Sunday, April 9, 2017

A More Moderate Diversity

Diversity has become a sacred word in the contemporary American university. Like equality, fairness, inclusion, academic freedom, and critical thinking, many consider it one of the lodestars of higher education. Yet on campuses across the country, people quietly disagree about what diversity means. Of what, exactly, does it consist, and how should it be measured? Is diversity merely a matter of race and gender, or also sexual orientation? What about political and methodological diversity? Should diversity be pursued primarily in faculty hiring, or in the student body, or in the administrative staff? Do foreign nationals count as diverse hires? How exactly do all these different types of diversity benefit higher education as a whole?

Few within the university community are willing publicly to raise such questions for fear that they will be targeted as bigots or preservers of white and male privilege. This is not an unreasonable fear, and examples of such targeting proliferate. The irony is that the mainstream diversity movement actually tends toward uniformity of the most extreme kind, which happens to look very much like mainstream American progressivism. In the name of diversity — an expansive and liberating notion of engaging with people and ideas markedly different from the ones we know — one particular, narrow understanding of the concept is being used to transform every school into the ostensibly value-neutral, secular state university of today. A cold war rages between those who promote this dominant vision of diversity and those who hold different views about the purpose of a university and about diversity itself.

This war is similar to the kinds of political conflicts that are now ubiquitous in America. One side is ascendant and tries to crush the other side; the other side fights back with ridicule and anger. In the literature about diversity, for example, partisans take the good of diversity (as they understand it) for granted, assuming that the only relevant questions concern implementation and that opponents are motivated solely by bias and bigotry. Critics of diversity tend to highlight the excesses of the movement, often in op-eds that poke fun at the most radical claims of the most radical partisans. It all leads nowhere, and makes enemies of colleagues.

A more constructive approach to this controversy requires the abandonment of polemics. This does not mean that we must also abandon criticism, but inquiry should aim at clarity, and perhaps even compromise, instead of provocation. At the very least, the goal should be a better understanding of the reasons for the present conflict. In a timely new book, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, political theorist Aurelian Craiutu suggests that the virtue of moderation might help in navigating our polarizing ideological disagreements.

In that spirit, we can attempt to find a moderate position in this particular fight. Our goal must be to see the different "moral worlds" of both partisans and critics of the mainstream social-justice diversity movement, to point out the shortcomings of each view, and ultimately to encourage civility and good humor in the face of difference — instead of the anger and suspicion that come so naturally to many of us. To start, however, the conflict and its origins require some explanation.

Two Diversities

Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently proposed a dichotomy between two ideal types of universities. In a talk titled "How two incompatible sacred values are driving conflict and confusion in American universities," he argues that "Truth University" finds its roots in John Stuart Mill's defense of viewpoint diversity in On Liberty, while "Social Justice University" originates in Marxist ideas about power and oppression. The former requires a vigorous and unfettered exchange of ideas; the latter aims at protecting and eventually liberating victims. Diversity means something quite different in each university.

Truth University assumes that the activity of scholarly inquiry is potentially open to anyone who wants to engage in it, regardless of his or her identity as man or woman, black or white, gay or straight. A black Christian man and a white Jewish lesbian can work together as they examine proto-Corinthian pottery or analyze the latest economic report. The results of such scholarly inquiry are verifiable by others and are subject to criticism, refutation, and revision. Scholarship is understood as "cogent" — clear, logical, convincing, lucid. It is politically and personally disinterested.

In this context, diversity means the cultivation and appreciation of intellectually fresh and often different viewpoints. This occurs as part of scholarly research and in classroom conversation. Such diversity may at times be adversarial in character, but it is warm to the notion of a competitive marketplace of ideas. It is also freewheeling in allowing potentially any idea or method, no matter how controversial or currently out of vogue, into the conversation. This view assumes nothing about social progress or about communal goals like liberation or political reform. It aims at truths that can be widely understood and approved by impartial observers, and then tries to test those truths against competing ones. This type of diversity may also foster a certain kind of intellectually modest character. A person who must remain open to refutation is likely to be aware of his or her own limits.

