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Community, Higher Education and the Challenge of Multiculturalism

by Ana M. Martinez Alemán - 2001

Using John Dewey’s pragmatism, I seek to theorize a relevant and effective understanding of collegiate community within liberal culture. If we were to understand and enact multiculturalism on our campuses in a Deweyan way, we would introduce a method of thinking or “intelligent learning” which would make the ideal of community possible for institutions of higher learning. Characteristically Deweyan, universality and difference would alter and transform each other, serving to promote the growth of the community.

Apparent contradictions always demand attention.1


In the past decades we have seen a renewed interest in issues of multiculturalism and community within the academy. Reactions to hate-speech codes, the production of political correctness, the destabilization of the Western canon, and anti-affirmative action legislation are thinly veiled commentary on the state of the coherence and integration of the post secondary educational project. Defenders of a reformed liberal education have reasserted its enduring applicability to the human condition and, conse­quently, its ability to engender a spirit of community in a culturally and racially diverse America.

No longer institutions with homogeneous student and faculty popula­tions, the American college of the past two decades has had to respond to the articulation and manifestation of disparate cultural and educational values. The intellectual and experiential diversity of students and faculty has collided with liberal education forming a whirlpool of campus dissen­sion and the apparent or alleged demise of collegiate community. Yet because of its humanistic character, it is liberal education, whether housed in liberal arts colleges or multiversities that has been charged with the responsibility to stabilize the fractured state of higher education. Liberal education sui generis is argued to provide the conditions under which intel­lectual and experiential claims can be articulated and validated.

This paper will grapple with what I contend is the contradictory rela­tionship between higher education’s definition of community and multiculturalism. Largely unchanged since the establishment of the colonial colleges, the communitarian ideal of today’s colleges and undergraduate university programs appears at odds with the postmodern demands of multiculturalism. To date, America’s colleges and universities have engaged not in a revision of the ideal of community, but in an enumerative and assimilationist multiculturalism. Thus, many of the tensions brought to the cur­riculum and extra-curriculum by the politics of identity go unreconciled on campus, and communality is never really secured. Using John Dewey’s pragmatism, I seek to theorize a relevant and effective understanding of collegiate community within liberal educational culture. It is hoped that such theorizing will bring to higher education scholars and participants a means through which the social and political forces at the onset of the twenty-first century—the rise in interdisciplinary studies and critical stud­ies, the assaults on equity programs, and the increase in racial and ethnic minorities in higher education—can be effectively addressed and considered.2


Perhaps the absence of a consideration and contestation of the ideal of collegiate community can be attributed to what Bruce Kimball suggests is the modern American undergraduate college’s direct lineage to the char­acter and conception of residential colleges founded by “humanistic schol­ars, Protestant burghers, and Catholic orders precisely to provide a harboring community and to foster a communal sense of commitment to a moral and religious vision of liberal education.” He notes that today’s colleges “rep­resent the origin of the community ideal that is now so commonly invoked.”3

What are the origins of the ideal of collegiate community? American undergraduate education began as “a community of masters and stu­dents,”4 a community authored by its historical predecessor, the colonial hilltop college. A reproduction of England’s Oxford, the college of early America was dedicated to the formation of young men’s character and piety. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, these colleges provided Puritan men with membership in a community designed to strengthen the relationship between piety and the intellect and their com­mitment to religiously sanctioned paradigms of knowledge.5 Despite the intellectual challenges that Enlightenment inspired revolutions in France and in the American colonies brought to the colonial colleges—intellectual challenges that sought to anchor collegiate curricula to rationalism—the American college retained its early Protestant humanistic character. The revivalism of the early nineteenth century and the enduring mandatory chapel requirement at the nation’s colleges underscored that the college was an institution in which men strengthened and recommitted themselves to their cultural and religious heritage, an institution in which learning and knowledge was the consequence of moral and religious precept, an insti­tution in which the “confidence of the community” was maintained via religious fidelity.6

