Dean's Alumni Messages
Winter 2010 Message From the Dean
When Perfection Can Be the Enemy of the Good
It’s the morning after a big Long Island snowstorm that’s given Hofstra’s campus a quaintness suitable to its near 75-year history. We were closed yesterday, and even now the Plant Department is cleaning up for today’s delayed opening. As a result, I have a quiet morning to catch up on things, including this letter to the HUHC alumni.
On my way in, listening to news about political polarization in Washington, I was put in mind of an HUHC seminar to be offered by Professor Eric Lane (Hofstra University School of Law) in fall 2010. He and his students will be examining the rationale for and consequences stemming from the decision in 1956 to change our nation’s motto from “E Pluribus Unum” (from many, one) to the current motto “In God We Trust.” The course’s thesis which will be tested throughout the semester, is “that the change in motto represented a disavowal of the consensus-building demands of the nation’s constitutional governance and provided a license for levels of factionalism that today undermine the country’s unity.”
Given the abusive rhetoric bandied about on opinion shows, Web sites, and now even within the halls of Congress, it would be hard to disagree with the latter half of that thesis. There are levels of factionalism afoot that undermine our nation’s sense of unity. Harder will be determining what set us in this direction and whether the switch in mottos was emblematic of that cultural trend.
Speaking as a religion scholar, I hope the class notices the way the new motto uses vagueness in attempting to forge unity. Famously, the term God is left undefi ned, allowing everyone (except the 10 percent of the population who disavow religion altogether) to imagine God in whatever way he or she pleases. That is as it should be, given the richness of America’s religious pluralism.
However, since most religions associate the term God with their own version of perfection, I wonder if it’s possible that our current motto’s vagueness also gives rise to some of the factionalism? Why? One answer to that question is covered pretty regularly each fall when faculty and students in HUHC’s Culture & Expression (C&E) discuss those ancient Greek thinkers who tended to associate perfection with a transcendent, unchanging reality, a view that eventually came to be assimilated into the Jewish, Christian and Muslim understandings of the word God. The C&E veterans among you might remember learning how such views make perfection an ever receding goal that spurs intervention in medicine, science and culture. It convinces us that we can always do better, because perfection is divine and thus perpetually exceeds our grasp. On the negative side, however, the image of a timeless, unchanging perfection is often the starting point for forms of absolutist thinking that render nearly impossible political compromises among people who disagree over forms of government, law, education or business. In short, while vaguely held ideas about God rarely give rise to factionalism, conflicting understandings of perfection almost always do.
As you look back from your vantage point as alumni, I hope is that you continue to see Hofstra and HUHC as a place where you became more attuned to both the positive and dangerous implications of the background assumptions shaping you and those around you. If we are ever going to get past today’s factionalism, it will be because more of us remember that old saying about perfection sometimes being an enemy of the good. I am so proud of what you have achieved to date and take great joy in watching as your lives and careers continue to unfold. Along the way, I am confi dent that your Hofstra education will continue to help each of you contribute in unique ways toward our common pursuit of the goal enshrined in our original motto, “E Pluribus Unum.”
Warren G. Frisina, Dean
Hofstra University Honors College