Reunions

Alumni College 2015

Diversity vs. Divergence in Contemporary America: Access to Full Citizenship

Wednesday, June 10Friday June 12

Alumni College 2015, as in previous years, will bring alumni together to share their experience and knowledge with regard to a public issue of importance. Reed faculty and expert alumni will give presentations to set the context for conferences where participants bring their own experience and knowledge to share. Together, we will advance our mutual understanding of the issue and what might be done to address it.

Diversity, Divergence, and Jefferson’s Unalienable Rights

239 years ago, Thomas Jefferson (with a little help from his friends and a little cribbing from John Locke) wrote:[1]

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted upon Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This is as good a starting point for what citizenship means as any; a citizen is a person who not only is guaranteed rights, but also is enfranchised to consent to be governed. 

Jefferson’s vision that all are created equal does not mean that all are created the same. The history of the United States is a history of an ebb and flow in the divergence amongst its diverse inhabitants in how equal they are in their lives, their liberty, and their ability to pursue happiness—in other words, their access to the full rights of citizenship. A cursory glance at the issues that make contemporary headlines reveals this:

  • Is the right to marry and raise children limited to couples consisting of one male and one female person?
  • Americans are told that the police are present to protect and serve the community. Does this hold equally for white and black members of the community?
  • The most common way of consenting to be governed is voting. Is the onus of eligibility to vote something that the individual citizen must prove or something that the society must disprove? Does this vary in the United States by whether you are rich or poor?
  • Is education a universal right? If so, to what level of education?
  • Is health care a universal right or a market commodity?
  • How far does an individual’s freedom of religion extend to controlling others’ lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness?

In this year’s Alumni College, we will look at the issues of diversity and divergence that challenge us today.

From 1776 to 2015

Jefferson made a significant change when he modified John Locke’s[2] triad of the rights of life, liberty, and property to replace property with the pursuit of happiness. We as a nation expanded the scope of citizenry by—gradually—removing possession of property, white race, and male gender as requirements for enfranchisement, as well as declaring that property rights did not extend to people owning other people. That said, much of the history of America from then to now may be viewed as trying to put the right to possess property back on the list of unalienable rights and separating those with property from those without.

Expansion of citizenship in the United States used to be expressed by the metaphor of the melting pot—that is, as different groups joined American society, they conformed to some notion of a common American set of values. This common core has always been a myth,[3] and an alternative metaphor has been suggested of the salad bowl—that is, each cultural contributor to American society brings its own history, traditions, and cultural values, which not only coexist but interact together in synergy to define our national culture. The diversity we will address in this Alumni College will be with regard to racial/ethnic, gender/gender identity, and socioeconomic differences among Americans. This is not to deny that other dimensions of diversity exist, but rather to make our discussion tractable within the short time that we have available.

While diversity has steadily increased over time in the United States, the divergence among different groups has waxed and waned, in close correspondence to property rights trumping individual rights to pursue happiness.  A significant reduction in divergence was supposed to accompany the end of the Civil War, but Jim Crow triumphed over Reconstruction.[4] The postwar decade of the 1950s, with its economic prosperity extended to the entire nation and the unanimous Supreme Court decision declaring that “separate but equal” education was inherently unequal,[5] led to an optimistic viewpoint that the American Dream would expand to everyone. This viewpoint, too, was dashed on the rocks of political and economic reality, and today we live in a world where the economic separation between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else grows at an increasing rate, while a sharply divided Supreme Court echoes the infamous 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision in declaring that property rights trump Jeffersonian equality—this time with regard to the right of the wealthy to use their (and others’) resources to impose their religious beliefs on others, sway public opinion, and determine election outcomes through the very right to vote.[6]

The Pursuit of Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Returning to Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of the right to the pursuit of happiness, it was rapidly understood in the new United States that the pursuit of happiness required, at a minimum, access to education. No, like wealth, education has never guaranteed happiness, but happiness is easier to obtain if a person is educated. Access to primary education was guaranteed by the State of Pennsylvania by 1790 and was made compulsory by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1851. The University of North Carolina—the first public university in the country—was chartered in 1789. The story of education in the United States, like the story of enfranchisement, has been a story of expansion of access. And, given the American model of parallel strands of public and private education, the residential liberal arts college—referred to by former Reed president Steven Koblik[7] as distinctly American, has a prominent place in providing access to the pursuit of happiness. Therefore, we will in this Alumni College, address diversity and divergence not only generally in the United States, but with reference to higher education in the pursuit of happiness, including a gaze at our own Reedie navels (figuratively, of course—this isn’t Renn Fayre).