Having modeled themselves after a nineteenth century Oxford, the Amer­ican colleges desired to preserve the “timeless” concept of liberal educa­tion, an education that relied on cultural independence and insularity, and its logical outcome, social and intellectual unanimity. Buttressed by human­istic convictions that regarded knowledge as its own end and as a conse­quence of absolute principles, the American college developed its character as a consequence of a desire to bequeath liberal culture to eligible young men. Guided by Cardinal Newman’s doctrine of the value, purpose, and composition of liberal learning, and despite the challenges of the sciences (and later technology), the modern languages, and other studies at one time or another deemed “utilitarian,” the American college curriculum was the vehicle through which institutions could cultivate a prescribed public­ity. A cultural imperative, the cultivation of liberal civility became the mission of the American college, a mission characterized by the centrality of mind and the privileging of reason, the primacy of the individual, and the concern for axiomatic morality. The cultural knowledge that was to be realized by the students through residential, liberal learning was based on the social and cognitive experiences sanctioned by liberal culture. Thus, liberal learning required identification with and internalization of a Prot­estant, Anglo-Saxon masculinity infused with Enlightenment ideas about self, individuation, and universal good. Further, college faculty, “largely oriented toward Anglo-European culture,” tightly guarded the college mis­sion and its intellectual center, the curriculum, from societal changes that challenged its collective identity.7 Thus, the founding tenet of the Ameri­can college—to perpetuate “Anglo-European assumptions about the uni­versality of high culture”8—would eventually find itself wrestling with the forces of a growing and rapidly changing democracy that made pluralistic claims on the nature of the curriculum and the categorical imperatives of liberal education. In the late twentieth century, these pluralistic or multi­cultural forces would make contentious the ideal of community on college campuses.

In the curricular debates of the 1980s and 1990s critics charged that the expansion of the curriculum to include scholarship from ethnic and cul­tural studies, feminist and area studies disrupted the coherence of under­graduate liberal learning by privileging identity politics.9 This disruption and deconstruction of traditional liberal education alarmed the critics of multiculturalism for many reasons, but at the heart of their displeasure is the fact that new knowledge claims challenge the Western canon’s emphasis and privileging of an abstract individual ruled by Neo-Idealistic absolutes. The multicultural challenge to liberal education, derived from knowledge claims the consequence of group experiential history, unseats the abstract, autonomous individual of the West and replaces him with a privileging of group identification, allegiance to social arrangements based on historical identity markers, contextual truth, and interdependency. This disturbance of Western liberal knowledge assertions is considered by its critics as an infusion of politics (by nature impure and biased) into a world of timeless objectivity governed by truth, into a curriculum whose relevance is ageless.

It is these very politics that proponents of an expanded and multicul­tural curriculum judge worthy of the liberal and democratic educational enterprise.10 Whether framed via a discussion and theorizing of democracy and pluralism, or of a reconceptualized egalitarian ethics, scholars who welcome the disruption of liberal educational ideals often do so on the grounds that such a curricular exercise would reexamine the individual’s claim to a pure and abstract autonomy, a necessary act in a heterogeneous and interdependent democracy.11 At times viewed as a corruption of liberal educational ideals by radical and leftists faculty,12 the expansion of the curriculum to include the works, theories, and research claims of margin­alized groups in American (and global) history weathers a turbulent storm of criticism and institutional realization.

According to Arthur Levine, the aim of the multiculturalism that emerged in the 1990s was “to legitimize both the intellectual and emotional aspects of diverse cultures in academic and campus life in teaching, research, and service,” thereby achieving “equity among diverse cultures and a symbiosis among them.” Levine characterizes institutional responses to multicultur­alism as “a tendency to think of diversity as a problem, rather than as an opportunity to shape an institution’s future” and as a consequence, insti­tutions have enacted policies that have sought to increase student repre­sentation and retention services for traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.13 In other words, postsecondary institutions have under­stood the challenge of multiculturalism to be about additive inclusion, sum but no substance. But with the increase in racial and ethnic diversity on colleges and universities comes the disturbance of the historical common culture of the college, the fracturing of an idealized collegiate fellowship. Thus, greater diversity begins to be understood as a loss of once commonly shared and esteemed values, as a loss of community. As the Carnegie Report implied,14 with the enumerative improvements in diversity came “a vocal questioning of a shared identity” and a “loss of community” on American college and university campuses. College and university presidents responded by supporting administrative projects to “strengthen common purposes and shared experiences”15 but did not assess or reconsider what collegiate “community” did or did not mean.

What we have seen, then, on college campuses in the past thirty years is an attempt to address the call for diversity and then the fact of diversity by engaging in practices designed to first desegregate the student body and then to conduct business as usual—an additive policy with inconsiderable changes to the liberal educational mission. With increased numbers of traditionally underrepresented groups now on and a part of the college enterprise, colleges have attempted to live lives in states of pluralistic coex­istence and assimilation. Integrating the new “diverse” populations into the common college culture has meant a “color-blind” attitude and conferring upon “diverse” students those values consistent with the normative liberal culture. Colleges appear to parlay these positions and dispositions with the hope of an assimilationist end.

