News

Former Defense Department General Counsel Appointed Harvard’s Top Lawyer

News

Democracy Center Protesters Stage ‘Emergency Rally’ with Pro-Palestine Activists Amid Occupation

News

Harvard Violated Contract With HGSU in Excluding Some Grad Students, Arbitrator Rules

News

House Committee on China to Probe Harvard’s Handling of Anti-CCP Protest at HKS

News

Harvard Republican Club Endorses Donald Trump in 2024 Presidential Election

Op Eds

Learning From Difference

By Ali S. Asani

I first left my native Kenya in 1973, when I came to the United States to attend Harvard College. In Kenya, as a young man of South Asian ancestry, I was considered “Asian.” But since my ancestors had lived in Africa for nearly two centuries, I considered myself African as well. At Harvard, however, many of my peers were quick to question my identity. Since my family had origins in South Asia, rather than in East Asia, they argued that I could not be “Asian.” And, not being black, they proclaimed that I could not be African either!

Looking back, I believe these troubling conversations stemmed from the great lack of diversity at Harvard during that time, as well as from a pervasive, myopic worldview. Only a few non-white students were admitted to my class, and international students such as myself were few and far between. Study abroad for undergraduates was rare if not taboo.

After graduating, I pursued my doctoral studies at Harvard, and ultimately joined the faculty. Happily, during my many years here, I have not only seen global education expand, but the demographics of the College gradually diversify. Thus, while I have benefited from this institution’s immense resources—symbolized by its world-class collections and staggering endowment—I have come to believe that perhaps our greatest resource lies in each other. Indeed, the diversity of this year’s graduating class, built as it is from the youth of many nations—bolstered by many backgrounds, perspectives, races, and identities—constitutes an opportunity for dialogue and learning that would have been unthinkable in 1973. Perhaps more than an Ivy League education, and certainly more than the slip of paper that acknowledges it, the lessons that this class has learned from its own diversity will empower it to succeed in, and contribute to, the wider world.

It is often said that Harvard is a bubble. In many ways this is very true; Harvard’s intense concentration of diversity has few parallels. The ethos here, too, which valorizes difference and learning from difference is distinctive. Sadly, in looking beyond our ivory tower we see that respect for diversity such as we are increasingly cultivating at Harvard is not as common as it should be. We see that the inability to accept difference leads, all too often, to expressions of violence aimed at humiliating, marginalizing, and eliminating “the other.” Indeed, many recent tragedies are tied to this failure; the Holocaust, together with more recent tragedies in Rwanda, Bosnia, and elsewhere, are among the most devastating examples. In our own country, too, though we ostensibly embrace “e pluribus unum,” our history has been marked by structural and institutional subjugation of communities considered to be the “other”—be they Native American, African American, Japanese American, Latin American, or, more recently, Muslim American. I would argue that such systemic oppression also constitutes a form of violence. Similar campaigns of violence exist throughout the world, and are usually founded on the fallacy that a nation-state should be mono-cultural, mono-religious, and mono-lingual. In the modern period especially, this model is dangerously antiquated, for through its citizens every nation experiences difference, though few address it and learn from it. In this regard, learning from difference is a key challenge in our increasingly polarized world.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that Harvard is perfect in addressing issues of diversity. Certainly it has more ground to cover. But I do hope that during their time here Harvard students will have caught a glimpse of the road that we should be following. They have seen that understanding, respecting, and embracing difference is among the first steps towards bringing about meaningful peace. Key in this endeavor, I think, is teaching about pluralism as some of my colleagues and I have tried to do in our courses. For me, pluralism is neither the elimination of difference nor merely the recognition of difference. As my colleague, Professor Diana L. Eck, aptly puts it, pluralism demands a conscious engagement with difference—that is, an active desire to understand and appreciate the contexts that make the “other” different.

Pluralism, unfortunately, does not come about naturally. It must be taught, reinforced, and enacted. Among the most critical dimensions of learning about pluralism is religious and cultural literacy, which is, sadly, one of the most neglected parts of education in this country, notwithstanding our unparalleled religious and cultural diversity. Globally, too, religious and cultural illiteracy is a serious problem; as a scholar of Islam, I consistently observe the damaging effects of sectarianism within many Muslim-majority countries caused by stereotypes and the political manipulation of religious symbols. I believe, however, that better understanding of, and respect for, difference through appropriate education can ensure stability within and among nations. Indeed, the well-being of democracy the world over depends on this.

Ali S. Asani ’77 is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He is the current chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations,

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Op Eds