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Faculty Forum Papers



Steven T. Buccola
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
Oregon State University

February 1992

"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 liberal education.

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.