Diversity

One of the buzzwords on college campuses these days — and for many days past — is the word “diversity.” The word requires the modifier “cultural” but this is seldom used. The modifier is required because what has become of central importance to a great many faculty members in our institutions of higher learning is the notion that their students need to know more about cultures other than their own. This is not a bad thing, but like other movements within the academy (e.g., the political correctness movement) things have gotten a bit out of hand.

In the name of cultural diversity, the evidence suggests that many faculty members have begun to confuse enlightenment with indoctrination. In the interest of revealing to the captive minds that sit before them spellbound they find themselves presenting one or two narrow perspectives which they themselves find comfortable and ignoring or demeaning many others, including the students’ own. There are even cases of instructors belittling students who defend contrary positions and being graded down if they disagree with the instructor and his or her take on the ills of American culture and the beauty of, say, Native American culture. A growing body of evidence suggests that this is more widespread than we would like to believe.

I have no problem with the notion that students need to have their narrow perspectives broadened, that we all need to know more about cultures different from our own. That is a good thing. But the notion that other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own is a claim that requires support. For one thing, it is difficult to generalize in these cases — just what is a culture? Do women comprise a separate and distinct culture — as many would have it — and is it, or any culture for that matter, superior in all respects to the major culture within which the majority of Americans are brought up? Heaven knows there are a great many shortcomings to our materialistic culture, but then there are many shortcomings to other cultures that are sometimes held in higher estimation than they deserve.

But more important than cultural diversity, from my perspective, is the question of intellectual diversity, the clash of different points of view. This clash is what generates questions and is more likely to lead to genuine thought on the part of the students than is a narrow, and even biased, presentation of other cultural perspectives. If one is taught to think then he or she will naturally begin to think about important questions and even want to explore other cultural perspectives. We seem to have put the cart before the horse. And like other movements that begin within the academy (e.g., again, the P.C. movement) the concern over cultural diversity has worked its way down through the grades and into the culture at large. The widespread reaction within this culture to the bigotry exhibited by Donald Trump stems from a growing awareness that other cultures are no less important than our own, that Trump’s take on the Mexicans or the religion of Islam, for example, is abhorrent to anyone with a grain of sense.  This is a good thing. More to the point, however, the tendency to insist that our own convictions on complex issues are the only ones that need to be known has become commonplace. Instead of inviting diverse points of view and the free exchange of ideas, many of us seek out reinforcement of our own ideas and read and watch sources that sink us deeper and deeper within our own world, ignorant of other ways of living and thinking.

It does seem to me that the job of instructors in our schools is to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become independent thinkers who are also aware of other points of view. The presentation of diverse cultural perspectives, as I say, is not a bad thing. But it should take a back seat to the need of students to have their convictions challenged and their minds opened to new ideas. Cultural diversity is important, but it is not nearly as important as intellectual diversity. That’s what education should be about.

 

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7 thoughts on “Diversity

  1. Hugh, good post. My son is in a Interfaith group on campus and it has been marvelous for him. Plus, I would love to go back and take some of the World Religion courses that they do. Of course, I still can. A professor who cannot take disagreement is not rare, as we all have egos. Yet, the professor needs to check his or her ego as well. You have noted that it is the enlightenment and understanding which is the goal, not the indoctrination. I imagine your philosophy classes were open-minded.

    Thanks for sharing this, Keith

  2. Hugh, that is a wonderful phrase and it — “intellectual diversity” — should become not just the next campus movement, but always be the standard for how colleges operate. Curiosity, challenging the status quo but respecting it when it proves to be right (a form of diversity in itself — seeing that another point of view may be right after all), give-and-take between students and professors (and excessively rigid administrators), developing free, critical thinking, respect for others, knowing more about others, and even knowing more about ourselves (where we come from, who’s been there before, who we are going to leave it to): all of those are exactly what a college experience should inspire. You’re absolutely right that too often nowadays, there’s an intellectual narrowness and it’s led to an unacceptable level of attitudes that is anti-science, anti-other religions and ethnic groups, anti-investments in public infrastructure and public service and, sadly, led to the rise of the Trumpet.

    I read a magazine piece yesterday that discussed the horrid outcome when a society is taught/indoctrinated and accepts only one point of view. In this case it was one that leads it to think it is superior intellectually and racially to another culture: the British East India Company’s abuses and genocidal practices in the subcontinent in the first half of the 19th century. Many of Britain’s elite – the best educated; military, political and business leaders — used India as their proving ground to rise through the ranks and gain immense wealth. Of course, there was a great cost in human life and suffering as the British engaged in all kinds of what we’d now call “ethnic cleansing” — forced relocations of entire swaths of people, mass killings and, when business negotiations weren’t working out, simply bringing in the cannons. Mostly because they thought they were superior to the Indian people and could use the land and the people as they saw fit. They were taught this, they believed it.

    That’s an extreme example, certainly, of lack of intellectual diversity. But it was widespread. If, God forbid, the Trumpet gains the White House, given the conditions in our own society, it is something we must consider. So, yes, paint the banners, light the torches: intellectual diversity is what we need.

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    Your distinction between “cultural diversity” and “intellectual diversity” is important.
    The former refers to a specific focus of learning; the latter refers to the general nature of learning, as such — in my estimation.

    It is possible, I would argue, to develop intellectually and emotionally, as well as to develop the inclination toward compassion and openness to those different from ourselves without any formal emphasis upon “diversity”. It is also possible not to develop intellectually or emotionally, and not to develop an inclination toward compassion and openness to others — even if one has experienced extensive formal emphasis upon diversity. I have seen and experienced evidence of both outcomes.

    The key to developing intellectually and emotionally, and fostering openness to others, is the formal experience of intellectual diversity. Nothing is an educational substitute for the cognitive dissonance students experience when they encounter distinctly different and opposed perspectives AND when they are held accountable to assess these differing perspectives as objectively as possible.

    Students do not experience this for themselves if they are simply told what is true — even if this is what students typically desire. Recitation is always easier than cogitation, to be sure.

    Nonetheless, the hallmark of a good education is that it teaches one how to think rather than what to think. This, of course, is neither easy nor always pleasant.

    Nevertheless, teachers who try to determine what students should think about diversity (or just about any topic) are guilty of (1) over-valuing their own viewpoints, and (2) undervaluing the potential of students to become not only graduates but also reasonable and decent people, as well. Frankly, such teachers are also guilty of intellectual sloth — again, in my estimation.

    Intellectual diversity is the essence of higher learning. Though it is the more difficult path, it offers the greatest rewards. When it gets lost in the name of diversity, efficiency, occupational specialty, etc., we are all the poorer for it.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

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