By contrast, diversity does much more substantial practical and political work in Social Justice University. In this context, diversity is not the expression of different viewpoints concerning issues and methods, but rather the equitable representation of women, blacks, Hispanics, and other designated groups in positions of institutional power. The aim is not necessarily to replicate the proportions of women and minorities in the population at large (though this is considered ideal) but to cultivate a critical mass of people whose race and sex distinguish them from the white, male majority. But the goal is not mere representation. The assumption is that members of these groups will substantively change institutions in a positive way and that the institutions will in turn improve the lives of the group members. Since the goal is reform, certain viewpoints may be deemed off-limits because they appear retrograde, old-fashioned, or simply hurtful.

These contrasting meanings of diversity presuppose different understandings of the essential character of a university and its students. In Truth University, students are invited to identify themselves as apprentices, working with senior scholars to acquire intellectual inheritances of various kinds so that they can begin to know what they might want to say and do. This requires postponement of political activism until one is more certain of what that activism is for. Such a university does not see itself as an institutional advocate for any political cause. Politics, of course, is one legitimate mode of inquiry, but so are art history, classics, history, literature, math, physics, and, in the modern day, business, engineering, and other pre-professional studies. Students are left free to seek their own intellectual and moral fortunes.

In Social Justice University, politics is at the center of a student's experience. The university itself is seen as a vehicle for the intellectual and moral transformation of society. Activism is encouraged early and often, and personal identity is at the center of the curriculum. Women and minorities are brought to see the full scope of their oppression, and white males are made to see their roles as oppressors. To some extent, apprenticeship exists here too, but in another sense it doesn't: Students arrive with identities that are predetermined. The goal is to know more about that identity and its relationship to structures of power.

What are the most important differences between these two ideas of diversity? First, truth diversity is potentially competitive, and it assumes all participants are more or less similarly situated — capable of both deploying and answering arguments. It also requires some separation between person and argument, meaning that if someone questions someone else's position it does not imply a personal attack. Further, it understands certain methods as suitable for certain subjects. Statistical analysis is important in studies of voting behavior, but irrelevant in political philosophy; personal story is important in social work, but not in math. Finally, rational evidence must be adduced to support or refute arguments, and findings are potentially verifiable by anyone.

In social-justice diversity, by contrast, identity plays a far more significant role. Scholarship is often deeply personal, to the point that a challenge to someone's view may be considered an attack on the person, and even on an entire race or gender. If, as in certain varieties of perspectivism, "epistemic privilege" is to be gained only by actually having the experiences that an oppressed person has had, then traditionally privileged persons (like white men) may be barred from entering the conversation at all. Diversity then appears not as a wide range of views, but as a long-awaited amplification of voices that have traditionally not been heard. Moreover, knowledge is not advanced by method, rational evidence, and verifiability, but by attending to an infinite variety of narratives. Personal identity and subjects studied are intricately linked, which is the reason for the proliferation of women's and gender studies, Queer studies, African-American studies, and the like. (...)

Blind Spots

Social Justice University is ascendant in the United States at the moment, but Truth University is the more traditional and longstanding of the two. Jonathan Haidt is right to point out that they are at odds; they presuppose different visions of the character of the scholar and the purpose of scholarship.

In Truth University, diversity does not concern race, gender, or sexuality per se, but is focused on viewpoint or "idea" diversity, which is not therapeutic, practical, or political. Diversity here assumes a general equality of all participants, a willingness to suffer correction, and an inclination to engage in conversation with others in a peer-review process. For Social Justice University, diversity is motivated by a desire for political change, and it aims at transformation. It emerges out of a pedagogy of the oppressed and prioritizes personal identity, focusing on categories like race, gender, and sexuality. Diversity here is not simple representation of formerly oppressed or marginalized groups on university faculties. For this would be to treat the members of these groups as equivalent to the "dominant" group and thus to effect no substantive political change at all. Instead, these groups must reimagine their fields as a whole, and also reimagine and change the university and its structures of power.

Taken as contrasting ideal types, these two ideas of diversity seem to have almost nothing in common. Both make certain assumptions that by definition exclude alternative views and exacerbate disagreement between people who approve one conception of diversity over against the other. Each viewpoint has its own significant deficiencies that should be addressed.

by Elizabeth Corey, National Affairs |  Read more: