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Diversity and Unity: Mr. Madison and Dr. King

Fall 2003


There is nothing new under the sun. Holy Writ proclaims it, and if we are granted the gift of a few years, most of us live to experience the truth of those words. We who live and work in education unwittingly and predictably demonstrate this truth when we promulgate—as fresh insights, as compelling discoveries—the very theories and strategies and solutions that we ourselves or those before us have tried, tired of, and abandoned.

I have now lived to see phonics discovered, researched, endorsed, debunked, forgotten, rediscovered, rehabilitated, restored. Little of importance is truly new or innovative in education, we can assert. Plato's record of classes with his great teacher is still every teacher's fondest image of the teaching moment: to participate in a carefully directed discussion or to share a leisurely meal while exchanging interesting thoughts with our students.

Massive social changes of the last 40 years, however, have birthed social circumstances scarcely imaginable to an earlier age. When historians, decades hence, describe the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, they will, I believe, tell us that an idea took root and began to flourish on a scale and with implications unknown to human experience.

Diversity, following Babel, has always been recognized as an unhappy and inescapable component of the human story, evidence of our flawed beginnings. When the great Queen Isabel authorized the Spanish Inquisition to ensure religious and therefore political unity in her lands, she was only acting upon what virtually every society before and after her—Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Chinese, Arab—has believed: "the Other" must be contained and perhaps eliminated to ensure prosperity, safety, happiness, security. Only recently have a few nations begun to cultivate diversity and to promote it as a desirable component of the good society. We are living a new day in human history when diversity comes to be not only inescapable, but positive, liberating, and necessary.

Americans might claim diversity's new face our unique discovery. Writing in the Federalist, James Madison asserted that civil and religious freedom required a diverse environment. "The security for civil rights must be the same for religious rights. Its consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects." No longer a curse to be endured or to be lifted, diversity safeguards freedom.

Scholars, politicians, philosophers and social scientists have long puzzled over the contradiction inherent in Madison's thought. How can a society achieve a coherent vision, a common purpose, a shared action, if freedom, the greatest possible good, must be protected by the greatest possible multiplicity? What brings the multiple groups together? The Civil War settled the question of political instability for a union of diverse interests and sects.

The more difficult task, to grant equal place to racially diverse people, had to wait another century for Americans, in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words, to agree to "live out the true meaning of [our] creed…that all men are created equal." King's great speech went beyond acknowledging or exalting diversity. He articulated the dream of shared humanity, a day when diversity would energize and stir, not divide, the human heart.

García Marquez, in his great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, demonstrates these instabilities—diversity and unity, soledad and solidaridad, solitude and solidarity—as the fundamental dilemma of the human condition. In Marquez's novel, each member of a large family repeatedly, in successive generations, yearns to find his or her own self, and yet to belong. How do we, in the University, experience this eternal duality: diversity and unity?

Dr. William Friday, president of the University of North Carolina from 1956-1986, when asked what a university's central concerns should be, suggested two fundamental tasks that point us toward the regenerative society Dr. King described. Our business in the University, Dr. Friday is reported to have said, is first to safeguard academic freedom, and second, to connect to the community that surrounds us.

Academic freedom protects and fosters the unique, idiosyncratic growth of each part; the University, the institution of discrete parts, unites to answer a common calling to the community. Friday's dual charge—academic freedom and united commitment to the community—allows us, I believe, to reconcile in one institution Madison's vision of multiplicity and King's dream of a common purpose, a shared calling.

During the legislative session, concluded in part at the end of May, I became aware, in speaking with Members, that academic freedom and its protector, tenure, are widely misunderstood outside the University. Many believe that academic freedom and tenure somehow convey lifelong employment during which one teaches what one wishes, when one wishes, where one decides, to whomever one chooses. Recurring attempts to banish tenure from public colleges and universities spring from this flawed perception of our processes.

Stated simply, academic freedom ensures free, unfettered flow of knowledge and energetic, courageous research. Tenure protects academic freedom, ensuring that no administrator or politician can threaten a scholar's secure place in the University as a result of his or her discoveries, investigations, or research conducted as scholarly pursuits.

Our concept of academic freedom springs from a relatively recent lineage. Galileo, today, would not be jailed nor would he lose his job because his discoveries, empirical truth, threatened faith-based
assertions about the physical world. This is not to say, however, that even in the modern university academic freedom thrives in an intellectual atmosphere free of agitation and controversy.
When scholars discovered, early in the 20th century, that Santa Teresa de Ávila, Doctor of the Church, was descended from Jewish grandparents arrested and prosecuted by the Inquisition, and that Miguel de Cervantes and St. John of the Cross also had Jewish ancestors, those who dared to publish those truths and to discuss their implications encountered fierce opposition. But academic freedom ensured that the discussion continue, the truth be disclosed, and the implications be debated.

This spring, Mr. J. Michael Bailey, at Northwestern University, published what are for many disturbing findings and conclusions derived from his research into human sexuality.

Irrespective of one's view of Mr. Bailey's findings or his interpretation of what he has found, his job and his professional position remains secure. For the University, academic freedom has become the guarantor of the multiplicity, of the diversity of thought and mind that Madison deemed essential to civil and religious freedom. Academic freedom is the right of the individual to remain an individual, a unique thinker to remain unique.

The second part of Dr. Friday's concept of a university—an institution belonging to and serving the community—proves more difficult to achieve. "Ivory tower" talk, like all myths, carries a kernel of truth. Scholars and students can best pursue their studies at a place and in an atmosphere both comfortable and attractive.

Alfonso el Sabio, King of Spain, ordered in the 13th century that his university offer "buen aire et fermosas salidas," good air and beautiful promenades. At the same time, our land-grant heritage, a public institution founded and financed by the state, demands that work undertaken in the tower or in the fermosas salidas be for the benefit of all people, most especially those outside the University's walls.

The partnerships—intellectual, artistic, entrepreneurial, recreational—that faculty and students and staff continue to pursue and to develop with the Laredo community honor the pact that all land-grant institutions make with the society that establishes them. Service to the people of Texas unites us, diverse and divided, into a shared vision, a common action.

Antonio Damasio, in his new book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, examines the evolutionary history of what he calls the "nice emotions:" altruism, generosity, fairness. The "baggage of genes" has dictated that too often this warmer side of humanity is extended only "to a group:" the family, tribe, city, nation.

"The history of our civilization," writes Damasio, "is, to some extent, the history of a persuasive effort to extend the best of 'moral sentiment' to wider and wider circles of humanity, beyond the restrictions of the inner groups, eventually encompassing the whole of humanity."

We in the University, our powerful diversity and multiplicity guaranteeing freedom, our common vision of service uniting us to the community, are uniquely positioned to lead the civilizing effort Damasio describes. And as we, in our unfettered scholarly pursuits and our commitment to service, extend our reach to ever-wider circles of humanity, we as the University reconcile Mr. Madison's vision for freedom in diversity and Dr. King's vision of united humanity.

Is there truly nothing new under the sun? The American university, its stones and ideals quarried from the dreams of the ages, is the new creation.


Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University