Can the American college find an emendatory aim? Given its framing of pluralism, the individual and liberal education in a democratic society, pragmatism provides a possible answer here. For William James, liberal education was both means and end to democratic living. The “college bred” according to James will be guided by epistemological pluralism or the understanding that monistic explanations of reality are inherently flawed.16 Liberal education will enable college women and men to judge excellence as a consequence of critical scrutiny no matter its source.17 James will require liberal education to “let in every modern subject, sure that any subject will prove humanistic, if its setting be kept only wide enough.”18 Like James, Horace Kallen understood liberal education in a pluralistic democracy to bring to students the value of context and experiential posi­tion. Specifically, Kallen submitted that the arts and sciences be “not a repetition of identicals but a process in which new meanings absorb, digest, and transform old goings-on.”19 Kallen’s liberally educated American is not a man or woman whose intelligence has been fettered by intellectual and cultural isolationists, the “policemen of the arts and sciences.”20 These are women and men whose education has been about cultural pluralism and not cultural monism.21

In my view, however, it is John Dewey’s articulation of culture, commu­nication, and sociality that best serves us in a discussion of multiculturalism and the ideal of collegiate community. Dewey’s pragmatism focused on a democratic ethics that sought to reconcile the nation’s pluralism with its traditional liberal culture, our claim to freedom and need for authority, and our reverence for the right to promote self-interest with our desire for social unity. Dewey’s relevance to the conciliatory task of building campus community amidst ever-expanding diversity seems evident on these grounds. As a method of thinking and thus learning, Deweyan multiculturalism can serve as a means to a universality that is not characterized by hegemonic assimilation or stunted growth. Instead, such thinking would be, in true Deweyan fashion, the means to an end (community) that would continue to inform its means (multiculturalism). In this scheme, a community based on difference would emerge and evolve. Characteristically Deweyan, universal­ity and difference would alter and transform each other, serving to pro­mote the growth of the community. Thus, with each new student, new faculty, or new staff, a college community continues evolving.

John Dewey’s pragmatism also provides this particular inquiry with an important and critical distinction. Dewey would most certainly propose a “concept” of community on college campuses and not an “ideal.” In true pragmatic fashion, a concept is the active, evolving, and complex product of pragmatic thinking and experience. Concepts are tools or means to praxis. As we shall see, Dewey’s “community” is an ever-evolving sociality and as a concept, is active, operational, useful, and effectual. On the other hand, Dewey would see an “ideal” of community as lacking such practical­ity. An “ideal” is not based on real experience or on actual existence, according to Dewey. In Dewey’s view, the pursuit of an “ideal” is unproduc­tive largely because its perfection renders it static and unattainable, quali­ties contradictory to pragmatism. Though “ideals” can inspire us with their perfection, their veneration and pursuit ultimately frustrates us. We can never actually achieve an “ideal.”22 Because ideals exist as ready-made abstractions with little grounding in our real experiences, to strive for an “ideal of community,” though useful in that it is an “imagined possibility that stimulates men to new efforts and realizations,” 23 is unproductive. An “ideal” of community on college campuses, perfect and archetypal is an impractical abstraction that can not become the “instrumentality of action” 24 that Dewey’s pragmatism would require.


If we were to understand multiculturalism via Dewey, we would see that it becomes the method for achieving the “great [college] community free of the constraints of liberal ideals.” 25 If actuated in Deweyan fashion, a recon­struction of multiculturalism becomes a method of thinking necessary for the development of community. Seen as a method of “intelligent learn­ing,” 26 this multiculturalism would not isolate individuals, nor restrict their interaction with other individuals. Instead, as a freed intelligence, this multiculturalism creates a broader and more communicative environment that amplifies and alters experience, consequently informing conscious­ness. Unlike the multiculturalism practiced in many of our institutions, a multiculturalism in the Deweyan tradition can unite rather than separate individuals simply because the aim of building a college community is not antithetical to an individual’s growth; it is attendant with an individual’s growth. Individuals in Deweyan multiculturalism would communicate mean­ing effectively, meaning which is the result of mindfulness reflective of experience.27 Bodied and contextual, individuals can cohesively organize via communicated meanings and consequently develop shared objectives.

