On the surface, pluralism in the college curriculum seems like an obvious social and political good. Why can’t we all just get along? Well, pluralism suggests that we can, in fact, all get along. Perhaps we can get along once we realize that we are, at bottom, similar in essential ways. On the other hand, where fundamental differences within the group might nevertheless persist, we might attenuate social conflict with a deep, empathetic understanding of others. Thus can pluralism cultivate the virtue of tolerance or even acceptance toward others in modern societies with whom we must work and cooperate. What could be wrong with that?
From the perspective of the social theory here at Culture on the Edge, the “we” in the pluralist circle is likely not preexisting but rather conceived and brought into being by such pluralist curriculums. Pluralism can perform an act of social partuition, transfiguring oppositional identities into a newly born “we.” And, as with all discursive practices, we can ask a number of critical questions regarding this act of social magic.
The first critical question: where are the lines around the “we” drawn? Who is excluded? All societies are, in fact, pluralist: every society encourages, permits, or tolerates a delimited range of identities, behaviors, social practices, etc. It is not that some societies are pluralist and others are not; rather, different societies have different pluralisms.
The second critical question: who is permitted to draw the lines? Are the boundaries around who is permitted and who is excluded drawn democratically? Are they drawn by the nobility or an elite class? Are they drawn by legislators? Corporations?
The third critical question: whose interests are served by drawing a circle around the “we” in this way rather than that way? Presumably those outside the “we” do not benefit, but — in addition — it is likely that not everyone within the “we” benefits equally. Do some of “us” benefit more than others?
Typically these questions are not raised in a pluralism curriculum. On the contrary, the “we” is taken for granted by the authors of the curriculum and students are invited to see similarities or engage empathetically with those the authors have already deemed part of the “us.” There are, of course, constitutive exclusions, which are likely presented as so beyond the pale as beneath mention. Muslims are perhaps welcome to join the “we,” except of course Al Qaeda, which everyone knows doesn’t belong with us.
Because attention is not directed to these questions, this sort of curriculum naturalizes one particular “we” — neglecting the fact that there could be other “we’s” — and mystifies — by making invisible — the process by which the circle was drawn in the first place. The conception and birth of the “we” is rarely, if ever, brought to the attention of the students, any more than a baby sees its own birth.
From this perspective, I suspect that many pluralism curriculums today are designed to domesticate social differences to prepare students for life in late capitalism: your differences are accepted and you are welcome to join the “we” as long as you’re willing to accept the nation state’s monopoly on violence, willing to submit to an education process designed to make you a particular type of laborer, willing to go to work upon completion of the education process, and thereupon engage in the consumption of commodities. When it comes to “religion,” any religion is okay as long as it doesn’t interfere with any of these things. If your religion encourages dissent from the nation state, forbids you access to mainstream education, interrupts your working habits, or prevents you from being fashionable, then perhaps your religion is fundamentalist and beyond the pale.
As an instructor interested in critical thinking, I see my job as drawing attention to the processes that naturalize or mystify the “we,” rather than as further naturalizing or mystifying the “we.” In sum, my job is to demystify pluralism rather than to promote it.