America has always been a pluralistic and diverse nation—a multiracial nation—with many ethnic groups and religious sects that, despite the kinds of prejudice endemic to human nature and common in all societies, preserved their differing practices and beliefs while consensually adopting a common civic identity and sense of unity. Western and American history, and a comprehensive sociological study, confirm that such a model is a uniquely successful one.
In the later twentieth century, America recognized and rectified, through democratic processes, deficiencies in the rights and roles of women, blacks, and other minorities. An overdue revolution in equality and equity led to advances in higher education, economic opportunity, and social mobility. Tolerance and sensitivity to infirmities and inequities were heightened. But for our academic and cultural elites that was not sufficient. These elites rejected the concept of Americanization as an uncouth expression of nationalistic pride or a form of bigotry, the unfair subjection of members of other races and cultures. They saw America not as a community of individuals sharing a common nationality, culture, and history but a conglomerate of separate and disparate races, ethnicities, and sub-national cultures—multiculturalism—in which individuals were defined by their group membership.
Diversity and group identity rather than unity and national identity were chosen as America’s overriding ideals. The university was the ground where the identity-group diversity ideology was formulated by the Academic Left and became the springboard for forcing multiculturalism and diversity into the intellectual life of the country through the American education system—its schools and colleges, including bilingual education.
The diversity ideology holds that assimilation into the mainstream—the traditional and successful American multicultural process—is “oppressive” and “coercive,” explains Peter Wood in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003). Thus, the pursuit of diversity is held to be both practically good and personally redemptive, if not virtuous, despite a conspicuous lack of any evidence of its claimed benefits. “In just a few years, diversity became America’s most visible cultural ideal….a cliché that promotes group stereotypes and undermines any real diversity of ideas and individuals….[and] validates only a narrow hierarchy of difference, asserting the principle that people are, above all else, members of social groups and products of the historical experiences of those groups….Diversity as it is practiced today is anti-individualist and at odds with America’s older ideals of liberty and equality.”
Within multiculturalism, group oppression is viewed as “a relatively permanent feature of human life, stemming directly from a psychological drive for esteem and cultural hegemony, or something like Nietzsche’s will-to-power.” (Melzer et al., 1998) As claims of group rights have lost capacity to compel attention and political power, their champions have responded with what Wood calls, in A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now (2007), “a crescendo of New Anger” to seek their ends. This may also be because studies now show that diversity has not had the positive effect claimed for business organizations (Kochan et al., 2003) and has a negative effect on community (Putnam, 2007).
Harvard Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam’s five-year study, involving 30,000 interviews in 41 U. S. communities and presented as his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, found that social solidarity and social capital are diminished in ethnically-diverse communities: people trust each other less, including members of their own groups; reciprocity, altruism, and community cooperation are rarer; confidence in local institutions is weaker; friendships are fewer; and there is less happiness—regardless of age or income level.
This should not be surprising. More than two millennia ago, the Greeks and then the Romans first replaced group and tribal rights with individual rights—based on objective principles applicable equally to every individual citizen. In every age in the development of Western civilization—in Greece, Rome, the High Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and Reformation—advances were sought to rise above and supersede the ethos and power of groups, tribes, or clans, to free the individual from subordination of his interests to those of the group, whether religious, economic, social, political, racial, or ethnic. The identity-group diversity ideology is not new and has failed repeatedly throughout Western history. Thus, America was founded on the Western concept of the dignity, worth, and autonomy of the individual.
What does Professor Putnam recommend based on his study’s findings? He urges (Harvard, 2007) renewal of the American tradition as a successful immigrant nation. That means creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. The study notes that America has done this through popular culture, education, national symbols, and common experiences. Putnam advocates policies explicitly designed to foster a shared sense of citizenship and mutual obligation to speed assimilation, including English-language training. “Our national motto—e pluribus unum—reflects precisely that objective,” concludes Putnam, “namely to create union out of diversity.”
Ironically, Dr. Putnam recognizes the need to return to the American ideal before our academic and college-educated elite led us down the garden path of identity-group diversity ideology: one people speaking a common language (English), ultimately living in harmony and with a common civic identity and sense of unity through consensual assimilation. Putnam cites a contemporary example of an institution that has successfully achieved a shared identity—evangelical mega-churches—which “constitute the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed.”
The modern science of human nature is also reaffirming the wisdom of the West and our founders on this matter. Evolutionary psychology has already elucidated the following features of human nature that connote a natural social order: complex adaptations have evolved to favor the individual within the social contract (our founding) tradition; the most common ethos of humans is reciprocity, not communal sharing; and group-based approaches are naturally divisive. The Western replacement of the tribe or group with the ideal of individual freedom and rights has a sound foundation in human nature.
And in Moral Clarity (2008), suggesting new ideals for our elites of the left, Susan Nieman wisely advises: “I propose we restrain our attachment to victims and return to an older model, where your claims to legitimacy are focused on what you’ve done in the world, not what the world did to you…not by working on your own demands for reparation, but by going to work on the world.”
It seems high time that our colleges and universities revaluate their slavish devotion to diversity, learn from both past and recent, Western and American history about the ills of that ideology, and once again teach the wisdom of Western civilization (as recommended by NAS), which demonstrates that the freedom and rights of the individual, not the ascriptive identity group, still constitute the best basis for the success of our nation of immigrants.
This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western Civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.
The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).