How would Dewey characterize this “multiculturalism” I have ascribed to him? At first blush I am sure that Dewey would find the term somewhat redundant; that “culture” (and by extension “culturalism”) necessarily implies a multiplicity and a plurality. Culture, Dewey would remind us, is about a plurality which can continually augment and amplify “the range and accu­racy” of the individual’s knowledge. It is a plurality in the spirit, if not the material reality, of his “full and free” interactions needed for an effective and efficient social life.28 Culture, and thus its needless postmodern incar­nation, multiculturalism, is about the relationship between and among individuals, but these are relationships which broaden our outlook and which allow us to understand and critically interpret that which is outside our immediate view. Not about an “internal refinement of mind,” 29 culture/multiculturalism is a sociality attributable to the conditions of the modern world, of the material lives of individuals, conditions of difference and ignorance. It is the “complete development of personality” 30 in a time and place characterized by the historical realities of race and ethnicity, of polit­ical sentiment, of economic claims, and all other dispositions.

Thus, if social conditions are such that individuals and their contribu­tions are judged unworthy, if barriers are constructed to prevent their full participation in all that society offers, then it cannot be culture according to Dewey. Culture/multiculturalism must provide the opportunities and conditions for the development of each individual and for her communi­cative agency. These conditions are democratic, and as Horace Kallen asserted, cannot be a “coerced allegiance” much like the “hold-up victim’s who gives his money so as not to give his life.”31

An individual’s communicative agency, Dewey would argue, would enable her to think intelligently and thus grow “progressively,” a growth that would bind her to community and consequently direct her individual endeavors toward social ends. Dewey’s individual would be engaged in “whatever binds people together in cooperative human pursuits and results.”32 Though Dewey believed that these “cooperative human pursuits” were the effects of our sociability, and which would engender democracy sensibilities,33 Dewey valued these pursuits precisely because they were thinking eventualities. Thinking, according to Dewey, requires making meaning from connec­tions, requires engaging in the relations between and among phenomena. Thus, “cooperative human pursuits” are thinking opportunities in which individuals make sense of experiences from data supplied by others, and it is these data that allow us to question, formulate, or reshape our ideas, and in fact, are experiences that shape our individualities.

Dewey’s multiculturalism has implications for our individuality. As indi­viduals, we are “temporal events” whose uniqueness is the result of our associations.34 Neither “fixed” nor “intrinsic,” our individuality evolves as we interact with others and the “indefinite range of interactions” that should constitute our lives.35 Consequently, our individuality is impacted if our associations are limited, or if social conditions are restricted. Dewey’s multiculturalism, by definition, is that “indefinite range of interactions” that enable our “unactualized potentialities” to be actualized.36

Many of those interactions will be mediated through the social histories of groups, like those of racial or ethnic groups. Dewey would remind us that it is not the “intrinsic” or “natural” condition of our race or ethnicity that imbues us with some essential potentiality that will determine our individualities. Rather, he would remind us that social arrangements such as the categorization of individuals by race and their consequent inter­actions across and within these groups are themselves shaped by history. That history will be of consequence for our individualities because like all other forms of interactions, it will add to our own particular “temporal seriality.”37 If our individualities are temporal, then its chronology must include the history of associations particular to us and people “like” us. It is also the case that because our individualities are constituted by the actualization of potentialities, that identification with group membership helps to shape individuality. According to Dewey, groups should set free the potentialities of its members, especially those that are common to all members.38 In the particular case of multiculturalism, groups associated by historical categories of race or ethnicity by definition elicit members’ poten­tialities in regard to that categorization. For African American poet Lang-ston Hughes, for example, being a “black” was an aspect of a complex and evolving individuality that included many dispositions the consequence of the historical character of race in America. As a twenty-two year old college student, Hughes writes an assigned poem for his English course, a poem that must “come out of [him]—then it will be true.” His poem reflects the landscape of his individuality, a terrain cultivated by his historical particu­larity. Hughes is an individuality characterized (in part) by a love of Bessie Smith and Bach, by the pleasure of a pipe at Christmas, and by the fact that he is “the only colored student in [his] class.”39

It is also likely that Dewey would substitute the word “nationalism” for “multiculturalism,” a term that like “democracy,” had a peculiar American quality for Dewey. During the political and social turmoil of World War I, Dewey writes that the “good side” of nationalism is that which enables Americans to “think and feel in ideas broad enough to be inclusive of the purpose and happiness of all” and not the narrowness of mind that comes from a desire to separate ourselves from others. He reasons that we must understand that what is “basic” to American nationalism is that we are “interracial and international,” that we are a culture of a “hyphenated character,” and that from this spring opportunities for intelligent action.

