diversity arguments in education depend on learning as collaboration

Why might you favor racial and gender diversity in education?

  1. As a matter of distributive justice. Places in colleges or universities convey political and economic advantage. Thus you may think they should be distributed equitably with regard to race and gender. To reach this conclusion, you may have to criticize other rationales for distributing places in college, such as arguments that grades and test scores reflect relevant merit or dessert.
  2. To obtain desirable social outcomes later. You may believe, for example, that we will be much better off as a society if we have plenty of Latino doctors, female police officers, and African American lawyers, which requires distributing places in college equitably.
  3. Because learning requires deliberation (or the construction of knowledge together), and deliberation requires diversity, and race and gender contribute valuable diversity of perspective.

Setting policy based on the first or second argument has been pretty much barred by the Supreme Court. These are also unpopular arguments because they appear to be zero-sum. If someone else’s kid deserves a place in college, that implies that my kid may have to give it up.

The third argument offers an appealing alternative. It presumes that colleges and universities are communities that engage their members (students, staff, and faculty) in producing knowledge together and in shaping common values.

I think the typical view of the liberal arts is quite different: the student learns skills or ideas from the material (e.g., from great books) and from the professor, who is also paid to create knowledge. Other students are basically competitors for the professor’s time, which is why student/faculty ratios are so often cited as measures of quality. Education is understood as modular: you learn ideas or skills from each course–actually from each reading or lecture. That is why there is so much enthusiasm now for online and “distance” learning, and it’s why students and families are OK with transferring from one college to another until they have accumulated enough credits to graduate.

The vast majority of college students do not get anything like a deliberative liberalĀ  education. They sit in gigantic lecture classes, they commute to large and defuse public institutions where they are anonymous, they interrupt their college careers to work (picking up credits over time), and they study vocational fields. One conclusion might be that many more people need to be offered real liberal arts educations in diverse learning communities. But another conclusion might be that this is really an elite opportunity, and therefore the third argument for diversity (above) is irrelevant to most people. The demographic composition of the student body is not particularly helpful for an individual’s learning if that person studies accounting at the University of Phoenix or even chemistry in a big lecture class.

A liberal arts education based on deliberation and collaboration is expensive. Few Americans have experienced it, and its benefits are relatively intangible. So unless people come to understand learning as collective and deliberative, they aren’t going to pay for a residential liberal arts education (either through tuition or taxes). Nor will they accept the argument that learning requires diversity. A diversity agenda in higher ed will look like a mere matter of redistributing scarce resources. This is why the fundamental argument has to be about the collaborative nature of learning and of knowledge itself.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.