limits of diversity

(Hyannis, MA) There was some discussion today about whether the value of diversity should have pride of place in academic settings. I have recently suggested that “diversity” is a problematic value if what you really want is equality–but to increase equality is good for some and bad for others. Also, equality is an explicit value commitment. In general, value commitments make people nervous because we are taught to be moral relativists (to believe that values are mere opinions). Diversity seems safer because it is framed as a matter of respecting everyone’s opinions and contributions. I think the underlying motivation for diversity is actually egalitarianism, and it would be better if people could acknowledge and defend that principle. It is not just an opinion but a real good, albeit one that can trade off against liberty, security, efficiency, and other values.

Sometimes the goal of “diversity” initiatives is to make sure that students know they live in a racially, ethnically, and culturally pluralist world marked by frequent oppression. In at least one liberal arts college that I know, everyone is basically required to study the history or culture of a traditionally oppressed group in the United States. I agree that good citizens recognize pluralism and oppression. But we also live in a society whose core principles are idealistic and valid. In other words, the coin has two sides: rights and injustices; excellent institutions and social failures; unity and diversity. I don’t want young Americans to graduate from school or college without understanding oppression. Equally, I don’t want them to graduate without understanding the Bill of Rights, a market economy, and the rule of law. So if one side of the coin is required and emphasized, I’d vote for the other side, too.

This is partly a matter of respect for the truth, because our society actually has two faces. But it’s also the best way to engage diverse students. We are at grave risk of segregating ourselves ideologically to the point where we can’t learn how to live together. If some colleges advertise themselves as places to study diversity, while others teach great books and the Constitution, students will sort themselves into the environments that they find most congenial. Then the courses about oppression will basically just reach liberal students, while only conservative students will read James Madison with appreciation. Both will miss the best opportunities for learning.

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.
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