He warns that assimilationist policies that seek to narrow or diminish the heterogeneity of opportunities for thinking in America are disloyal to dem­ocratic ends and, as a result, argues for diversity as a compelling interest for democracy.40 Thus, we can stipulate that Dewey argues for multi­culturalism—or using his term “nationalism”—because it is an absolute necessity for the community that is America, and for and about the com­munities within America.

Like the “good aspects of nationalism,” Dewey’s multiculturalism must guard against a splintering of purposes and a narrowing of intercourse.41 As a democratic arrangement, multiculturalism cannot restrict knowledge of others’ experiences, nor can it trade on groups’ pride for the purpose of separation or segregation from others. Instead, group pride (what Dewey called “a unity of feeling and aim”42) must anchor a disposition toward inclusion and growth. Dewey looked to public education to inculcate this “intellectual and moral disposition and outlook” that he termed “good nationalism.” From this we can extrapolate that a “good” multiculturalism (that which I am attributing to Dewey) is one that schools, in this case colleges and universities, must seek to teach and support. Dewey held educational institutions responsible for “subordinating a local, provincial, sectarian, and partisan spirit of mind to aims and interests which are com­mon to all men and women of the country” and warned that

unless the [educational] agencies which form the mind and morals of the community can prevent the operation of those forces which are always making for the division of interests, class and sectional ideas and feelings will become dominant, and our democracy will fail to progress.43

Dewey’s multiculturalism, like the “Americanism” he knew to be demo­cratic, must be a means to a heterogeneous union without conformity on the part of minority groups to the majority’s worldview. He warned that no single “component of culture, no matter how early it was settled in our territory, or how effective it has proved in its own land” is to provide the standard for sociality in a democracy.44 Deweyan multiculturalism, then, cannot take up an assimilationist aim. Somehow it must provide the means for the development of individual and group peculiarity as well as demo­cratic communality. Additionally, Deweyan multiculturalism cannot be the means to “tribalism” on America’s campuses. Extreme segregation and zeal­ous exclusivity on the part of racial or ethnic groups on campus, whether as a response to assimilationist policies or as a misguided attempt to boost group loyalty, is not the objective of Deweyan multiculturalism. On the contrary, any Deweyan articulation of group membership or association does not include such miseducative arrangements.45

Like Dewey, pragmatist Horace Kallen warned that Woodrow Wilson’s isolationist “hyphenated American” was not the agent of an effective democ­racy.46 Kallen echoed Dewey’s calls for multiculturalism by suggesting that, essentially, it is because of the diversity of relationships and the consequent experiential nature of identity (“a verb, not a noun”47) that communities are formed and strengthened. The “vital center” of relationships is the individual,48 and each is dependent on “forms of association.”49 These associations in democratic arrangement must, in true pragmatic fashion, allow, encourage, and stimulate individuals’ free exchange of ideas. The means to this unfettered sociality Kallen understood to be education, a view Dewey would certainly endorse because it is education that Dewey understood to be the means to growth, the means to self-realization.

Deweyan multiculturalism will require a view of the individual’s self-realization or growth that implicates society or, more specifically, that is contingent on the degree to which others positively engage individual inter­ests and potentialities. Societies that regard “individual variations as pre­cious” are societies that do not view variation as suspect and consequently do not suppress diversity, a view supported in Kallen’s free and democratic societies.50 The “diverse gifts” that individuals bring to groups are regarded as favorable because they expand the capacities for individual growth and, consequently, the continued growth of the community itself.51 As such, difference, diversity, variation, and dissimilarity are understood to be nec­essary for communal growth, for democratic growth. But difference must be effectively communicated if the “antagonistic sects and factions” that result from imposed communicative restraint can be avoided and democ­racy realized, according to Dewey. Individuals must think of democracy as “a personal way of life,” writes Dewey, so that communication across differ­ences can be effected. As he writes in 1939, “To cooperate by giving dif­ferences a chance to show themselves . . . is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life.” Further, asserts Dewey, individuals must understand that they cannot abandon this communicative responsibility by believing that it is the responsibility of institutions to deliver communicative means. Institutions, Dewey reminds us, are not living organisms but are the “expressions, projections, and extensions” of our “personal attitudes.”52 Thus, individuals must infuse institutions with democratic communication; they must shape institutional policy and practice that is consistent with democratic communication that engenders individual and communal growth.

