Columbia University has announced that it will be hosting multicultural graduation ceremonies this summer. This is yet another sign of our fragmented times. Graduands in the following categories will have their own ceremonies in addition to the one for the whole class: Native, lavender (LGBTQ+), Asian, first graduate from a family/low-income household, Latinx, and black. Were I graduating in the Class of ’21, I would only qualify for the ceremony for first family graduate. But given the gospel of intersectionality, one can assume that other students can attend more than one.
There are numerous ironies here. First, the whole point of traditional graduations is to emphasize unity and not diversity. Everyone, regardless of class, sex, or even discipline, wears the same robe and the same hood. Graduation is about identification with an institution, not an opportunity for self-expression. Before my graduation ceremony in 1988, all the male graduands' socks were examined, to ensure there was no deviation in the approved shade of gray. I assume the women had a similar check with regard to pantyhose. This might seem pedantic. Indeed, it was pedantic, but it was pedantry with a purpose. It was part of a ceremony that communicated a message about equality of status: that which bound us together—our university—was on that day more important than any act of self-expression.
But equality is not what it used to be. Equality now means that each group should be granted the ability to perform, and to be recognized in its act of performance. The result is not equality at all, but rather a new form of hierarchy. If you want to know who runs society, then look at the captains of the culture industry and see whom they provide with platforms for performance. These ceremonies are not inclusive—except within the limits of taste that the New York Times finds tolerable. Why no ceremony for afficionados of BDSM? Anti-vaxxers? Orthodox Jews? Trump supporters? The slate of identities reflects the rather exclusive membership list of those deemed of value by the culturally powerful in our present moment. The Columbia Graduating Class of ’21 clearly has its ceremonial graduations authorized by the American Political Class of ’21.
The second irony is the description of this approach to graduation as “multicultural.” What is being presented is not multicultural at all. Just as serial monogamy is another term for promiscuity, so this serial multiculturalism is a euphemism for what is, in effect, a new form of segregation.
Critics might respond that it is important to acknowledge these groups in order to affirm them. The obvious riposte: They are all graduating from an elite university. They have spent a number of years there in the successful pursuit of a degree at a bastion of privilege, something granted to only a minuscule fraction of the population. Many of them may have triumphed over huge odds to be there and to complete their courses of study—in which case their graduation with others who have not faced such challenges is surely a seal of affirmation upon them and their success. They too are now part of Columbia University’s distinguished history. Is this not the point that a unifying graduation for all students makes in a powerful and even beautiful way? Is this not recognition enough?
The most worrying aspect of all this, of course, is that Columbia University, as elite and out-of-touch as it may be with the lives of the vast majority of Americans, reflects the ambitions and concerns of those who control the institutions of cultural power and who decide which identities are to be privileged and which demonized. By choosing to reject its ability to foster unity as an institution, with ceremonies rooted in notions of shared identity, Columbia is a microcosm for what is happening in the nation. America’s motto E pluribus unum speaks of unity arising out of diversity, of a shared national identity deeper than those identities that differentiate and divide her citizens. Columbia is presenting a vision of a nation that might be better characterized by the motto Ex uno plures, where shared institutions function as little more than battlegrounds for competing, incommensurable visions of identity. The old sources of unity have become the new theaters for conflict.
The “sock test” at my alma mater, silly as it sounds, was not a means of excluding or ranking students; it was part of the culture that declared we were all equal and all belonged, regardless of background, skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. A common graduation ceremony declares the same, pointing as it does to the truth, uncomfortable as many now seem to find it, that institutions should be sources of unity. Once they become playgrounds of the privileged, they become sources of division, and no amount of diversity-speak will ultimately hide that fact or prevent the socially disastrous consequences.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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