failures, Pheidippides and Alcibiades, and their philosophy-induced aspirations to tyranny. I’m sure many of us can think of less drastic but still unfortunate examples of students who’ve had too much philosophy, too early on. And it is a danger not just for students. It is only reasonable that those of us who stay with the profession for longer start to specialize fairly quickly. They settle for an intellectual camp, a subfield, or a set of problems that they consider relevant and then work on, and such work can be done only under certain assumptions and conventions of the field, certain standards of what counts as good work and what does not, etc. Research starts from somewhere, which means it does not start from elsewhere and that there are places where it might not go. Specialization remains the surest path to professional reward (and financial security) and it also gives one a sense of stability, safety, and self-worth that is hard to gain if one seriously and genuinely lives with postmodern fluidity of all categories or permanent philosophical doubt.

But some communities allow one to engage in a more open, more fluid, more questioning life than others, and I would argue that it is precisely in small-scale experimental colleges like ours that the philosophical life can flourish to the purest reasonable degree. Bard College Berlin has found a curricular strategy that allowed it to realize a two-fold goal: enabling faculty to live and work, temporarily, without the protective but also isolating barriers of specialization, and enabling students to live, for a while, a philosophical life, while also preparing for the time after their membership in the college community. The emphasis was often on the former and keeping a community of philosophically spirited people together and stable against the play of often centrifugal intellectual forces has been a difficult achievement (as you, Michael, are well able to appreciate, since we have researched the history of the college together.) At the heart of its strategy has been a combination of a Great Books [3] based Core Curriculum, now about one fifth of the whole degree, and a “rest” which allows both students and professors the freedom to pursue their more particular interests, to specialize and to teach in their fields of specialization: ultimately, to pay their bills and stay sane, in an honest and worthy manner.

The Great Books section has been an efficient way of bringing students and faculty from all kinds of backgrounds and expertises together and engaging them in a dialogue about matters of highest importance. These texts have withstood the test of time; they stand in conversation with each other; they can be read in many different ways, and cannot be reduced to their authors’ biographies, much less their biology. I do not think we need Butlerian deconstruction of group identities to say that these texts are not exhausted by their particular time and place — the fact that people otherwise separated by centuries and continents have found them to be mirrors to gain self-knowledge and prisms to break the prejudices of their times argues the point at least as forcefully. The mere commitment to working with these texts — in a critical, historical, creative, philosophical, or any other serious manner — without any further presuppositions has been an efficient minimal basis for pursuing and sustaining genuinely philosophical inquiry, in the above sense, on the side of both students and faculty, without the conversation falling apart. As long as we do not read these texts as dogma (and a poor dogma it would be, since they all disagree with each other) I do not know of any more minimal and flexible framework for truly critical inquiry.

This is not to say that there are no shortcomings to this approach, and our curriculum has not been blind to them. The other four fifths of the degree leave plenty of space for reading outside the Western canon, for critical theory, for practical arts, for internships and language courses. On this reading of the curriculum its justice, where it meets its civic responsibilities, would lie neither with the Core alone, nor with the other, more worldly courses, but primarily in the way those two are mixed. And if there is not as much diversity in those four fifths as we would like it to be, there is at least in principle no obstacle to creating it, except money and student interest, of course. I believe we are well agreed on this. [4]

Let me conclude with one more thought about diversity and Great Books approaches. There has been much discussion about diversity of race and diversity of gender at BCB. There has been very little discussion about diversity of class. Socrates in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds, for all the failures he is accused of there, offers his education for free. Though our admission policy is still need-blind, we’ve come a long way from ‘free’. The Great Books do have a historical track record as a tool of working class emancipation. You caution against rehearsing liberal pieties of the 1920s and 30s, Michael. I hear you. I am very hesitant to instrumentalize education for social goals too quickly, and even if we want it to serve some such purposes different kinds of diversity and emancipation call for different curricular strategies. Yet one point where our community, not just our curriculum, does show considerable less diversity than one might hope for is diversity of class, and the Great Books have shown potential here. It is a point where curricular conservatives and social progressives should find common ground, and I wonder whether this potential does not deserve to be addressed more fully in our current debates.

[1] Anti- or non-metaphysics might be more correct, but because functionally and formally these views fulfill the role of metaphysical views, I will call them (lower-case ‘m’) metaphysics.

[2] The debate around whether philosophy stands in harmony or tension with democratic, pluralistic societies is, of course, an old one. Among the harmony-skeptics we find Aristophanes and Plato, Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein, among those who see them in harmony Martha Nussbaum and, if I’m right, Michael Weinman, who asks for a curriculum that is “richly in touch with the paradoxes (including the injustices) of contemporary pluralist democracies not so much for the benefit of ourselves and our students, but more for the sake of educating public discourse.” Though I count myself a progressive on almost all social and economic questions, on this one I side with the conservatives, insofar as I think that philosophical education is not always and should not primarily aim to be useful towards social ends. Contrary to some of these conservatives, however, I do not think that the opposite holds either and that societies exist solely for the purpose of universities. I have no fully developed account of their relation to offer here, but let me suggest, provisionally, that if university and society manage to coexist in a mutually beneficial independence, neither instrumentalized for the other, much will be won already.

[3] Or core, or classical, or canonical texts, or whatever we want to call them now. I’ve been born too late to see the Culture Wars and think that if great books are what we read, then that is what we should call it.

[4] On a side note: I would suggest that if anything the core should be strengthened. It need not be the two thirds it was at some point, and it need not be the close to hundred per cent it is at places like St John’s College or Shimer College. But I will finish the Core here, in my 4th year, having read in it only 2 chapters of Aristotle, not a single page of Spinoza, no Shakespeare, no German Idealism, and I hear that after the latest cuts they do not even read Dante anymore. I’ve had the chance to read many of these authors in other classes luckily, and I cherish our commitment to slow reading and to avoiding excerpting in the Core. Maybe instilling good reading habit makes up for these cuts, but to my mind the current imbalance reduces the Core, and its immanent potential for creating philosophical dialogue in the best sense, more than one would wish for.