But the difference and variation as the consequences of culture or the conditions of modern life that individuals bring to new communities are not just about personality or other “natural” dispositions. Differences are, Dewey would assert, simply the effects of living life as individualities impacted by policies and regimes of truth. Our lives are marked by what sets us apart from or makes us the same as others, by what makes us known “to be” one thing or another. We are what others see us as, and in part we are the response to that treatment. Thus, the inscriptions of such conditions as gender and race, ethnicity and socioeconomic class mark our individual identities in such a way that we internalize features of collective identities: how we understand ourselves to be “woman,” to be “poor,” to be “Black,” to be “gay.” This internalization is the outcome and outgrowth of complex cultural knowledge about ourselves and our identifications with communities. Using the language of Habermas, the “lifeworld” or the “totality of socio-cultural facts” constructs and maintains identity,53 so that the ideas that we have about ourselves and others will necessarily be dependent on how we interpret those facts, or in Dewey’s language, how those facts are commu­nicated to us and the meaning which we derive from that communication.

Dewey’s multiculturalism, then, is about a communication of our socio­political facts that like thinking (Dewey would argue) can amend and elab­orate knowledge and can transform “our convictions as to the state of things.”54 Because multiculturalism provides opportunities for learning, and because it broadens intelligence, Dewey would view multiculturalism as operationally critical and reflective, conditions he viewed necessary for thinking. Thinking, in Deweyan terms, is characterized by the same reli­ance on experience, reflection, and testimony that is so fundamental to multiculturalism. Pragmatic thinking and multiculturalism are comprised of the same essential conditions and achieve the very same ends.

For Dewey, let’s remember, thinking is not that which is “automatic and unregulated.”55 Thinking requires reflection on the interconnectedness of events and phenomena, reflection that has come after a mindful inquiry of propositions. These propositions often rest on belief and opinion, or that which we have taken to be knowledge. Our “prejudices” are “prejudgments” based on belief are passive cognition that Dewey attributed to “laziness, inertia, custom, absence of courage, and energy in investigation.” Active and progressive, thinking must test the reliability of propositions by assess­ing the “quality of evidence” that is presented. We appraise evidence through a variety of measures, testing to see if the meaning we have attributed is significant, if it is justified.56

But we begin the inquiry from “perplexity, confusion, or doubt.” 57 Think­ing is brought about by our disbelief and distrust of the facts before us or by our confusion and uncertainty. Dewey has us work our way out of confusion and uncertainty via a connection to our relevant experience or by way of “testimony.” “Testimony” is the “material supplied from the expe­rience of others” which to be helpful to our query must “enter into some existing system or organization of experience.”58 In other words, when others furnish us with information from experience outside our ken, when they provide us with knowledge or beliefs that are unfamiliar and foreign to us, we must either make the connection to our own corresponding expe­rience or be able to make meaning within or through an accessible com­municative system. Thus, thinking, according to Dewey, is a process through which we reflect on the sociocultural facts of lives, our own and others’. More important, as a process derived from and bound to these sociocul­tural facts, and to their critical evaluation, thinking becomes “a means to some end, good, or value beyond itself.”59 It takes on a pragmatic character through which knowledge is “revised and extended, and our convictions as to the state of things reorganized.” 60 Through pragmatic thinking, we are able to examine what has happened and give meaning to “what is still going on” and “what is still unsettled.”61

We are left, then, with an understanding of Deweyan multiculturalism as that process or means of thinking that will enable us to communicate the sociocultural facts of our past and present experiences in such a way as to expand knowledge and in doing so, modify experiential conditions. In this way, multiculturalism becomes a means through which opportunities for learning are enlarged, because we welcome the assertion and disclosure of unfamiliar experiences. Put another way, we welcome the unfamiliar and different as occasions to edify and enlighten the conditions of our experi­ential ignorance. And this will be the test for Dewey’s multiculturalism in the college environment: the degree to which multiculturalism, if enacted in Deweyan ways, can be the means through which individuals and groups can effectively communicate experiential facts so that all members of the college community can develop shared objectives.


In The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey set forth his vision of the “Great Community” by asserting that societies can be “cohesively organized” into communities. But even in democratic arrangements, individuals must do more than just associate to form communities. In Dewey’s view, democratic societies must be organized in ways that allow individuals to develop and communicate commonly shared objectives. For societies (associated living) to develop into communities, individuals must have “a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the group” and must participate “according to the needs and values,” which the group asserts. Groups, or in our case the members of a college, must liberate the potentialities of its members and must themselves interact “flexibly and fully” with other groups.62

On many of our postsecondary campuses, administration, faculty, and students reason that by increasing the diversity of the student body and the faculty the college will improve upon its communal properties. The ratio­nale for diversity plans is often premised on the very idea that such additive measures can only enrich the existing “community,” because more individ­ual variety necessarily means more association between individuals, and that “more association” necessarily means better association, and, of course, “better association” in turn leads to communal solidarity.

