Soundings

Wendy Shalit
Diversity’s Limits
Autumn 1997

"The university would be in chaos," warned Ivan Marcus, a Yale history professor, "if it bent over backward to accommodate everyone's sensitivities." The New Yorker's David Denby quite agrees: colleges cannot "continue to humor every group's sensitivities." Are they referring, perhaps, to the antics of Yale's Bisexual/Gay/Lesbian/Trans-gender Cooperative? Making a case for defunding its African-American cultural studies house or its Latina/Latino cultural center? No, this September's crackdown on diversity came on the heads of five Orthodox Jewish students who had asked to be excused from Yale's requirement that they live in coed dorms—which they said offended their religious beliefs. As everyone by now knows, the administration denied the request. Diversity, it seems, ends where traditional morality begins.

The fine print on our obsession with diversity, we are learning, reads: only superficial differences allowed. Diversity of skin color, for instance, is big, while real diversity, competing claims to truth—such as what we should believe, how we should live, the kind of diversity the university used to be about—now no longer has a place at the table. We can only "celebrate differences" when we are all, finally, the same—if we all inhabit a safe realm of accepted premises and do not want to "impose" anything outside that realm on anyone else.

One widespread response to the "Yale Five" has been, if they aren't happy, why don't they just go to some other college?

The point, which this response misses, is that there no longer is any "other college." All universities have effectively abandoned in loco parentis, and even when administrations can point to a single-sex floor or two in the dorms, they happily fail to enforce this single-sex rule; everyone can come and go—indeed, is supposed to come and go—into everyone's room and bathroom, toting university-distributed condoms. If you don't participate, you're a weirdo. You're a "sexile," as the Yale Daily News's "Yale lexicon" has it: someone who is "banished from your dorm room because your roommate is having more fun than you."

Yale's official response to these five students speaks volumes. In a September 11 letter to the New York Times, Richard H. Brodhead, the dean of Yale College, observes that "Yale College has its own rules and requirements, which we insist on because they embody our values and beliefs." Do they ever! Thirty or so years ago, when colleges abandoned in loco parentis, they claimed that they were just being "neutral": they would let the students decide for themselves what their sexual morality would be. No more, as Dean Brodhead's remarks show. Yale's requirement that the sexes live together, he wrote, "embodies our belief that what students gain by living together is an essential aspect of their education. When students enter this community, their daily interaction becomes a continual scene of teaching and learning: a place to understand creeds and cultures different from one's own . . . and to learn to work with others across lines of difference. To allow students to separate themselves from the full collegiate community would be to impoverish this aspect of the Yale education." In such elevated rhetoric, it's easy to forget that the common "values and beliefs" students are not supposed to "impoverish" add up merely to a belief in promiscuity. Having abandoned Plato and Aristotle, at least we have one eternal verity.

At the end of a September 6 New York Times report on the "open living arrangements that have been the vogue on campuses for years," we learn that there are actually some students who aren't Orthodox Jews who also aren't happy with today's dormitory arrangements. As the story's final paragraph whispers: "But some quietly confessed that the permissiveness of residence life sometimes made them uncomfortable."

Chris Thacker, a non-Jewish senior at Yale, explains the living situation to me: "Freshman year it's all mixed. Sophomore year you might get lucky and have a single-sex floor, but it's never enforced or anything. You really don't have a choice. It's usually mixed floors, mixed bathrooms. I'm a senior and I have my own room, but I have to share a bathroom with three women. I'll be in there brushing my teeth, and then you know . . . they'll come in and it's, well, it's kind of weird."

At one point not so long ago, universities used to be on the side of those who wanted to study, and defended them against the pressures of sex. If students did have sex, it had to be furtive. Now when your roommate is having sex, you are the one expected to sneak around, you are the exile (or "sexile"), you are the one who should be ashamed of yourself for not being sufficiently libertine. You are the one who must "quietly confess" your taste for sexual modesty, as if admitting a perversion.

And here Allan Bloom et alia were so worried about relativism, when it turns out the left had its canon all along: it's just one of polymorphous perversity.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: