Faculty Forum Papers
Steven T. Buccola
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Oregon State University
"Diversity" Courses: Blueprint for an Illiberal Education
The draft proposal for "incorporating diversity into the curriculum" recently
circulated through the Faculty Senate has taken a bad idea and made it worse. The
original plan (Faculty Senate Circular 10/16/91) was to introduce a single required
course called "Affirming Diversity." The new plan is to require students to choose
from an approved menu of soon-to-be-generated "diversity" classes, tentatively to be
called "Confronting Prejudice and Discrimination." Both plans have in mind the same kind
of course. Each uses the term "diversity" in a deliberately equivocal way, referring both
to diversity in the curriculum and to a certain demographic diversity on campus. I know of
no department in this University that wouldn't love to have the resources to broaden its
teaching and research program. The proposed course requirement doesn't promote curricular
diversity; it promotes an ideological agenda.
The "Diversity" Course Proposal is Ill-Concealed Ideology
The proposal's ideological nature is clear even in its grammar. Students would be asked
to affirm an idea or to "confront" (expose and reject) it. Affirming and confronting are acts
of the will. Our one-thousand-year university tradition is to guide students' intellects in
distinguishing good from bad propositions, in pursuing truth. Right choices follow from right
thinking, not (except in a broader developmental sense) the other way around. No university
course should be titled to imply that it will teach students to affirm or reject something.
There is no sense in the revised proposal of any progress from a will-based to an intellect-based
construct. Only one thing has changed: the original malignancy now threatens to
metastasize from one course to ten or twenty. A new bureaucracy would be born, including
approval committee, tenure track position, teaching assistants, and funded workshops.
What a bizarre idea in an era of constricting University resources.
"Diversity" and Other Shibboleths
Has anyone bothered to examine the naked (and recently born) emperor called
"diversity"? Diversity can indeed be valuable, as in the virtues of maintaining a
distribution of talents in an organization. In other senses, homogeneity is more
desirable, as in product quality control or equal commitment to fair play in a sport.
Sometimes, it is refreshing to be in company of a wide range of views and outlooks;
at other times, there is no substitute for the intimacy and implicit understanding
one can share with individuals of similar culture and values. Diversity is not
something unequivocally to affirm.
The course organizers confine their diversity to a very narrow subset of
human characteristics. Among the myriad physical, psychological, and moral factors
we employ in judging people for various purposes (e.g. height, beauty, intelligence,
honesty, extroversion, artistic talent, willingness to risk), we are told already
which are important: race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and presence of
handicap. These are most important, says OSU This Week (11/14/91), because of
"concerns...about racism and other intolerance." The characteristics have been selected,
in other words, to satisfy campus political groups who had the "concerns." OSU might
affirm diversity in physical beauty also, but agents to lobby for it aren't strong enough.
We have, then, a course theme based on political power relations rather than on intellectual merit.
A result of such politicization is that much of the student's thinking is
pre-processed; she need now only affirm diversity in, or nondiscrimination against,
the characteristics identified for her through campus political action. As if to
dispel any uncertainty that affirmation will indeed be urged, the original course
Rationale described unnamed opinions about age and homosexuality as "agism" and
"homophobia." Even before discussion begins, we are told that dissidents harboring
the latter opinion are fearful (weak) and sick (they have a phobia). Reasoned
opinion cannot be expected from mentally ill students; medical care is more
appropriate. If so, the care would be provided more effectively by trained psychologists
than by university professors.
Toward a True Liberal Education
One could design a bona fide course on the morality of individuals'
judgments about others. The course would involve distinctions between private
and public choices, between various senses of the word "public" (open-to-view,
affecting-many, state-owned), and between ethically charged and ethically neutral
characteristics. It could not fail to examine the complex interrelations between
civil and property rights and to explore the crucial role of each of these two types
of rights in a free society. Such profound ethical and constitutional issues cannot
be treated seriously without appealing to the best minds on the subject: to such
as Aristotle, Avicenna, Locke, Burke, Kant, Jefferson, Hamilton, Austen, and
Dostoyevsky. That is, of course, to ask students to pursue the fundamentals of a
Despite pro forma references to course breadth and ideological neutrality
("liberal education," "provide a forum," "diversity points of view"),
a liberal education is the farthest thing from Affirming Diversity's or
Confronting Prejudice and Discrimination's soul. Any newspaper reader will
tell you that "diversity" is current code language for one of the two
competing views of how to enforce civil rights in America. This view is
that certain groups should be officially designated as victimized and that
all individuals in such groups be granted special preferences to help overcome
the group's victim status. The alternative viewpoint is that violation of one
individual's civil rights should not be used as a basis for compensating a second
individual with the same characteristics, unless the second individual's rights
also have been violated. Redress, in other words, should be accorded to individuals,
not to classes. The class-based rhetoric in the "diversity" course proposal makes clear
an intention to favor the one civil rights platform over the other.
Can this be justified at a publicly supported university? At any university? I argue
it cannot. Impolite, uncivil, or illegal behavior on this campus should be met with
counseling or administrative or legal sanctions, as appropriate, against the offending
parties. The offenses are not remedied by hauling every student, guilty and innocent alike,
into a classroom exercise promising to be ethically and intellectually bankrupt.
Handling Intolerance in an Effective Way
The mid-control character of courses on "affirming diversity" and "confronting
prejudice and discrimination" becomes clear when you check to see whether the shoe fits
the other foot. A growing form of intolerance on this campus is that directed toward
legitimate editorials about current events. The intolerance comes in the form of a
demonstration or press statement, the message of which is that the editorial irked
someone and hence should be muffled. Slogans and political action replace thoughtful
efforts at refutation. These are recent manifestations of the familiar attacks on academic
freedom which universities have weathered for a millennium. Should the University corral
the offenders into a new "course" on how to respect academic freedom? That would be insulting
and patronizing. Far more effective and, at a time of budget retrenchment, less costly is
for the Administration to continue to emphasize publicly that attempts to suppress opinion
and dissent on this campus will not be heeded.
By the same token, we should resist efforts to patronize our students with "courses"
on how to treat on another. Pseudo-academic jargon designed to make such classes sound
like part of a liberal education simply won't wash. The proposed program is illiberal,
unacademic, and insulting and thus an illegitimate expenditure of dwindling university
resources. If we do not recognize this now, students and taxpayers will be telling us later.
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily
those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.