There is much that is faulty in this scheme. Increasing the number of minority faculty and students (additive difference) is merely an enumerative strategy and “no amount of aggregated collective action of itself con­stitutes a community” 63 according to Dewey. Difference must be meaningfully communicated if it is to be effectively understood, if it is to be of conse­quence for growth. Additive difference cannot necessarily ensure the con­ditions necessary for individuals to engage in meaningful communication, a necessary criterion for community. Because colleges and universities increase student and faculty diversity, we believe that individuals will have “numer­ous and varied” experiences and “full and free” interactions across and within groups. But it is the quality of the intercommunication between groups (racial or cultural) that most determines whether or not groups (and individuals) ever reach a “common understanding” and can ever “regulate their specific activity” aimed at constructing mutually determined ends.64 Thus, though increasing the representation of racial and ethnic minorities on campus can increase the likelihood that groups and individuals will asso­ciate, it does not guarantee effective communication and communality. Further, for undergraduate education tethered to the values of liberal edu­cation, this increase in plurality, though on the surface consonant with lib­eralism’s democratic character, only serves to heighten the defense of liberal education precisely because it challenges its cultural insularity. But simply because these new college populations challenge liberal education’s parochial character, it does not mean that liberal education is changed, that additive difference has triggered communicated difference. If anything, life on our college campuses suggests that increasing diversity simply highlights the lack of mutual intelligibility between groups and between individuals.

Perhaps the college’s inability to effectively actuate multiculturalism has to do with its inability to “see” students’ experiential realities as opportu­nities for critical reflection, for liberal knowledge. Many leaders of liberal arts institutions reason that students (and faculty) are neutral intelligences, making them capable of amicable and sympathetic intellectual fireside chatting. Yet, the history of higher education has proven otherwise. For example, we have argued that women’s entry into higher education would mean nothing more than a demographic change in the college, that it would mean nothing more than rendering dormitory urinals useless, but instead have found that nothing could be further from the truth.65 That despite all that is done to assimilate the new and different populations of students, their cultural, social, economic, and sexual realities bring to the conversation knowledge and epistemological positions that are the very consequence of those realities, the effect of those experiences. For Dewey, this “consciousness” that is the result of being this organism “in nature” must be engaged to begin effective communication.66 Through “testimony” and critical reflection, he would argue, undergraduate education can extend the sharing of the facts of sociocultural difference as the means of under­standing the past and present, of constituting ideas, and to guide future actions. In such a communicative process, difference (multiculturalism) becomes the means of thinking and, as a result, the possession of all parties.

I believe that Dewey would argue that the way to create the genuine exchange between experientially different individuals that is necessary for community is for liberal learning to appropriate a cross-cultural dialogue that is critically reflective of sociocultural facts, in other words, to cham­pion multiculturalism as a means of thinking. This exchange of sociocul­tural facts, he would assert, must begin with subject matter—the curriculum—and continue with the development of mutually intelligible signifiers—communication. He would reason that the way to develop the commonality that is necessary for us to develop community on our college campuses (a community which he would argue can not happen automatically by virtue of mere association67) is for the curriculum to present students with anal­ogous, relevant experiences, or both (via texts, laboratory work, films, intern­ships, foreign exchange, etc.), which prompt communication for all. Teachers are to require not the relativism of personal experience to dictate learning but rather the dialogue that “draws out the ideas of students” and that “exposes myths and stereotypes to critical scrutiny.”68 What then has become familiar through inquiry and discriminating analysis can be “rationally or logically organized”69 as knowledge.

Now conjointly invested in the examination and organization of knowl­edge (the college’s curriculum and pedagogy), individuals can begin to stipulate ends, to discuss the objectives of their intellectual community, the aims of their college. Members of the college can engage in an active process of community building, a community that will always be emergent and never complete. As new members enter the communication, the com­munal properties are impacted in one way or another, but most important, their impact is a progressive one. Communality continues evolving with each addition of difference or novelty. Brought into the dialogue by their desire to broaden and deepen their knowledge, and welcomed by other individuals who share the same purpose for themselves, new members become active participants in the development of shared ends.

