Thursday, November 14, 1996

Opinion: Be proud of the diversity in our community

Published in the Mountainview

At Convocation, incoming students are made "welcome to the Middlebury community," and then, moments later, assured that the next time they are in one place with all of the members of their class will be at Commencement. Is this group a true community? They will meet twice in four years, and never with all of the other Middlebury students, staff, and faculty. Can, as the Admissions Office hopes, this community not only exist but be diverse? Diversity, rooted in differences, and community, based in similarities, seem contradictory goals, though each has its own merits.

Middlebury has a broader diversity than might appear at first blush. While many people would remark upon the pervading "whiteness" of the student body, there are many members of minority groups and international students at Middlebury who broaden the range of cultural experience. Even among the white students on campus, there is diversity. A man from Brooklyn very likely has a background dissimilar to that of a woman from Iowa.

Middlebury also has more community than we might think. Many people see in disagreement a lack of community. "How can someone who thinks so differently from me be part of the same community" they ask. People begin to define an "us" and a "them." This threatens to split the group, but instead brings them closer to each other, and further encircles them within the same bounds of community which they wish to escape.

Disparate viewpoints form a community by strict adherence to the same rules of discourse. In the recent presidential campaign, Bob Dole's onslaught of negativity led many voters to believe he was playing from a different rule book than they were. This hurt him, even though he made some valid criticisms of Bill Clinton's record.

We must not get confused between "commune" and "community," though the two words are related. A "sense of community" only requires everyone to play by the same rules, whether they agree or disagree. A "sense of commune" connotes a softly-lit meadow of ideas in which all members of a tightly-knit group sit quietly talking, thinking, observing butterflies, and agreeing unanimously on all things.

The commune is anything but diverse. A community, however, must be diverse; indeed if it is not diverse, it can be described as a commune. Diversity informs community members of viewpoints and ways of thinking which are not their own. A community which is cognizant of itself in a larger context is a stronger community than one which is unaware of its surroundings.

At college, as at no other time in your life, you are forced to live among a group of people many of whom disagree quite fundamentally with your own views. Further, because the institution imposes a framework to which all participants must subscribe, everyone is required to play by the same set of rules.

This available diversity permits students to take advantage of others' experiences which would not be accessible elsewhere. The world outside Middlebury is diverse; in light of Middlebury's task to educate you to operate in that world, diversity is one of the best educational tools available.

The sense of community which Middlebury creates is at least a place where the participants cherish diversity and endeavor to learn from it. This is one of the common precepts which members of the Middlebury community embrace. Diversity can, indeed, be a foundation of community.

Not everyone at Middlebury does, can, or even should agree. With widespread agreement diversity disappears. What of the community which does not respect diversity? In Afghanistan, Taliban fighters recently took over Kabul and imposed ancient Islamic law on all inhabitants. Taliban troops can arrest, and even kill, a woman who goes to a job she held before the town was captured. What was previously a city successfully walking the precarious line between Muslim tradition and western commerce is not caught in the grasp of an intolerant power. The risk of lack of respect of diversity is rarely so clear, or so costly.

The danger at Middlebury is more insidious for its comparative invisibility. The community must be diverse to be strong, and all participants must adhere to one guiding rule: diversity is valuable.