The Structure of Alumni College 2015

Our conversation for Alumni College 2015 will examine the current state of diversity and divergence for the citizens of the United States, largely on the basis of the three dimensions of racial/ethnic, gender/gender identity, and socioeconomic differences. Each dimension of diversity will be considered in a separate session of the Alumni College, with Wednesday afternoon devoted to racial/ethnic diversity, Thursday morning devoted to gender/gender identity, and Thursday afternoon devoted to socioeconomic diversity. Yes these three dimensions are correlated, but each presents unique issues for consideration.

Within each of these sessions, we will have presenters address that dimension of diversity in American society in general, in higher education in America, and at Reed College. After the presentations, attendees will split up in parallel conferences to discuss what they have heard.

On Friday morning, we will begin with parallel conferences that attempt to synthesize the common and different threads that have emerged in the previous three sessions, in an attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of diversity and the opportunities and threats posed by greater and lesser divergence. Following the parallel conferences, a final plenary session will view the main conclusions of the conferences to see if there are robust findings that carry over the conferences or whether the conferences themselves diverged.

The structure described above is captured in the timetable here:

Wednesday (6/10)

Racial and ethnic diversity

Starts

Ends

Modality

Topic

Speaker

1:30 p.m.

1:45 p.m.

Welcome

Gen. Intro.

 

1:45 p.m.

2:30 p.m.

Presentation

National level

TBA

2:30 p.m.

3:15 pm.

Presentation

Higher educ.

TBA

3:15 p.m.

3:35 p.m.

Break

 

 

3:35 p.m.

4:00 p.m.

Presentation

Reed

TBA

4:10 p.m.

5:00 p.m.

Conferences

 

 

Thursday morning (6/11)

Gender and gender identity diversity

9:00 a.m.

9:05 a.m.

Welcome

Gen. Intro.

 

9:05 a.m.

9:50 a.m.

Presentation

National level

TBA

9:50 a.m.

10:35 a.m.

Presentation

Higher educ.

TBA

10:35 a.m.

10:55 a.m.

Break

 

 

10:55 a.m.

11:20 a.m.

Presentation

Reed

TBA

11:30 a.m.

12:20 p.m.

Conferences

 

 

Thursday afternoon

Socioeconomic diversity

1:30 p.m.

2:15 p.m.

Presentation

National level

TBA

2:15 p.m.

3:00 p.m.

Presentation

Higher educ.

TBA

3:00 p.m.

3:20 p.m.

break

 

 

3:20 p.m.

3:45 p.m.

Presentation

Reed

TBA

3:55 p.m.

4:45 p.m.

Conferences

 

 

Friday (6/12)

Synthesis

9:00 a.m.

10:30 a.m.

Conferences

 

 

10:30 a.m.

10:50 a.m.

Break

 

 

10:50 a.m.

Noon

Moderated discussion

Comparison of conferences

 

 

 

 



[1] Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, et al., In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.  A DECLARATION by the REPRESENTATIVES  of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA In GENERAL CONGRESS Assembled. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[2] John Locke (published anonymously), The Second Treatise of Civil Government.  London, privately printed, 1690.  http://john-locke.com/second-treatise-of-government/ accessed 25 September 2014.

[3] See, for example, Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. New York: Viking Press, 2011.

[4] See, for example, Leon F. Littwak, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

[5] Supreme Court of the United States of America, Brown v. Board of Education.  347 U.S. (1954).

[6] Supreme Court of the United States of America, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  558 U.S. (2010).

[7] Steven Koblik and Stephen R. Graubard, Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts Colleges.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2000.