Dewey was confident, and perhaps optimistic, that with effective multi­cultural communication individuals would develop a consciousness that would value and have “effective regard for whatever is distinctive and unique”70 in each of us. Dewey felt certain that given the opportunity, individuals would welcome difference if they understood it to be necessary for their own self-realization. Dewey reasoned that to be “full and free,” to wholly realize our individual potentialities, requires a widening of our life experiences that frees us from “routine habits” and “the authoritative con­trol of others.” 71 Motivated by a desire to grow and an understanding that their growth is dependent on the growth of others, individuals embrace difference and variety because it signals an occasion for self-development and, by extension, becomes the primary source for communal growth. Members of the college community become effectively organized through a multicultural intelligence that allows them to define and communicate shared ends. Thinking via multiculturalism allows for the communication necessary to build communal ties.

But as I previously mentioned, all of this is premised on Dewey’s confi­dence in individuals and in our ability to recognize that multiculturalism is a method of intelligence that can bring us to democratic social and intel­lectual ends. Had Dewey seriously considered the relations of sociocultural power that govern our identities? Our individualities? Our very presence in institutions? Had Dewey examined what it would mean for those in author­ity to relinquish power? For the proponents of a Eurocentric canon to “give way” to a multicultural curriculum? For literature professors to teach Carlos Fuentes and Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz alongside Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau? Will the biologist reconceptualize the scientific normative of “race” because he or she understands this to be about the expansion of biological knowledge?


My sense is that because Dewey’s optimism about humanity was really about his faith in our “distinctively human function,”72 our capacity to be rational, and thus in our ability to “perceive the significance of the subject matter of a new experience,73 he will rely on our capacity for reason to direct our actions. He would submit that it is reason that will enable us to understand the connection between familiar and unfamiliar experiences, between accepted knowledge and novel explications, that it is reason that will enable us to welcome uncertainty and speculation, difference and modification. Consequently, these questions—these postsecondary educational realities—are about individuals choosing whether or not to act rationally regardless of their sociocultural conditions. For the proponents of a Eurocentric canon to relinquish cultural and institutional power by transforming the curriculum is, for Dewey, simply about choosing reason over habit, growth over rigidity. If curricular change furthers thinking, enlarges knowledge, and is directed as progressive social ends, then the choice is an obvious one for Dewey.

But in reality our choices and consequent actions may not be so “rea­sonable.” We may choose conformity for reasons other than Deweyan growth. We may dismiss the claims that multicultural thinking is the means to broader and greater intelligence and social good, because as individuals our economic survival may require such compliance. But if Dewey under­stood “the business of education” to be to liberate and expand experi­ence74 and that “a progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth,”75 then it does seem that Dewey would believe that higher education is obliged to be rational, obliged to choose multiculturalism. Thus, it appears that multiculturalism is the sensible choice for the American college, the only choice for the attainment and growth of community in liberal education. Multicultural­ism, as a means of thinking and a method of intelligence, brings to Amer­ican undergraduate education the opportunity to communicate, to find commonality, to establish emergent communities. “Consciously sustained,” these communities will be moral, according to Dewey, 76 a morality that is the aim of education.

For the American undergraduate college steeped in a tradition of exclu­sion, cultural insularity, and intellectual reticence, multiculturalism as a method of thinking may be the only pragmatic means for its postmodern survival. If the American college is to marshal the intellectual forces of the next century, if it is to orchestrate democratic pluralism, then it must break with those elements of its character that render it static and forever defend­ing a reality of its past. Joan W. Scott reflects in The Rhetoric of Crisis in Higher Education that “[t]he more the university community has diversified, the more relentless have been the attempts to enforce community.” 77 The college community “enforced” has been one in which the challenges of pluralistic identification, whether in scholarship, pedagogy, or in the extra-curriculum, have been understood as dangerous and deleterious to liberal learning. But as my reading of Dewey has suggested, this challenge to liberal learning is a false one, or at least one of paradigmatic error. The pluralistic claims of individuals, in fact, bring to liberal learning a means for understanding and negotiating life on campus. These historically polit­icized identities challenge the college to grow, to expand its intelligence, to seek commonality not in the falsehood of assimilative pluralism but in the reality of experiential difference. If American higher education is to become Dewey’s “great community,” it must distance itself from the liberal view that dissolving difference is the means to a community of individuals with shared values and objectives. It must recognize that the fact of difference is nec­essary for the realization of community.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 3, 2001, p. 485-503
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10765, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:46:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Ana Martinez Alemán
    Boston College
    E-mail Author
    Ana M. Martinez Alemán is an assistant professor af the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. She is the author of ¿Qué Culpa Tengo Yo? Performing Identity and College Teaching (Educational Theory, 1999) and other scholarly publications on the impact of gender, race and ethnicity on higher education
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