Diversity and Democracy

Civic Learning in a Diverse Democracy: Education for Shared Futures

Just over ten years ago, in the midst of the so-called culture wars, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched Diversity Digest. We felt that a newsletter would play an important role in creating and sustaining a community of leaders and learners who shared the view that diversity is inextricably linked to claims of excellence in higher education. Diversity Digest met our highest expectations. As Diversity Digest now becomes Diversity & Democracy, we introduce a new name and a new design. In doing so, we recommit ourselves to the unique and critical role this publication has played within the academy. Yet even as we affirm our commitment to the abiding questions of social responsibility in a diverse democracy, we also look toward the horizons of diversity’s role in the global community.

Our revised publication, then, links new challenges with AAC&U’s enduring commitments. In this context, it is fitting that the new name includes a conjunction. This is all the more appropriate because diversity is about deepening complexity and connection across and within distinct but intertwined groups. In Diversity & Democracy, we will explore questions of race and gender; class and ethnicity; sexual identity and religious identity. We will explore questions of diversity in the classroom and in the neighborhood; in the United States and abroad; at the boundaries and in the borderlands. We will share insights into diversity and learning as well as diversity and teaching. And we will do all of this with a constant focus on the generative tensions between diversity and democratic aspirations, and between such democratic values as liberty and equality, freedom and mutual responsibility. We hope that the new framework of our newsletter will facilitate these explorations and reinforce our goal to educate for a just and equitable future.

The Imperative of Civic Engagement

In my letter introducing Diversity Digest in 1996, I wrote that diversity issues “challenge educators to reexamine our most fundamental assumptions about significant knowledge, cultural identity and privilege, connections across difference, inclusive community, and democratic principles. Above all, diversity asks us to address the links between education and a developed sense of responsibility to one another.” These words remain equally true today. Moreover, a decade of pioneering work on campus has given us a wealth of new models and effective practices for linking diversity and civic learning, and for engaging students directly with the unsolved challenges and inequalities that mark our world.

Critically, however, the expanded leadership for civic learning about diversity and democracy still remains on the margins rather than at the center of undergraduate learning in the American academy. All the research AAC&U conducted or consulted for its current major initiative, Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), tells us that civic learning remains optional rather than essential for the majority of faculty, students, and employers. The apparent disconnect between the goals of college learning and democratic principles is an ominous sign. If our institutions of higher education are to prepare students for principled engagement in a diverse democracy, they must foster—explicitly, intentionally, and enthusiastically—pedagogies geared toward civic engagement and democratic action.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court made the challenge of educating American students for democratic citizenship even more difficult. By overturning voluntary school desegregation plans, the Court sent yet another message that both equity and diversity—despite their inextricable relationship to democratic principles—are less than essential to education. Although the Court’s decision did not expressly challenge affirmative action, it comes as another blow in a decades-long series of setbacks to school and campus integration. As sociologist Troy Duster pointed out ten years ago in Diversity Digest, California’s immediate compliance with a 1996 proposition prohibiting consideration of race in admission processes provided a stark contrast to Brown v. Board of Education’s language of “all deliberate speed” when the Supreme Court called for an end to legally segregated public schools. In other words, when desegregation is at issue, the U.S. historically has been slow to advance but quick to backpedal. The recent decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 sadly affirms this tendency. Responding recently to the June 2007 decision, Duster noted that the Court “has left the door slightly open for the role of diversity in achieving educational goals, but the burden of proof has shifted dramatically and the climate for work tying democracy to diversity has worsened.”

Given this difficult climate, it is more imperative than ever that we in higher education explicitly link diversity of all kinds—both in our pedagogical content and our educational environments—with the values of a democratic society. With this project in mind, it is fitting that this first issue of Diversity & Democracy features work from several institutions involved in Shared Futures: General Education for Global Learning, a project of a larger AAC&U initiative, Shared Futures: Global Learning and Social Responsibility. These institutions are seeking ways to engage their students and faculty with the significant questions of civic responsibility that arise in an interdependent but unequal world. They are searching for ways to make all students, whether immersed in studies of anthropology or aerospace engineering, aware of and accountable to the global contexts in which they live.

Collaboration for Shared Goals

In the context of this publication, “Shared Futures” does not simply refer to our common fate as human beings. It also refers to educational movements that have many common goals, but too often act alone: the U.S. diversity movement, the global learning movement, and the civic engagement movement. Our title and tagline implicitly link these three movements. They expand our conversations about diversity and democracy beyond the U.S. as we argue for civic learning about a future that we inevitably share with others throughout the globe. In this rhetorical move, we echo the commitments of the Shared Futures initiative, which approaches global learning as an imperative for responsible citizenship not only internationally, but locally as well.

AAC&U has suggested, and the Shared Futures initiative implies, that each of these seminal movements is deeply, if differently, engaged with questions of democratic life and practice. As such, they are intricately intertwined. Students who understand their relationships to peers in Sri Lanka, Suriname, or Spain will also realize the weight of their actions at home. Likewise, students who see that they can enact change through civic engagement will respond not only by contributing to their local communities, but also by taking responsibility for the choices and actions that will eventually affect their counterparts around the globe—whether through economic webs, an interconnected climate, or interdependent political systems. Students who realize the potential embedded in U.S. pluralism will understand the ethical imperative to realize that potential, both within and beyond the borders of the U.S.

Whether the starting point is civic engagement, global learning, or U.S. diversity, each of these three movements leads to the others. Each is necessary to higher education’s success in preparing students for an interconnected world. Thus the intentional collaboration of these movements toward shared goals is one result we hope to encourage through Diversity & Democracy.

Renewing American Commitments

Although our reimagined publication signals a new commitment to these topics, AAC&U’s engagement with questions of diversity and democracy is hardly new. When AAC&U launched American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning in 1993, we challenged campus conversations around diversity to confront the larger context of the nation’s democratic aspirations and ideals. It is worth quoting at length the lessons learned by that project’s National Panel in the course of multiyear conversations:

Our focus on links between this nation’s diversity and its democratic values has pointed the American Commitments initiative inexorably toward unresolved issues that cut across campus and society: issues of communities and community; issues of the terms and tensions that frame connections among members of a democracy who, historically, have not been equal.

Framing the question this way, those participating in the American Commitments initiative have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the individualistic assumptions that permeate public discussion of higher education. Traditionally, the academy has emphasized the benefits of higher learning—both intellectual and economic—to each individual learner. But diversity and democracy together press educators to address the communal dimensions and consequences of higher learning. By highlighting the social nexus in which all learning occurs, the linkage between diversity and democratic society challenges us to think more deeply about what individuals learn from their experience of campus ethos—and how that learning in turn constrains or enriches the quality and vitality of American communities.

It is no longer sufficient to speak of American communities alone, when global forces have stretched existing communities across national boundaries and created new communities beyond national identities. And it is difficult to speak of democracy outside of the framework of constitutional citizenship. Yet it is important to try. For what I wrote in 1996 remains true today: “America stands at a crossroads, uncertain whether to move forward or back on the civil rights efforts that began to transform our society only a generation ago. It has never been more important for educators to make explicit the connection between campus learning and the democratic values that guide diversity work.” We are all at that same crossroads. We are all dependent on our success in shaping a shared future in which diversity is fully embraced as the ultimate test of a democratic community.

Welcome to Diversity & Democracy.

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