Liberal Education

Diversity, Democracy, and Goals for Student Learning

This issue of Liberal Education raises far-reaching questions about mission statements and about presidential and trustee leadership for the most important aims of a college education. I was especially struck by Meacham and Gaff’s finding that only one-third of the universities listed in the Princeton Review’s “best colleges” have made engagement with diversity a significant part of their mission-level vision for student learning. Surely, if the Grutter v. Bollinger decision told us anything, it is that diversity must be addressed as an educational priority, not just as an admissions project.

When I visit campuses to talk about curriculum, I often fear that that searching dialogue of the 1990s about diversity and learning has stalled. It is true, of course, that many campuses have changed their general education programs to include the study of cultural diversity as a graduation requirement. Yet, as with much of general education, the options for studying diversity are often so diffuse that the requirements mean far too little. Moreover, when addressed through single stand-alone courses, as is too often the case, diversity requirements risk sending an unintended message: diversity is simply one more general education course to get out of the way as soon as possible.

It is not that, of course. Engaging diversity fosters forms of learning students will need for life. For today’s world, the issues and challenges that we have clustered together as “diversity” ought to be addressed through multiple lenses, across the curriculum. Accordingly, a promising strategy is to articulate clear goals for diversity and learning in both general education and the different departmental majors.

A few years ago, AAC&U’s National Panel on American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning recommended that colleges and universities provide opportunities for students to engage diversity within larger civic and societal contexts. Specifically, following a comprehensive review of the multiple purposes addressed by diversity requirements, the panel proposed joining the study of diversity with the exploration of democratic values, aspirations, and commitments. In the intervening years since the American Commitments panel issued its recommendations, a new movement has grown up to create purposeful connections between college learning and its immediate social contexts. Under the rubric of civic engagement, many students now participate in innovative forms of active learning that help them to prepare for their roles as citizens of our diverse democracy. It is past time to bring these two movements—diversity and civic learning—together.

As campuses address both diversity and civic engagement in ways appropriate to their own missions, histories, curricular patterns, and students, they would do well to revisit the recommendations of the American Commitments panel, which urged that all students be given opportunities to explore at least four broad areas. The first recommendation focuses on experience, identity, and aspiration. In making this recommendation, the American Commitments panel recognized that each student has multiple and intersecting sources of identity and community, and that these can stretch from race, gender, religion, and other “identity categories” to passions and commitments that the student has chosen rather than inherited. The point, however, is to invite students to examine their own assumptions about self and others in a context where their peers are probing similar questions. This could be done in any number of first-year contexts, including expository writing.

The second recommendation, United States pluralism and the pursuits of justice, would enable the substantial and comparative exploration of diverse histories and communities in U.S. society, with significant attention to their differing experiences of U.S. democracy and their several pursuits—sometimes successful, sometimes frustrated—of equal opportunity. The recommendation here is that students ought to study democratic aspirations themselves, as well as diverse struggles for equality and justice. Citizens need this context to better understand the struggle for full equality that still continues, in our democracy and around the world.

The third recommendation, experiences in justice seeking, would provide direct experiences, in the community, with systemic efforts (e.g., by existing community groups) to remove barriers to justice and opportunity and to redress inequities. Different community groups may have sharply conflicting understandings of a good and just society, as today’s struggles in the Supreme Court so richly illustrate. For this reason, field-based learning should also include extensive opportunities for students to compare their experiences and to reflect, with faculty and staff, on the insights gained. These three recommendations might be addressed in a well-designed core curriculum.

Finally, the panel recommended that all students ought to have well-designed opportunities to explore the diversity, equity, and justice issues particular to their major fields of study. To that end, each major field should identify its own challenges in engaging difficult differences, and should provide a course of study that ensures graduates are prepared to meet these challenges. Such preparation should foster collaborative, deliberative, and problem-solving capacities relevant to the field, as well as content knowledge about the diversity, justice, and social responsibility challenges faced by practitioners within that field.

Ultimately, the goal is to graduate college students who are both prepared and inspired to act as responsible stewards of democracy’s core commitments to freedom, dignity, opportunity, and justice. The recommendations of the American Commitments National Panel offer a promising pathway to that mission-level goal.

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